The accomplished Willie Brown is the former Mayor of San Francisco and Speaker of the California State Assembly. Mr. Brown served over 30 years in the California State Assembly including 15 years as Speaker. Following his service in the Assembly, Brown became the 41st Mayor of San Francisco. He is the first African American Mayor of San Francisco and Speaker of the Assembly of California. He also holds the honor as the longest serving Speaker of the California State Assembly. He was referred to as “one of San Francisco’s most notable mayors” by the San Francisco Chronicle and received the title of “The Best Dressed Man in San Francisco” by Esquire Magazine.
Willie Brown’s rise to prominence began in the small East Texas town of Mineola. He was born as the fourth of five children. With a desire to have the skills to reach his full potential, Brown felt his high school education was substandard and opted to leave Mineola for California following his graduation. Upon moving to San Francisco in 1951, he attended and graduated from San Francisco State University in 1955, despite having to catch up his first year due to subpar secondary schooling. After graduating from San Francisco State University, he then went on to graduate from the University of California, Hastings College of Law in 1958.
Mr. Brown’s future was rooted in the compelling times in which he came of age. While attending San Francisco State University, campus politics convinced Brown to chart a new career path and change his goal of becoming a math teacher. After obtaining his law license, Brown was one of few Blacks practicing law in San Francisco in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Determined to right the injustices he witnessed, he became active in the Civil Rights movement including organizing and participating in sit-ins. At this time, he also embarked on a path to the pinnacle of California politics. Commencing with his service in the California legislature which started in 1965, he rose to the rank of Speaker of the Assembly holding the top post from 1980 to 1995. In this capacity, he was known for his ability to manage people and maintain party discipline. His strong negotiation skills and utilization of the Assembly’s tenure system for leadership appointments, combined to give him nearly complete control over the California legislature. A Republican State Senator Ken Maddy noted that Brown has the ability “to size up the situation and create sometimes on the spot, a winning strategy.” Another observer of his reign remarked that “he was a brilliant day care operator…he knew exactly how to hold the hand of his Assembly members. He dominated California politics like no other politician in the history of the State.”
During his time as Speaker, he led efforts in the Assembly for state universities to divest from apartheid-South Africa and to increase critical funding for AIDS research. In addition, he helped attain state funds for San Francisco, including funding for public and mental health. To show his commitment to education, in 1992 he held the California State Budget for 63 days until then-Governor Pete Wilson added another $1.1 Billion for public schools. The New York Times referred to him as one of the country’s most powerful state legislators.
After serving as Speaker of the Assembly, Willie Brown went on to become the Mayor of San Francisco a post he held from 1996 until 2004. During his time as Mayor, there was a significant increase in real estate development, city beautification, and other large-scale municipal projects. He also presided over the “dot-com” era boom, a time when San Francisco’s economy was rapidly expanding. His platform as Mayor was to address poverty and problems with public transit. While Mayor, Brown ended San Francisco’s policy of punishing people for feeding the homeless. His administration also spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating new shelters and supporting housing and drug treatment centers to address homelessness, as well as introducing job training programs.
After leaving office, Brown has moved on to even more worthwhile pursuits. He established the Willie L. Brown Jr., Institute on Politics & Public Service, an unaffiliated non-profit organization at his alma mater, San Francisco State University. The Institute trains students for careers in municipal, county and regional governments. It is one of the first to focus on local government in the country. He also serves as a national political commentator and columnist.