THE SUN HAD JUST BROKEN through the dense fog shrouding San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens on Jan. 8, the day Willie Lewis Brown Jr. was sworn in as that city’s first black mayor. Suddenly, President Bill Clinton was on the phone. The call was patched through to Brown on the dais waiting to be sworn in. But Clinton, who four years earlier had dubbed Brown “the real Slick Willie,” was delayed nine minutes before coming on the line. In front of 10,000 supporters, the unimaginable happened: Willie Brown was put on hold.
“The nerve,” joked Brown, decked out in a $2,600 Brioni suit topped off with a $400 snap-brim fedora. “If any of you has ever spoken to me on the phone, you know I’ve never waited this long for anybody.”
Later, Brown privately told friends, only partly in jest, that he wondered if a call might also arrive “from the Pope.” And why not? His inauguration was a virtual coronation for Brown, a 62-year-old turbocharged politician known for his charm, arrogance and ego. A onetime shoeshine boy from a hardscrabble town in East Texas, he worked his way through law school as a janitor to become a criminal attorney, civil rights leader and, as a member of the California State Assembly for an unprecedented 31 years, the most powerful Democrat in California.
Now at the helm of one of the country’s most Democratic cities, Brown is taking on assorted municipal sinkholes—homelessness, unemployment and dwindling state and federal funds—with his characteristic panache. He set the style on inauguration day, celebrating his ouster of incumbent mayor Frank Jordan with a parade, fireworks and a huge, free party on Fisherman’s Wharf attended by 50,000 revelers, paid for with $300,000 in donated funds.
“I enjoy everything I do, and I do it with glee,” says Brown, from his 17th-floor, one-bedroom condo overlooking the city’s skyline, where he lives alone. (Since 1981, Brown has been estranged from his wife, Blanche Brown, 60, a former college dance professor, with whom he has three children—Susan, 37, a New York City filmmaker, Robin Brown-Friedel, 36, a Newsweek art director, and Michael, 32, owner of a San Francisco clothing store.) “I hope San Francisco takes on my style and attitude.”
He isn’t waiting to find out. A month after his inauguration, Brown raised eyebrows when he unveiled a $5,735 oversize bust of himself, which he placed on a pedestal in his City Hall reception area. Although the artwork was paid for by 22 of Brown’s friends, reporters questioned the mayor about the sculpture’s cost at a press conference. “What difference does it make what it cost?” he shouted back. “The hell with what people need to know.”
Brown reserves some of the swagger for his social life. Named one of the world’s 10 sexiest men by Playgirl magazine in 1984, he “has had a succession of girlfriends,” according to James Richardson, a Sacramento Bee reporter whose biography of Brown hits stores next fall. “The measure of his flamboyance is he’ll go to a party with his wife on one arm and his girlfriend on the other.” As for Brown, he only requests that his date “absolutely be the best-dressed woman in the room.”
At his 60th-birthday party in 1994, hosted by George Hamilton and attended by such high-profile supporters as Barbra Streisand, Brown got his just desserts. “They gave me a cake about eight feet high,” he recalls, flashing a Golden Gate grin. “It was Mount Rushmore with my head added. When I blew out the candles, I wished those other fellows were removed.”
Jesse Jackson, who hired Brown as his national campaign chairman in the 1988 presidential primary, isn’t surprised by his friend’s unfettered gumption. “Willie has always been audacious,” says Jackson. “He liked to use big words. But the word ‘humble,’ he just couldn’t say it. It always came out wrong when he tried to say it.”
Still, Hizzoner’s haughtiness has occasionally backfired. Asked once what he did to help the less fortunate, he flippantly replied, “I stay out of their way at Kmart.” Brown, who once owned a fleet of nine cars, including Porsches and Ferraris, before paring down to a Mercedes and a Jaguar, even had misgivings about his new job, which pays $139,000 a year and forbids outside income. Consequently, Brown, who since 1991 has cumulatively earned over $1.15 million working as an attorney (in addition to his job as assemblyman), has sold his law practice to now run what he calls the crown jewel of cities.
“If he can’t do the job,” says longtime friend John Burton, an assemblyman from San Francisco, “no one can. He’s a master at getting people to see things his way.” Already, Brown has made some historic moves. His appointments to his cabinet include the city’s first Chinese-American police chief and the first African-American fire chief. And last March 25 he presided over the mass wedding of 163 gay couples, a widely publicized, controversial event. “It conveyed the atmosphere of an extraordinarily tolerant and liberal city,” says Brown.
According to those who know him, Brown’s drive stems from his bleak boyhood in Mineola, Texas (population 4,321), a dusty, segregated town 80 miles east of Dallas. “He learned there the darker side of what life can be,” says Burton. “It taught him to survive.” His parents—Willie Brown, a railroad porter who abandoned the family when Willie was 4, and Minnie Collins Boyd, a live-in maid who visited her family only on weekends—both now dead, never married. Raised with his two sisters, a half sister and a half brother by his grandmother Anna Lee Collins, Brown says, “I didn’t know any kid in the city that had a father who lived with him. It wasn’t thought of as being deprived.”
By age 10, Brown was earning cash picking beans, cotton and watermelons. Later, while attending Mineola Colored High School, he became a shoeshine boy, each pair of shoes earning him a quarter, plus untold indignities, from his white customers. “They would sometimes pitch the quarters in the spittoon to see if I’d fish them out,” says Brown. “I certainly would.”
In 1951 he moved to San Francisco to live with his uncle Itsie Collins, a professional gambler. “You can’t name a gambling house I wasn’t connected with,” says Collins, 90, “but Willie wasn’t cut out for gambling. He took up what he was good at.”
Namely, hard work. Brown toiled as a janitor while attending San Francisco State University, graduating with a B.A. in liberal studies in 1955. While there, he joined the NAACP, took part in student government and met fellow student Blanche Vitero, whom he married in 1958, the same year he graduated from San Francisco’s Hastings College of Law. Finding doors at the white-run law firms closed to him, Brown started his own practice. But his experience with discrimination galvanized him, and he made a run for the state assembly in 1962. He lost by 600 votes. Two years later he ran again and won.
That year, he also formed a partnership with another black lawyer, John Dearman. “The only type of business that a young minority lawyer could get back then,” says Dearman, now a superior court judge in San Francisco, “was representing pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. It was a legitimate business and Willie was very good at it.” Even Uncle Itsie benefited. “He beat a lot of cases for me,” he says. “I got raided and he was right there.”
Despite his thriving practice, politics remained Brown’s passion. He was named the most effective freshman legislator in 1965 by the legislature and was reelected 15 consecutive times as an assemblyman from the 13th district representing San Francisco. In 1980, Brown was the first black politician to be elected speaker of California’s legislature, and he held the job for an unprecedented 14 years. Dubbing himself the Ayatollah of the Assembly, he dispensed favors and massaged egos while orchestrating deals and writing policy. He made Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday in 1978, pushed legislation for mandatory seat belts and backed the law that legalized sex acts between consenting adults, essentially decriminalizing homosexual behavior. “I wrote the rules,” boasts Brown of his reign.
But rather than be forced out as speaker by term limits established in 1990, Brown threw his Borsalino beaver fedora into the ring as a mayoral candidate in June 1995. Six months later he resigned as speaker. “It will be interesting to see how he continues his statewide power in San Francisco,” says Richardson. “No one expects Willie to ride into the sunset. He’ll continue to be the most powerful Democrat in California.”
On a foggy night, Brown arrives at the Excelsior Playground in San Francisco. For two years residents of the blue-collar neighborhood have tried to convince City Hall to build a much-needed youth center nearby. Fulfilling a campaign promise, Brown has already raised $2 million of as much as $7 million that will be needed for construction. “You trusted me and I went to work,” Brown tells the 125 people jamming the building. “Time may enhance wine, but I don’t want a single child here to grow one year older without that center. Who knows, maybe we can get Bill Clinton to come out for the dedication,” he adds, over roaring applause. “I dream big.”
ELIZABETH FERNANDEZ in San Francisco