Willie Brown: A Biography

Overview

This is the first comprehensive biography of Willie Brown, one of California's most enduring and controversial politicians. He has been an important leader in national political circles for more than two decades, perhaps the only African American elected official whose power transcends race. James Richardson takes us from Brown's childhood, to his years as Speaker of the California State Assembly, to his election as San Francisco's mayor. Along the way we get a riveting, behind-the-scenes account of three decades...
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Overview

This is the first comprehensive biography of Willie Brown, one of California's most enduring and controversial politicians. He has been an important leader in national political circles for more than two decades, perhaps the only African American elected official whose power transcends race. James Richardson takes us from Brown's childhood, to his years as Speaker of the California State Assembly, to his election as San Francisco's mayor. Along the way we get a riveting, behind-the-scenes account of three decades of California politics. With brilliant portraits of key figures like Jesse Unruh, Phillip and John Burton, Maxine Waters, and Leo McCarthy, Richardson shows us how Brown kept progressive politics alive in California even during Republican governorships.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1992, after returning from a meeting with Brown (formerly Speaker of California's state assembly and now the mayor of San Francisco), presidential candidate Bill Clinton noted that he had met "the real slick Willie." Brown is flashy (his suits generally cost $2500 and his cars run to Porsches and Jaguars) and ballsy (he answered charges of corruption by appearing in Godfather III taking campaign contributions from Mafia Don Michael Corleone), but most of all he is a consummate politician. Born in 1934 in Mineola, Tex. Brown came to California in 1951, where he got an education in law at Hastings College of the Law and a political education at local branches of the Young Democrats and the NAACP. In 1964, he was elected to the state assembly-the first African American legislator to represent San Francisco in that body. The next year, he rose to national prominence when friends appended his name to a telegram urging foreign leaders to prevent further escalation of the Vietnam war, making him, according to Richardson, "something of a founder of the antiwar movement, however accidental his involvement was." In 1980, he was made Speaker of the Assembly, a position he held until 1995 by juggling campaign contributions, committee assignments, offices, staff, parking spaces and personal favors to keep "at least forty-one of his eighty members happy at any given time." This is not a personal biography: Brown's wife and children appear only as counterpoints to his innumerable extramarital affairs. Nor does the author pay much attention to the larger cultural issues.(Richardson says of the Watts riots only, that "black leaders in California were galvanized by the 1965 Watts riot like no other single event.") What Richardson, a senior writer on the Sacramento Bee, does, and does well, is portray Brown as the archetypal political animal, astute, flexible and extraordinarily lucky. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Willie Brown, the current mayor of San Francisco, served as speaker of the California Assembly longer than anyone in the state's history (1980-95). Richardson, a senior writer for the Sacramento Bee, has written a biography of Brown that portrays him as a political pragmatist, a skilled negotiator, and a talented builder of legislative coalitions. Although a liberal African American Democrat, Brown on a number of occasions induced white Republican legislators to join his coalitions. Richardson's book, in combination with John Jacobs's excellent biography of Brown's mentor, former California Congressman Phillip Burton (A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton, LJ 8/95), provides a reasonably comprehensive overview of modern California politics. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Thomas H. Ferrell, Univ. of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette
Kirkus Reviews
An informed and entertaining biography of the San Francisco mayor and longtime speaker of the California State Assembly.

Sacramento Bee senior writer Richardson finds the origins of Brown's most renowned characteristics—defiant pride and unabashed deviousness—in the politician's experience of growing up black in the viciously segregationist Texas of the 1930s and '40s. A gambler uncle brought him to San Francisco, where Brown attended law school by day while working as a janitor by night in the same building. Brown learned politics as an NAACP activist and within the burgeoning Democratic organization created by future congressman Phillip Burton, which ultimately would be called the "Burton-Brown Machine." After his election to the Assembly in 1964, he slowly worked his way into the good graces of legendary speaker Jess Unruh, whose combination of ruthlessness, mendacity, and concern for the powerless set an example that Brown would follow throughout his career. Richardson gives lucid accounts of Brown's machinations, such as getting elected speaker in 1980 by horsetrading for Republican votes and hanging onto the post in 1995 even after losing his majority in the Assembly; Republicans' frustration with the man whose avowed desire was to be "Speaker for Life" was a major factor in their support for term limits, which forced Brown to seek a new challenge as mayor. Richardson doesn't cover up the warts in this portrait: Brown's use of power to land high-paying legal clients and wring big campaign donations from special interests, the lack of concrete legislative achievement, and Brown's utter duping by People's Temple dictator Jim Jones. Still, this is a fairly sympathetic look at a politician who did a great deal to minimize the effect of this budget-slashing era on schoolchildren and the poor.

This is a must-read for anyone interested in recent California history or in politics as sport.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520213159
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1997
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 282
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

James Richardson is a former senior writer for The Sacramento Bee who has covered Willie Brown and the California Legislature for the past decade. Currently he is Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley.

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