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Back on Dec. 5, 1994, I was camped out in the press box of the gilded California Assembly chamber watching Willie Brown prowl the aisles and glad-hand legislators. He was smiling — and that should have been the first clue. This was supposed to be an awful day for Brown, a San Francisco Democrat and master politician. Republicans had just taken a 41-39 majority in the Assembly and were set to end Brown’s flamboyant 14-year rule as speaker (or as he puts it: “Ayatollah of the Assembly”). The roll call for speaker began predictably enough. Republicans were voting for their leader, and Dems backed Brown. Then came Paul Horcher, a moderate Republican from Orange County who had been in an ugly and protracted fight with conservatives who led the GOP caucus. Horcher slammed his fists on his desk and bellowed “BROWN!” The chamber went silent for a second; Horcher rushed out; a reporter behind me quietly dropped the “F” bomb. Willie Brown just kept on smiling. In his just-released and highly entertaining Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times, Brown relishes the moment. He had been elected speaker in 1980 over fellow Democrat Howard Berman by capturing Republican votes. Berman left the Assembly soon after for the seat in Congress he still holds — thanks in part to a Brown-engineered redistricting process that created the seat for him: “I had to chase Howard Berman out of the house,” Brown says. “I didn’t want him around.” Knowing that history and facing an exceedingly slim majority, why hadn’t the Republicans made an effort to secure Horcher? Sheer blindness, Brown says. “They were simply outplayed.” Understanding how to play the game is the point of Brown’s book. It’s two parts memoir, one part rewrite of The Prince. He counsels politicians on how to treat enemies, the problems of dealing with race, the proper way to manage a controversy, and even what to wear. There’s a whole chapter, in fact, filled with fashion advice. Here’s Brown’s take on an outfit Tom Daschle wore one day on the Senate floor: “He was wearing a tan suit and a pink tie. It was cuttin’-edge, high style, but completely inappropriate for the somber well of the Senate. What he was wearing was perfectly okay for a Fourth of July parade or a speech at a summer festival, but not the floor of the Senate.” Perhaps those kinds of observations aren’t all that surprising from a guy who drops $6,000 on a custom-made suit and whose Friday lunch companion is often Wilkes Bashford, one of San Francisco’s most exclusive tailors. Brown is at his most entertaining when he’s dishing out advice (or just dishing on folks like Berman). There’s a refreshing sense of genuine delight about Brown. Hedonist? Maybe. But that’s never been a problem for a San Francisco politician. He’s into cars, clothes, women (he and his wife of decades have an “arrangement”), and a good party — which, as he describes, sometimes gets him into big trouble. But he’s clearly happiest wielding power. The machinations over passing civil rights legislation or winning and holding onto the speakership are just one pleasure. He likes to schmooze — “Slick Willie,” in his view, is not an insult — and applies his skills to Democrats and Republicans alike. He was friendly with Ronald Reagan. George Schultz endorsed him for mayor. He still advises Arnold Schwarzenegger. And one of the reasons he could capture Horcher’s vote was his attentiveness to Assembly members of both parties. Brown also enjoys fund raising and rolls his eyes at politicians who whine about it. “If you don’t want to ask people for money then you don’t have any business being in the world of politics,” he writes. Brown should know. He raised money everywhere — about $100 million by his estimate, a good chunk it from less-than-traditional Democratic sources, like the tobacco industry. It can go too far. Brown’s style made him an attractive target for law enforcement. The FBI investigated the Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s, and Brown was the prize the agency most desired. One of the most fascinating chapters of the book is Brown’s description of how he thwarted prosecutors and federal agents. In a chapter titled “Tricks the FBI Played to Try to Get Me,” he describes a legislator wearing a wire during a conversation with him and an elaborate scheme that involved an FBI shell company lobbying on a fake bill and attempting to induce Assembly members to take bribes. The efforts didn’t turn up much. The only Assembly member convicted in the sting was a Republican who had tipped off the FBI in the first place. But Brown was embittered by the battle and knee-capped anyone who cooperated with the investigation without first talking to him. An ex-FBI-agent-turned-lobbyist saw his bills killed in a very public fashion. After the lobbyist apologized, Brown replied: “I won’t kill any more of your bills. But you tell your brothers out there in the lobbyists’ fraternity that they will suffer the same fate, if not worse, if I ever hear of any of your motherfuckers, when approached by the FBI, doin’ anything except referrin’ them back to me.” A cardinal Brown rule: Don’t take a penny, but don’t be a snitch. After term limits — which were passed in part to push Brown from the Assembly — and the 1994 Republican sweep, Brown ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1995 against the hapless incumbent Frank Jordan and won handily. His first term, during the heady days of the dot-com boom, saw massive new public and private development projects. Building is no easy task in San Francisco, where even the pigeons mount street protests. His accomplishments include the grand refurbishment of City Hall — one of the most impressive public buildings west of the Mississippi — and the remodel of the elegant Ferry Building, which is a market and still-functioning ferry terminal. Neighborhoods were revitalized; railway lines sprang up; so did the waterfront AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. But the steam seems to go out of Brown — and his book — as he talks about trying to cope with the mundane problems of being a mayor. You get the sense that he’s looking for his safe word to get out of his second term (Nancy Pelosi’s “palomino,” perhaps?). He’s as bored as we are with the problems of the spoiled residents of an upscale neighborhood where yuppies howl over dog doo in the local soccer field. Where’s the fun, really, in beating a neighborhood group — even a powerful one — over a parking garage? And then there were the real problems that Brown could never get hold of during his two terms. Homelessness in San Francisco during the Brown years was a scandal. The vast public spaces that Brown so loved to build and refurbish were often overrun by the mentally ill, the indigent, and addicted. Anyone who peered down from an office into United Nations Plaza, as I did during the Brown years, got a daily dose of the misery. It’s tough getting excited about the administration of a city when you step out your door and, literally, over a homeless person who has taken shelter on your porch. Brown says that he was hamstrung on issues by the poisonous nature of neighborhood politics in San Francisco, an entrenched nonprofit industry, and the unwillingness of fellow politicians to take courageous stands. True enough. The trouble is that Brown, so stylish, so urbane, so connected, couldn’t play dealmaker and get the homeless off the streets. It was an issue that required more than a glib quip or an instinct for political survival. That’s not to say Brown didn’t do truly remarkable things in public service. He was, for instance, an early champion of gay rights. As a young attorney in San Francisco, he represented men who were caught up in police raids that threatened to ruin their lives. Brown knew something about discrimination when he took those cases. He grew up in segregated Mineola, Texas, shined shoes for racists, and moved to San Francisco in the ’50s because there were no opportunities for a black kid to get an education back home. “I wasn’t born in a log cabin�I was born under a log cabin,” he writes. From there, he became a lawyer, activist, a Machiavelli in Armani, and, for a time, the most powerful African-American politician in America. No wonder Willie Brown is still smiling.
David Brown (no relation) is editor in chief of Legal Times and a former San Francisco resident.

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