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Willie Brown Interview (page: 3 / 6)
Former Mayor of San Francisco
When did you know what you wanted to do with your life? Was there a defining moment?
Willie Brown: Not that I can point to. I really don't recall the turns that I took and why. In most cases my turns in the road were not planned, they were me taking advantage of the circumstances that presented themselves with the most optimum prospects. Long range planning for me was, "Where do I eat dinner?"
What kind of a kid were you? Did you get along with your classmates?
Willie Brown: I got along really well with my classmates. All of the after-school activities centered around the house in which I lived. We played football on the street in front of my house. I built a high-jump and pole-vaulting pit on one side of my house, the only pole-vaulting pit the kids had ever seen.
I had three sisters that were the attractive girls around that little town. They had lots of friends and lots of boys hung out there. My family were bootleggers. I didn't realize that was also an attraction.
Before she had her heart trouble, my grandmother owned the only night spot in the town, The Shack. One of my uncles ran that for her, and bootlegged the booze. So, my house was kind of the center of that little town's after-school activities.
We had the only piano that any family had, because it had come out of The Shack. My sisters all played piano. One of my sisters was an accomplished singer, she was ultimately dubbed, the Songbird of Texas. With that collection of attractive people, my family appeared to have a little more resources than some of the other families. There was nobody in my family that worked except me, later on. My grandmother was too old to work. My mother worked in another town, so there was no visible working person. The father had left the family long before I ever knew him, so there was no male involvement.
My grandmother was pretty much the pillar of that community. Everybody knew her. She was not a church lady. The church people resented the fact that she did not go to church under any circumstances, because of that honky-tonk that she ran, and the bootlegging. I didn't understand all of that as a little kid, but on reflection I know that my family was what you call an on-the-edge family.
My grandmother clearly had a relationship with the hired sheriff. Because she was never raided, she was never busted, or anything else. She could always fix it if somebody else had a problem with the law. I benefited from all of that, because everybody zeroed in on Mamma Anna Lee. If they had a problem, they checked in with her.
My uncle was such a playboy in those days that he had children by women around the town, and when my uncle would come to town, they'd come to visit. I benefited handsomely from being the kid with the only football, the kid with the only baseball. Nobody had a baseball glove. I was also probably more inept at all of that than any of the other kids.
When you started your law career did you have any idea what you wanted to do?
Willie Brown: By the time I entered the practice of law I had been involved in politics for eight or nine years. From the second semester in college I had become part of the political scene on campus. We had started a protest operation over some student lockers, or something. That had grown into a college-based community political movement. We elected the first black president of the student body.
Nobody lived on campus. It was a streetcar college, there were no dormitories. The average age was about 23 and I was 17, so that was a great gap. There were lots of returning veterans who were living off the GI Bill and were in pretty good shape financially.
Very few high school graduates went directly to this school. It was a wonderful learning experience for this kid, who had a little bit of smarts, helping out these old guys who had been out of high school a long time. These friendships developed, but they were also sensitive to the issues of adult governance and independence. That school treated them as if they were all still 17. That started the political process.
By 1952 I had begun my involvement with the NAACP Youth Council. That heightened my interest in politics, as well. I became involved in organized politics through the Young Democrats on campus. By 1956, in that campaign involving Estes Kefauver, I was a member of the Young Democrats statewide. I was friendly with the Burtons, who were a legendary political family in San Francisco. I knew the arguments between the liberals and the conservatives in San Francisco. So by the time I got out of law school in '58 I was already immersed in the world of politics.
Were you already thinking about running for office?
Willie Brown: No, not really thinking about running for office, but knowing that I was going to participate in politics. The running for office started in 1960, when I ran for the Democratic County Central Committee, on a ticket put together by Phil Burton. He needed a black on the ticket and I was the only young black lawyer around at that time. He needed an Asian on the ticket, he needed an old person on the ticket, he needed a labor person on the ticket, and he needed a left-winger.
So, a Hallinan, Willie Brown, and some old person, all became a part of this thing. Of that group, I got elected to the County Central Committee, and I immediately became involved in who should be the chair of that committee. I think we lost that fight by one or two votes, because the old entrenched Democrats still controlled more votes than Burton controlled, but I had my taste of the war, at that time. At that moment, I knew that electoral politics were an avenue that I should consider.
Who gave you the help you needed to start a political career?
Willie Brown: Phil Burton would have to be credited, from the standpoint of my elected political career. He was the first person with any substance to step to the plate and offer assistance, and offer resources. He took a considerable political risk, because I ran against a Democratic incumbent, a person who was almost his seatmate in the halls of the legislature. He backed my candidacy on the basis that we needed to expand representation. We particularly needed to expand representation for African-Americans in the California legislature. I'd have to credit Phil with being the person who gave me the first break.
What do you think he saw in you that made him say, Willie Brown's the guy to do this?
Willie Brown: I was probably the only guy around. I was a 23 year-old lawyer. I had a family, a wife and a child. I had not yet been to jail for anything. I had a civil rights background by then, having come through the ranks of the NAACP. I had a black middle-class background, in that I had been a fraternity member, so I had that network. I was a youth director of my church, where I had 50 or 60 young adults and teenagers under my jurisdiction.
So I was everybody's fair-haired boy. I had been anointed to be the next young phenom in the African-American community in San Francisco. Too few had gone on to graduate school. Too few had chosen a profession where they had some high visibility.
Then I stumbled upon a protest. I led the first protest against housing discrimination in San Francisco. That resulted in nationwide attention, because it was a northern -- or in this case a western -- liberal city, having its soul exposed for racism.
It was all by accident that this incident occurred. Lo and behold, a combination of all those factors moved the name Willie Brown ahead of everybody else's. Phil Burton, being the smart political guy that he was, and knowing that he needed an anchor tenant in the black community to become a part of his coalition, literally said, "This is what you must do."
What happened the first time you ran for the state assembly?
Willie Brown: I lost. In 1962 I had Phil Burton, Carlton Goodlett, the owner of the local black newspaper, and a few members of the black clergy supported my candidacy. It was fun to run a campaign, but it was all without any resources, with almost nothing. But we came within a thousand votes of defeating a 22-year incumbent who was heavily financed. We had no money.
The one shortcoming Phil Burton was always plagued with was he could not raise a nickel. He was so offensive to most people in his bombastic style, that he could only get money from the labor organizations. This person whom I was running against happened to have been a member of the labor hierarchy. He had been a painter, and ran a paperhanging operation, so he was really labor's fair-haired boy. He was the chairman, I think, of the labor committee. So we had no resources from organized labor.
So we lost, but not badly. In the process of losing, however, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that there were people beyond Burton who could be of assistance to me. One of them was a woman named Marian Conrad, a Pacific Heights matron who was in PR. She didn't need to be in PR, her husband was a Tenneco land executive, but she became fascinated with this young black politician.
She introduced me to a whole series of people, one of whom was Herb Caen, the noted San Francisco columnist. He began to take me around with him, introducing me to his San Francisco. He had never bumped into anybody that he thought had the energy or the interest, or was as comprehensive in my appetite as he was, for hamburgers and for all the other things.
That friendship blossomed into a favorable mention in his column, which most people would have paid dearly to get. It came almost naturally for me, by virtue of that exposure. So by 1964 it was a foregone conclusion that I would be an elected official. The question was just "When?"
I'd also honed my debating skills. I had begun to understand the issues. I had begun to understand direct communications with people. I had attracted a very skilled campaign operation headed by a guy named Rudolph Nothenberg.
I'd also gotten some major support from an organized political operation in the state that Alan Cranston headed called CDC. That was a left-wing organization that thought you ought to admit Red China to the UN, and all that business. And a group of kids that ran the W.E.B. DuBois Club, which was a left-wing club, mainly headed by the kids who were the offspring of ILWU (International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union) members. So by '64, the infrastructure for a successful political campaign was there, and we won handsomely.
And you haven't lost since.
Willie Brown: Never lost another election in my life.
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This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:18 EST
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