Letters writers and a columnist (Bill Endicott, “Why can’t we just name it the ‘San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’?”, Sept. 11) have questioned naming the Bay Bridge after former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. I think it is a good idea to name all the state’s bridges after Willie Brown.
By every measure of a man, Willie Brown is extraordinary.
There are school pictures of Willie’s youth. The clothes are cheap cotton hand-me-downs and they hang without fashion on his skinny body. They are photos of the unsentimental Jim Crow South when a segregated education was offered in a miserly fashion on the black side of town.
Willie arrived in San Francisco at seventeen. He shined shoes. He picked fruit. He was a janitor with makeshift living quarters in a church. Willie became a lawyer representing a clientele hoping for a fair shake.
A protest allowing people of color to buy homes led Willie to politics. It wasn’t about monuments then. He was creating the roadmap for navigating new perceptions on civil rights and social justice.
His first seatmate in the Legislature let the n-word roll effortlessly in conversation. The Assembly leader commented that if Willie was white, he’d be running the place. Sixteen years later, Willie used a combination of personal charm and hard-ball strategy to become speaker.
His critics admitted that Willie was the smartest in the room, yet insisted he wasn’t accomplishing anything of importance.
His accomplishments are a matter of record.
He was the first to write legislation protecting gay rights. He dared to be among the first elected officials to oppose the war in Vietnam.
Willie was chair of the Ways and Means Committee. He helped Ronald Reagan pass four budgets, long before anyone was thinking about naming an airport after the future president. Getting Willie’s buy-in was a continuing pattern with subsequent governors.
The Legislature was not an idiosyncratic mirror of Willie Brown. His was a reasonably benevolent dictatorship that allowed individuals to chart their own course. It is true, however, that bills of consequence needed his imprimatur. Under his leadership, Willie went beyond lip service and hired those previously disenfranchised to policymaking roles in the Capitol.
Willie Brown also managed to make himself that rare character who comes packaged in magic. Alongside movie stars and famous athletes, he emerged the compelling personality, a mixture of charisma and power, of intellect and physical appeal.
He did not always get it right. He proved ruthless with those who didn’t see the wisdom of his ways. His affinity for the fast lane made some question his commitment to public service. It is unequivocal that his legislative career ended when voters targeted him for term limits, and his emergence as mayor of San Francisco began.
Willie’s accomplishments changed us. You’ll remember him when you cross his bridge.
Terence McHale is a partner in the advocacy firm of Aaron Read and Associates.