Viewpoints

For Jerry Brown’s last California Hall of Fame class, one choice is clear: Willie Brown

President Bill Clinton presents former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown with the Thalheimer Spingarn Medal during the 109th annual NAACP convention in San Antonio on July 18.
President Bill Clinton presents former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown with the Thalheimer Spingarn Medal during the 109th annual NAACP convention in San Antonio on July 18. The San Antonio Express-News via AP

Soon after the November election, one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s last official acts will be announcing a new class of inductees to the California Hall of Fame.

The governor and First Lady Anne Gust Brown choose from a master list of qualified candidates (a state resident for at last five years who embodies “the spirit of California and the California Dream”).

I’ll save my annual second-guessing for the November reveal. This is an institution that’s enshrined the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Lester Holt, but not baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio.

But here’s one California institution I’d like to see inducted this year: former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

 
Opinion

The reasons why: First, California’s political class is badly under-represented in this cross-section of notables. Four governors are among the hall’s 113 inductees, but not a single member of the Legislature. Brown, who served 30 years in the Assembly (including a record 14 as speaker) before tacking on two terms as San Francisco’s mayor, is suitably titanic in his historic significance.

Second, African-American representation is skewed toward athletes. The choice of Brown – not only the Assembly’s first black speaker but a living link from the civil rights era to Barack Obama’s ascent – helps correct that myopic view of the contributions of black Californians.

Third, if anyone embodies the “California Dream,” it’s the stylish, kinetic, glad-handing Brown. He came to California from Texas in 1951, working as a janitor while attending San Francisco State University. Armed with a law degree, Brown had to endure the Bay Area whipsaw of segregations and a lack of a Stanford or Berkeley pedigree. So he started his own law firm, and his family’s own bitter taste of racism sparked a passion for activism and public service.

And fourth reason, these days, he’s the closest thing California Democrats have to an elder statesman able to see through the fog of the war against Donald Trump. On Sundays, a column from Brown appears in the San Francisco Chronicle with rare pragmatism.

Among recent observations:

On the 2016 election: “Hillary Clinton lost the presidency not only because of the anti-Obama backlash, but also because we Democrats went slack, then did what we so often do – we fought among ourselves.”

On how red-state Senate Democrats should approach the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court: “My advice is the same I gave to Assembly members when I was speaker and a vote like this came up: Go with whatever will get you re-elected. No one vote – not even for a Supreme Court justice – is worth costing your party a Senate seat for six years. Especially when the other party is more likely to hold the seat not for just six years, but for decades.”

On his party’s priorities: “Rather than stoking the base by attacking Trump, Democrats need to come up with a platform that addresses the average voters’ hopes and concerns. Not just the needs of underdogs or whatever cause happens to be the media flavor of the week. Democrats need to look like the adults, not like another pack of screaming kids on the playground. And they need to start now.”

If he’s honored, Brown will show up for the induction ceremony. After all, he’s no stranger to the drive from San Francisco to Sacramento. Let’s honor the man for the greater journey of his quintessentially California story.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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