Over a political career that’s well into a sixth decade, Willie Brown has had several incarnations.
From a fiery civil rights agitator in the 1960s, Brown evolved into an expert legislative dealmaker during three decades as a state assemblyman – including a record-long stint as speaker – and two terms as mayor of San Francisco.
Along the way, he became a bon vivant, swathed in expensive, hand-tailored suits, and, until his eyesight failed, driving exotic sports cars at high speed. An understanding with his long-separated wife, Blanche, freed him to dally with an ever-changing array of attractive women, including one who bore him a late-life child.
During Brown’s stints in office and after his mayoralty ended in 2004, he has also been a powerful political patron who could make or break the political careers of others. Now, at age 84, he has seen his protégés climb to the top of California’s political ladder and become national figures.
Gavin Newsom’s inauguration as governor and Kamala Harris’ declaration that she’s running for president after just two years in the U.S. Senate are testaments to Brown’s patronage skills.
Shortly after becoming mayor in 1996, Brown appointed Newsom, then a young businessman whose father and grandfather had long-standing connections in San Francisco’s insular political community, to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission.
A year later, Brown placed Newsom on the city’s Board of Supervisors, its equivalent of a city council. That put him into position to succeed Brown as mayor seven years later, run for lieutenant governor in 2010 and then capture the governorship last year.
Brown helped Ed Lee succeed Newsom as mayor and last year, saw another of his protégés, London Breed, continue the string of mayoral winners.
Brown’s patronage of Harris followed a similar path, with a twist. She was a young Alameda County prosecutor in the 1990s when she caught the eye of Brown, both personally and politically.
Before being forced out of the Assembly speakership in 1995, Brown appointed Harris to two well-paying positions on state commissions.
Three-decades younger than her patron, Harris was also briefly one of Brown’s serial girlfriends – something that has stirred much national media attention since she announced her White House campaign.
“I’ve been peppered with calls from the national media about my ‘relationship’ with Kamala Harris, particularly since it became obvious that she was going to run for president,” Brown said in one of his San Francisco Chronicle columns last weekend. “Most of them, I have not returned.
“Yes, we dated. It was more than 20 years ago. Yes, I may have influenced her career by appointing her to two state commissions when I was Assembly speaker. And I certainly helped with her first race for district attorney in San Francisco. I have also helped the careers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a host of other politicians.”
After Harris shifted from Alameda County into the San Francisco city attorney’s office, then-Mayor Brown helped her knock off the city’s incumbent district attorney in 2003, positioning her to become California’s attorney general seven years later and win a Senate seat in 2016.
Interestingly, however, in the autobiography Harris released to coincide with her presidential announcement, she describes her election as San Francisco’s district attorney as an uphill struggle against an entrenched political establishment. And she never mentions Willie Brown’s name.