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California political icon Willie Brown tells it like it is in new oral history

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, shown speaking at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention, is the subject of an oral record just published by the Oral History Center at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Willie Brown’s legacy as a vibrant and controversial political powerhouse is embedded in the history of California politics, from his 30 years in the California State Assembly – 15 as speaker – to his two terms as Mayor of San Francisco. And now, Brown’s footprint – especially as mayor from 1996 to 2004 – is the subject of a new 10-hour oral history just published by the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Martin Meeker is sitting at his desk in his office

Martin Meeker, director of the Oral History Center, conducted a series of interviews with Brown in 2015 that turned into a 10-hour oral story that, in his opinion, was “the first true, consolidated take on San Francisco at the turn of the millennium.”

The interviews represent “the first true, consolidated interpretation of San Francisco around the turn of the millennium,” said Martin Meeker, director of the Oral History Center, who interviewed 86-year-old Brown on the project. “It was such a critical time in the history of the city, the state and the nation, and here is a central figure, in the right place, at the right time, who begins to tell that story.”

Of Brown, Meeker said, “His passion for politics and exuberant leadership style caught the attention of executives and influencers across the country.”

Or, as Brown described the interviews, “It is in my nature to look to the future and weigh what is to come, but this has given me the opportunity to go back and really analyze the history of my time in San Francisco. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, what the hell was Willie thinking? Now you have the opportunity to hear for yourself! “

Willie Brown speaks outside City Hall

Brown speaks in 2012 at a memorial to former San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and former San Francisco manager Harvey Milk, who were murdered in San Francisco City Hall in 1978. (Photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr)

Willie Brown: Mayor of San Francisco, 1996-2004, begins with a story about how Brown, a staunch Democrat, was re-elected in 1994 as speaker of the California State Assembly, which then had a Republican majority – an event that many still consider one Event consider remarkable achievement. But not everyone knows what happened behind the scenes, maneuvers Brown talks about in the interviews.

“The story is about international travel and the secret transportation of legislators to vote at the last minute what you call it,” Meeker said. “It has all the intrigue of House of Cards.”

From there, the oral tradition dips into many subjects, such as Brown’s successful mayoral campaigns in 1995 and 1999; his appointment to the city’s governing body of several future state politicians, including Gavin Newsom and Mark Leno; its first and second term mayor’s agendas, which included economic development, growth of tech companies during the dot-com boom, and the development of Mission Bay and the Transbay Terminal; its focus on diversifying city government; and how he navigated the emergence of “progressives” in San Francisco as political antagonists trying to push the city even further to the left.

Willie Brown and Donna Huggins speak to a crowd in downtown San Francisco

Brown co-chaired a successful eight year campaign led by Donna Huggins (right) to restore the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. (Photo by Dave Rauenbuehler)

“Willie Brown was a political genius who knew everyone and everything,” said Henry Brady, dean of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. “For the past six years as spokesman for the congregation, Brown has controlled the body despite a small GOP majority, finding compromises and consensus where no one thought it possible. Even so, he advanced an important progressive agenda that changed California politics. “

Commenting on the new oral transmission, Brady said, “An opportunity to listen to Willie Brown is an opportunity to listen to a political master who shaped his era through hard work, ingenuity, progressive commitments and political genius.”

In the oral tradition, Brown also talks about the Berkeley campus and the importance of its innovative research. And it reflects its own extravagant and powerful public image – one that has generated admiration and sharp criticism from politicians across California.

Portrait of Willie Brown

While recording his oral transmission, Brown said it was an opportunity for him to go back and analyze his time in San Francisco. “If you’ve ever thought to yourself, ‘What the hell was Willie thinking? ‘Now you have the opportunity to hear for yourself! “(Courtesy Photo Willie Brown)

“The perception of who Willie Brown really was supported me,” said Brown Meeker during the interview, “because you couldn’t define me without there being a competition for definition.” … People knew too much about me. They had their own mindset and would know whether the one you were about to throw at me was applicable or not. “

The first African American to be elected Speaker of the State Assembly and Mayor of San Francisco, Brown, a San Francisco resident, also discussed with Meeker his continued involvement and leadership in mostly black neighborhoods and black churches in the city.

“I think that’s an important part of him that isn’t covered much today,” said Meeker. “Sure, it is still very important to him to participate in the community life of Black San Francisco. It’s still an important part of Willie Brown’s personality. “

Willie Brown speaks into a microphone during his radio broadcast

Brown speaks to comedian Will Durst on a radio talk show on KQAK-FM in 2006 on the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr)

Oral tradition follows an earlier 14-hour interview the Oral History Center conducted with Brown in the early 1990s. First Among Equals: California Legislator Leadership 1964-1992 in which Brown talks about his upbringing in a segregated town in rural East Texas, why he came to California, and how he fought as a civil rights advocate before entering politics.

Meeker said the collection would be useful to historians, high school students, journalists, bloggers and “anyone interested in learning more about the history of San Francisco and the achievements of blacks in politics in the second half of the 20th century”.

The public can access full transcripts of the interviews for free on the Oral History Center website.

The New Oral Tradition, Willie Brown: San Francisco Mayor, 1996-2004, contains:

  • Brown’s vision for San Francisco after his election in 1995 as a place where tech jobs could thrive and how he put in place policies that paved the way.
  • How he retained spokesman for the California State Assembly in 1994 when the Democrats were out of the majority and most Republicans wanted him gone.
  • What Brown says about his flamboyant public image that sparked criticism. “It’s remarkable, insightful, and pretty meta,” said Meeker.
  • His aversion to tenure restrictions, which he said deprive California of its older, smarter officials who are most tenacious to tackle tough problems.
  • Brown’s thoughts on the increasing polarization in America today between liberals and conservatives and the disappearance of moderates or centrists.
  • Cartoon of Willie Brown dressed as King (left) and Willie Brown dressed as King on stage

    Left: His Williness, a character based on Brown and created by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank; Right: Brown appears on stage as His Williness at the Beach Blanket Babylon, a longstanding live musical theater event in San Francisco. (Left: Bancroft Library photo from the Phil Frank Archive for Comics; Right: Beach Blanket Babylon Photo by Dave Allen)

    Tales of Brown as “His Williness,” a character he played in Beach Blanket Babylon, a long-running live musical theater event in San Francisco. This role was based on a character from the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, who drew Brown as ruler in regal garb and asked a magic mirror for advice. Of Frank’s comics, which criticized the mayor, Brown said in an interview: “I like all forms of humor, whether it’s about me, against me or with me. I really love to laugh. “

Other politicians appear in Brown’s stories, including former President Bill Clinton, US Representative Maxine Waters, former California Governor Jerry Brown, and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Brown’s New Oral Story was sponsored by the UC President’s Office, led by then-President Janet Napolitano.

The Willie Brown Oral History website provides both sets of the Willie Brown-Oral History transcripts, as well as instructions on how to request audio from the interviews, as well as in-depth commentaries, video excerpts, articles, notable quotations, and more.

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