Willie Brown (politician)

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Willie Brown (politician) : biography

March 20, 1934 –

In September 1958, Brown married Blanche Vitero, with whom he had three children, Susan, Robin, and Michael. He has four grandchildren, Besia, Matea, Mateo, and Lordes, and a step-granddaughter, Tyler. The couple separated in approximately 1976 but remain married. He has a daughter, Sydney Brown, by political fund raiser Carolyn Carpeneti.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brown was one of a few African Americans practicing law in San Francisco when he opened his own practice. He practiced criminal defense law, representing pimps, prostitutes, and other clients that more prominent attorneys would not represent. One early case was to defend Mario Savio on his first civil disobedience arrest. He quickly became involved in the civil rights movement, leading a well-orchestrated sit-in to protest housing discrimination after a local real estate office refused to work with him because of his race. Brown helped organize the public protest and helped attract media coverage. His role in the protests gave him the notoriety to run for the Assembly.

Brown began his first run for the Assembly by having local African American ministers pass around a hat, collecting US$700. He lost the election to the California State Assembly in 1962 by 600 votes before winning a second election in 1964.

California State Assembly

Brown was one of four African Americans in the Assembly in 1964. He continued to be reelected to the Assembly until 1995. In the 1960s, Brown served as the Chair of the Legislative Representation Committee, a powerful Assembly position that helped Brown climb the Assembly ranks. He became the Democrats’ Assembly whip in 1969. Brown also served on the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. In 1972, he delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention. He lost his bid for the speakership in 1972. In 1975, Willie Brown authored and lobbied the successful passing of the Consenting Adult Sex Bill that legalized homosexuality in California, thus earning the strong and lasting support of San Francisco’s gay community. During the 1970s, Brown continued to expand his legal practice that was representing several major developers. He won the Speakership in 1980 with 28 Republican and 23 Democratic votes.

Brown was California’s first African American Speaker of the Assembly, and served in the office from 1981 to 1995. In 1990, Brown helped negotiate an end to a 64 day budget standoff. In 1994, Brown gained the vote of a few Republicans to maintain the Speakership when the Democrats lost control of the Assembly to the Republicans led by Jim Brulte. Brown regained control in 1995 by making a deal with Republican defectors Doris Allen and Brian Setencich, both of whom were elected Speaker by the Democratic minority. During their tenures, Brown was the de facto Speaker.

Brown’s long service in the Assembly and political connections, his strong negotiation skills, and the Assembly’s tenure system for leadership appointments, combined to give Brown nearly complete control over the California Legislature by the time he became Assembly Speaker. According to The New York Times, Brown became one of the country’s most powerful state legislators. He nicknamed himself the "Ayatollah of the Assembly".

Brown was extremely popular in his home of San Francisco, though less so in the rest of the state. Nevertheless, he wielded great control over statewide legislative affairs and political appointments, making it difficult for his conservative opponents to assail his power. Partially to remove Brown from his leadership position, a state constitutional amendment initiative was proposed and passed by the electorate in 1990, imposing term limits on state legislators. Brown became the focus of the initiative. Brown raised just under US$1 million to defeat the initiative. The California Legislature challenged the law but it was upheld by the courts. California Proposition 140 also cut the legislature’s staff budget by 30 percent, causing Brown to reduce legislative staff by at least 600. After term limits forced Brown out of office, the Assembly re-structured its rules to give most of the powers formerly held by the Speaker to a leadership committee made up of senior members of both major parties.