New Oral History: Willie Brown, Mayor of San Francisco, 1996–2004

by Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center

Former San Francisco Mayor and State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is a political force and personality known well beyond the provincial world of local politics. During his decade and a half leading the State Assembly, Brown was admired and despised, respected and feared by politicos statewide. His passion for politics and exuberant style of leadership attracted the attention of people nationwide. He appeared numerous times on Bill Maher’s and Chris Matthews’s television programs and is certainly one of the few politicians with a robust IMDb profile, listing appearances in films from the Godfather III to George of the Jungle.

It is in San Francisco, however, that he is best known and where he has exerted the most impact. In addition to representing the city in the state legislature from 1964 to 1995, he served two terms as the city’s mayor from 1996 to 2004. He has also been woven — or woven himself — deep into the fabric of the city, in many ways graduating into the roles once held by “Mr. San Francisco” Cyril Magnin and legendary “three dot” journalist Herb Caen. As the face of San Francisco, Brown not only appeared in several special productions of that only in The City production “Beach Blanket Babylon,” but “His Williness” became a recurring character in that long-running production. And Brown has become among the most widely read writers for the San Francisco Chronicle in his column that features insight into politics, unfettered opinion, and, of course, some good gossip.

Willie Brown
Moments after the deciding vote electing Willie Brown as the Speaker of the California State Assembly on December 2, 1980. Left to right, Assemblyman Art Torres, who gave him a crucial vote; Brown’s son, Michael; Willie Brown; and Blanche Brown, his wife. Standing partially hidden behind Blanche Brown is Assemblywoman Maxine Waters. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, from James Richardson Willie Brown: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1996.

This roughly ten-hour interview continues the story begun in the nearly fourteen-hour oral history conducted by the Oral History Center in 1991 and 1992. Together, these interviews form a remarkable life history that began in the same, segregated town of Mineola, Texas, in 1934 and runs through decades in politics, law, and policy up to 2016 on the verge of that surprising Presidential election. The earlier oral history, released in 1999, contains Brown’s memories of being raised in Texas, his journey to California as a young man, his education and early career as an attorney fighting for civil rights, his political alliance with Phil and John Burton, and his decades as an effective and determined legislator.

“Brown brought all his passion, intelligence, and personality to bear on the telling of this story.” 

The interview released here begins with the remarkable tale of how Democrat stalwart Brown managed to be reelected Assembly Speaker in 1995 even after Republicans won a majority in the Assembly. Facing the prospect of terming out of office, Brown then set his sights on the office of San Francisco mayor. 

Shortly after I first arrived at the Oral History Center in 2003 I had the opportunity to read the first Willie Brown oral history as part of a personal research project. It is always a remarkable experience to read a well-done oral history of a public figure — one thinks that they know such people well simply by their ubiquity, but a good interview should reveal something much more. I decided that the interviewer, Gabrielle Morris, had done a remarkable job and then-Speaker Brown not only showed up, he was deeply engaged, told a great story, and exhibited pride in the work that he had done. I resolved then and there that I wanted to be the interviewer for the second chapter in his life story — Mayor Brown — and I was thrilled to have gotten the chance in 2015 when then-UC President Janet Napolitano sponsored this oral history. 

Mayor Brown and I met for seven sessions over the course of about a year and a half. Most of the interviews were recorded in the boardroom of the California Historical Society on Mission Street. Whether dressed in a suit and tie or something more casual, Brown always looked dapper and prepared to meet the world. In fact, more than once he was stopped coming and going by passersby who, a little starstruck, wanted to say hello or grab a quick selfie with the man. At times deeply thoughtful and soft-spoken while at other times exuberant and laughing boisterously, Brown brought all his passion, intelligence, and personality to bear on the telling of this story. 

I encourage you to read the entire oral history, which represents nothing less than Willie Brown writing perhaps the first consolidated draft of the critical history of San Francisco at the turn of the millennium. But there are certainly some sections that were so intriguing — and raised so many further questions — that you’ll want to not skip those. When Brown took office in January 1996 (San Francisco holds mayoral elections in odd years), the technology boom was barely in the fledgling phase and rents, while going up, were still affordable to the many young people attracted to this unique city. Brown discusses the moves he made to make the city attractive to this new ‘clean’ industry and then the initial steps he took to accommodate the new residents streaming in. Brown admits that he didn’t foresee the extent to which the city would change, but what he did anticipate is remarkable. 

The mayor’s ability of recall is notable, so the exchanges about politics and policy are substantive, but when he reflects about the character of his adopted home, the oral history becomes something perhaps even more interesting. Close to the end of the interview, I asked him about his appearance on stage for the 25th anniversary of that only in San Francisco musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon. Brown appeared as the character “His Williness,” a regal figure based on Phil Frank’s cartoon that tended to hector the more imperious aspects of the mayor’s reputation. Aside from a great telling of how this came to be, you’ll need to read the oral history to discover the intriguing thoughts the mayor had of it. 

The oral history then delves into: 

  • His successful campaigns for mayor in 1995 and 1999 and his unfettered thoughts on his competitors, Mayor Frank Jordan and Supervisor Tom Ammiano; 
  • Brown’s first term agenda: economic development, homelessness, housing, Mission Bay development; 
  • His appointments to the Board of Supervisors, which included Gavin Newsom, then a political unknown, and Mark Leno, who went on to represent San Francisco in the State Assembly and State Senate; 
  • His second term agenda: Transbay Terminal, housing, and dealing with the possibilities and difficulties of the original “Dot Com Boom”; 
  • The emergence of a surprising group of political antagonists in the form of San Francisco “Progressives”, who tried to push the city ever further to the left;
  • And his own reflections on his image and legacy.

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to conduct this interview and am pleased to present it to you here.

Find these interviews and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

Willie Brown: Mayor of San Francisco, 1996–2004

Willie L. Brown, Jr.: First Among Equals: California Legislator Leadership 1964–1992

Editor’s note: Find more resources on the Willie Brown oral histories, including commentary, videos, notable quotes, and more.