“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.” — Martin Meeker, Interviewer and Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center
Willie Brown was the 41st Mayor San Francisco, serving two terms between 1996 and 2004. Prior to that, Brown represented San Francisco in the California State Assembly for thirty years, serving as that body’s Speaker for a record fifteen years. During his four-decade political career, Brown was admired and despised, respected and feared by politicos statewide. His passion for politics and exuberant style of leadership attracted the attention of leaders and influencers nationwide.
Together, two oral history interviews from the UC Berkeley Oral History Center form a remarkable life story that began in the segregated town of Mineola, Texas, in 1934, and run through four decades in politics, law, and policy up to 2016: Willie Brown: Mayor of San Francisco, 1996–2004 (2020) and Willie L. Brown, Jr.: First Among Equals: California Legislator Leadership 1964–1992 (1999).
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How to request audio
To request audio from anywhere in the transcript, please send an email to the director of the Oral History Center, Martin Meeker (firstname.lastname@example.org). Be sure to include beginning and ending time stamps.
Below are excerpts from the new oral history, presented in the order in which they appear in the interview, with time stamps for the audio and page numbers for the transcript. Topics and people mentioned include:
- Absentee ballots as election strategy
- Identity politics
- Progressives in San Francisco politics
- Homelessness, affordable housing
- Economic redevelopment, Mission Bay
- Education budgets and party politics
- The importance of diversity in appointments
- The power of Democrats in the State Legislature
- Term limits
- Building the central subway system
- Incorporating lessons from past experience
- The public’s perception of “Willie Brown”
- Early impressions of Bill Clinton
- The public’s response to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan
- Gavin Newsom
- Nancy Pelosi
On education budgets and party politics
Brown provides an example of an effort he made to sway public opinion towards the Democratic Party. Pete Wilson, then governor and Republican, cut education funds for kindergarten, and Brown knew that would upset the public. 01-00:08:29; p. 4
And when he [Pete Wilson] announced that all we’d have to do is no longer have kindergarten we were delighted because we knew that all those mothers that had been with those kids for four or five years, not able to go to lunch, not able to get her hair done, she’d been waiting to get rid of that kid. And we knew, Republicans and Democrats, we knew that he had made a mistake. We went to the teachers and made sure that with their resources they put every shot of him making that comment on every television station, whether it was in Chico or Chino. We made sure that every television station and every radio station, every newspaper, had it. Every editorial board. And it was not long before the tide turned when he said he was going to abolish kindergarten. We started talking about saving kindergarten, not saving the teachers’ salaries. Start saving kindergarten. And so we ended up literally exploiting the hell out of that mistake by him in the July/August saga just leading up to the November election.
On Maxine Waters’ early recognition of Bill Clinton
Brown recalls that Maxine Waters supported Bill Clinton early on. 01-00:17:11; p. 5–6
Maxine is probably the best bellwether of quality principled politicians. She seldom, if ever, tolerates anything less than the ultimate quality on the decision. And I think she saw Bill Clinton in that vein. She may have had a closer look at Bill Clinton because she comes from that area. She comes from St. Louis, Missouri. My guess is that her history and her relationships down there had given her a better perspective on Clinton than most of us ever had on Clinton. We had paid him virtually no attention at all. She had been riveted on Clinton from day one, though.
On the power of Democrats in the State Legislature
Brown talks about Democrats controlling the California State Legislature. 01-00:19:44; p. 6
Democratic caucus members in both the senate and the house, constituted the real Democratic Party in California. We were it. We were the power brokers. And that situation remained for a long time, by the way.
On women candidates
Brown explains the practical reasoning behind Democratic support of women candidates. 01-00:19:44; p. 6–7
We did think, however, the women’s candidacy in the year of the women had been helpful because we had been for some time, on the leadership edge, trying to empower women. As a caucus we had dedicated ourselves to equal funding for women candidates. And it was practical. Women were seldom, if ever, subject to the attacks that guys were subject to in a campaign. You couldn’t demonize a woman as you can demonize guys in campaigns. Women were never suspected as being players or drunk drivers or even dishonest. And on a practical basis in the early eighties we came to the conclusion that if we could find women candidates, we can beat Republicans in Republican districts. And that’s what we had kind of set out to do. And in the process, obviously, it became clear that we could win Democratic seats easier with a woman than we could with a man. So we literally became a partner and we treated the women’s movement as a partnership, whether it was Emily’s List or any of the others.
On the public’s response to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan
Brown talks about Bill Clinton tapping Hillary Clinton to fix the healthcare system. 01-00:29:20; p. 8–9
And so the first season of [Bill Clinton’s] presidency was marred by the absence of marketability of great ideas. And symbolically with the healthcare measure, which was not new. People have been trying to do something with health for sixty or seventy years. Republicans and Democrats, and they had all failed. And he handed it off to Hillary. Maybe she took it without being asked. And she became, and still bears, the title among some of the detractors, of some kind of an evil person or an evil individual. And they ran away from her.
On term limits
Brown lays out his thoughts on term limits. 01-00:53:33; p. 15
I believe that you ought to abolish term limits, period, and I think that ought to be the quest and you ought to line up the League of Women Voters, you ought to line up everybody and keep assaulting…that concept. Because there are some people that shouldn’t get one term and then there are others that ought to stay as long as the voters will have them because, after all, that’s what it is. It’s a voter’s choice. And when you limit the voter’s choice you take out really talented people.
On the importance of political contacts
Brown discusses the many political contacts he had, including Nancy Pelosi, that made it possible for him to achieve his goals for the city of San Francisco. 02-00:09:39; p. 24– 25
The things that pushed me probably more than anything else was the prospect of being able to solve the problems and fashion a solution to the problems in San Francisco and that the political climate was ripe to so do that. . . . With Nancy Pelosi clearly rising in power in the Congress and with the contact, relationships there. . . . And with my vast array of relationships with people who would continue to be in Sacramento, those who had migrated to the Congress as a result of term limits.
On economic redevelopment
Brown discusses the relationship between the redevelopment commission and the planning commission in city projects. 04-00:01:38; p. 59
A redevelopment area is a geographical space within a city or county in which rules that are fashioned both at the state level and the federal level are applicable as it relates to land use rather than the local controls. Period. Whether it’s height, whether it’s what can be there — because the opportunity and the concept of redevelopment was to take an area that was economically deprived, under-producing, or a slum, and rehab it. And you can’t always be burdened with whatever the obligations are under the planning code as it relates to the area that isn’t subject to slums, that isn’t subject to any of the kinds of things that go there. Redevelopment also allows for the acquisition of personal property belonging to someone without the great challenges you face when you do it in an isolated fashion under the concept of what people can usually do to acquire property in the hands of others. And so the redevelopment agency heads and directors of planning are usually archenemies. They really don’t particularly like each other. The role that the mayor in that situation necessarily has to play is to be the referee between the respective parties and in fact insist upon adherence to their defined statutory roles. And in my administration that’s essentially what we did.
On developing Mission Bay in the eighties
Brown discusses the beginnings of developing Mission Bay, which had gone on to transform San Francisco and become his “signal achievement” as mayor. 04-00:07:36; p. 80
Well, first and foremost, the prospect of developing [Mission Bay] literally required finding somebody willing to put money in for that purpose. And a Canadian company won the rights to own and operate and develop on that particular piece of turf. And they hired their own people to do the work there. Frankly, in the eighties the city didn’t pay a lot of attention to what was going on there and nobody was in an urgent mood to push that development.
On San Francisco’s identity politics
Brown attributes an elevated sensitivity on race in politics to Phil Burton. 05-00:10:25; p. 84-85
You would have to attribute much of that elevated sensitivity on race to a fellow named Phil Burton. He was a man who ran for state assembly and lost to a dead man and he won the next time out and he was the first, I think, to really energize labor to do something other than just support labor persons for office. And it was what is now the SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. It was an organization that had its office over on Golden Gate Avenue and I forget exactly the name. But nevertheless, it was something that Phil Burton marshaled. Phil Burton also saw the potential for Asian voters, in particular Chinese, and he focused on trying to get some symbols of that. He saw the absolute need with his friendship with a fellow named Carlton Goodlett, who owned the black newspaper at the time. And they were both basically left-wingers. They were persons who looked with some favor on the candidacy of Vincent Hallinan for the presidency back in 1952. Growing out of that, Phil Burton began to think about the clear potential for assembling a sufficient number of people for voting purposes from various constituencies. And he became part of the NAACP. As I said, he was a part of the labor movement. His headquarters was actually in the labor temple on 240 Golden Gate Avenue for a guy named George Hardy, who ran that labor union at that time. And Phil was about that effort. Phil also was about making sure that the real political union, which was Harry Bridges operation, the longshore and warehouse, that they were part of that effort. And so he really is the founder, in my opinion, for San Francisco of the elevated sensitivity to potential for broad representation among people of color, in particular.
On returning to community after success
When Brown first arrived in California, he worked low-wage jobs to finance his education, including working as a janitor at the Jones Methodist Church. Later as a lawyer, he helped the organization acquire legal rights to build affordable housing for community members. 05-00:19:44; p. 88
I worked as a janitor in that church. I lived in that church for a brief period of time while I was still in school and the Boswells were always great friends. I worked as a youth coordinator, MYF it was called, Methodist Youth Fellowship, and I was the director of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Jones Methodist Church. When I became a lawyer, I became the lawyer that incorporated the Jones Memorial Homes, Inc., the nonprofit organization that built the senior housing on the church land and ultimately affordable housing across the street from the church from land acquired along Post and Fillmore.
On Gavin Newsom
Brown recounts his impressions of Gavin Newsom, who had been appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by Brown during his first term. 05-00:36:14; p. 92–93
Gavin Newsom campaigned with me. Was dedicated. He and his roommate, was Billy Getty, and they were the young white entrepreneurs who really wanted me to be the mayor. And they were the owners of bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and other kinds of things. And I met Gavin because I knew his father. His father had been a candidate for state office whom I had supported….And I already knew of young Newsom because during the course of my campaigning for mayor he created something called the Bar Crawls and he would take me at nighttime, whether it was on Geary, among the bars on Geary, he’d go in and he would buy everybody in there a round and introduce them to his candidate for mayor, Willie Brown. And he did the same thing down in Cow Hollow, on Chestnut Street. And so he was frankly invaluable. I had appointed him already to the chair of what essentially was the traffic commission and I wanted to do something about cleaning up the taxicab industry. I called a taxi summit. Only person that spent the same number of hours at that summit as I did was Gavin Newsom. So I knew that he was a real student of public activities.
Brown discusses how his stance on homelessness brought backlash. 05-00:58:45; p. 98–99
We were identified as being indifferent to the needs of the homeless people because I had said, “Homeless problem is impossible to solve.” And the homeless advocates went crazy. They were certain that I was anti-homeless by virtue of saying that. And nothing has proven to be more accurate, by the way, than that comment for all over the nation because you don’t have any way to force people to take medication. You don’t have any way to force people off the streets. You don’t have any way to force people to take counseling and treatment. And you don’t really acknowledge how multiply challenged many of the people who are out there on the streets are. I canceled the homeless summit. I was going to do a homeless summit and I concluded that it would be a waste of time and I canceled the homeless summit. I did so many things of that nature and I generated such hostility that you would not believe.
On building the central subway system
Brown recounts the efforts he made to approve the construction of the central subway system during his time as mayor. 06-00:02:33; p. 106
It takes a lot of money and a lot of commitment to put together a subway but we, in fact, actually did that through the process of the administration in the second time around and the efforts that were made to achieve that goal. Central subway process, the construction, did not start until in the first year or so of my exit, maybe even the second year of my exit from the mayor’s office but the foundation had been completed by then. We had great luck in that Nancy Pelosi was growing with great power in the Congress, obviously eventually becoming the speaker within the decade, the first decade of the twenty-first century. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were both clearly on the ascendency power wise. A combination of those three things, plus my long-term friendship with people like then Governor Schwarzenegger, lent itself appropriately to the ultimate implementation of that long twenty-plus year subway, central subway concept and central subway way.
On incorporating lessons from past experience to mayorship
Brown believes that his extensive experience in the legislature helped him build effective coalitions. 06-00:13:56; p. 108–109
Well, first and foremost, in my capacity as mayor of San Francisco, all of the skills and experience I had at working with seventy-nine other members of the legislature in the assembly, plus forty members of the state senate, has always led me to position whatever I was attempting to do in a way in which it’s of equal interest to people I’m trying to gain support from. So as mayor, with regularity, my appointing powers, I shared them with other elected officials, and in particular with Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein. I would not hesitate on any opportunity for any kind of involvement by people who were not elected officials. I’d seek advice and recommendations from elected family, the elected family.
On “progressives” in San Francisco
Brown on the approach of San Francisco progressives. 06-00:49:09; p. 116
They [the progressives] were appealing to the group of people who arrived yesterday but wanted to keep the city as it was before they arrived. And they really had made great arguments and generated enthusiasm for that concept. They were never able to carry out any of their objections. I, through the years of my mayorship, continuously made progress toward what we see today.
118 (More on progressives)
The interesting thing about the challenge to me [from the progressives] was [that it was] not an alternative method of productivity. It was strictly an effort to try to have everything stop and then figure out what to do after you stopped everything. Build nothing. Produce nothing. Do nothing. And then we’ll plan. So it wasn’t as if there was an alternative to the central subway. It wasn’t as if there was an alternative to the T-line going out to the Bayview. It wasn’t like that was an alternative to what we should do with Treasure Island if we get it from the feds. It wasn’t like that was an alternative to what ought to happen to Presidio if we get it from the feds. No, it was, “Let’s stop everything and let’s just see what we’ll do after we stop everything.”
On affordable housing in Mission Bay
Brown discusses how the 2001 recession brought on economic challenges that led to a focus on affordable housing. 06-01:11:17; p. 124
What we didn’t delay though, fortunately, was whatever affordable housing we had going. Because we had with the Mission Bay operation, if you’re going to do Mission Bay you’ve got to build the affordable housing first. And we had done that in other locations, but in particular in Mission Bay. So the first thing built in Mission Bay, literally the first thing built in Mission Bay on the residential housing side were affordables. And the interesting thing about it is the way in which we did the envisioning of the project. You can’t tell what’s an affordable housing unit in Mission Bay and what isn’t. They all look the same. And that was part of what we kind of learned under the process of the Hope Six projects that we did in and around the city, whether in Bernal or wherever. All of that literally continued because the government subsidized and the government prompted structures continued and they were primarily—and it’s too bad. I really couldn’t have envisioned, because I should have jumped on the chance to build five times as many affordables and we wouldn’t have the crisis we currently have in some cases or we’d be able to deal better with the crisis. Nobody was building anything for commercial occupancy purposes because there were no prospective tenants to occupy on the commercial side. Nobody wanted it.
On “working-class housing”
Brown addresses the housing crisis among the working class in San Francisco. 06-01:21:18; p. 126
We called it working-class housing. We wanted teachers. We wanted cops. We wanted Muni drivers, we wanted hospital workers. All of those people were beyond the affordable housing group. We had literally taken care of, allegedly, the dirt-poor. We had taken care of that crowd. So we started to try to figure out how can we now allow the working class—workforce housing is how we defined it and we turned our attention to workforce housing. We never did solve the problem. We never did, I don’t think, effectively address the issue and it’s still out there as an item that clearly needs to be addressed. Period. And as they discuss at the board today, the whole question of affordable housing, they ought to switch that term because the developers overnight would adjust themselves for the opportunity to develop if they had a clear understanding that on a step-by-step basis there would be the kind of affordability questions answered based upon what people actually earn. Because if you’re going to build housing that you primarily want public safety workers, fire and police to occupy, you know what they’re going to be making, so you the developer can actually structure your financing of your project on the basis that this is who’s going to occupy your project. You’re not into that nebulous category of 12 percent, 20 percent and you don’t know who they are, you don’t know whether or not when you think in terms of the operational cost on a monthly basis. The operational cost on a monthly basis could exceed the mortgage. Well, all those kinds of things you need to build into the so-called workforce housing cost. And I bet you developers would jump at the chance.
On the importance of diversity in appointments
As mayor of San Francisco, Brown made sure that the diversity of the city was reflected in his appointments. 07-00:52:47; p. 141–142
First you should know that my inaugural address at the Yerba Buena Gardens included the announcement that Fred Lau, an Asian, first would be police chief, and that Bob Demmons, who had been the plaintiff against the fire department to integrate it, would be the fire chief. Right out of the box that was a message that had not been heard before. And that was followed very quickly with the chairmanships of those two committees being controlled by racial minorities, all women, and that reflected itself throughout the chain.
On the public’s perception of Willie Brown
Brown feels privileged as a high-profile politician whose community knows much about his track record. 07-01:09:27; p. 146
And the perception of who Willie Brown really was is what sustained me because you could not define me without there being competition for the definition. Period. If I’d been unknown, if I’d been kind of a mystery, I’d kind of been anonymous, you could get away with what Trump does to people. Lying Ted or Little Marco or Crooked Hillary. Well, you couldn’t do that with Willie Brown. It just couldn’t stick. People knew too much about me. They had their own attitude and they would know whether or not the one you were trying to dump on me was applicable. 146
On Brown’s early impressions of Bill Clinton
Brown looks back on his interactions with Bill Clinton, before Clinton became governor of Arkansas. 01-00:05:53; page 3
Bill Clinton had arrived in California in the late eighties. He represented the Democratic Leadership Group, and that was the more moderate Democratic governors. And he had come out in a cheap shiny blue suit with a full head of hair. We had him appear at our caucus. We have caucuses every Tuesday and we had Bill Clinton come to our caucus. And he was a fun guy. He really was a fun guy. Not a good poker player, blackjack player, or any of the games that we were playing in the lounge. But he was fun and we got to know him on a personal basis rather than just in the governorship title.
On getting absentee votes before election day
Brown describes the process of banking absentee votes before election day, noting that it is more efficient today due to the electronic communication system. 07-01:21:03; p. 148–149
You simply start your solicitation of people whom you know will vote for you for sure but who in the past have been hesitant to be consistent in their actually casting a ballot. So you put a ten-person team together and every day of the week each member of that team will be required to produce a certain number of absentee ballot applications. Any time they don’t meet the standard you’re requiring you replace them with somebody else who will. So you set your goal of 25,000, let’s say, absentee ballots. If you have solicited the application, you have made sure it was filled out, you made sure it was sent in, chances are they voted for you. And that’s what we did. We started the process of early voting. We even went so far as to get an investigator for it. We had decided that in the public housing projects I’m going to get 80 percent of the vote only if they actually voted. So we had a separate operation for public housing and we did it two ways. We did it either absentee ballot or we did it through the management of the individual public housing units. Or we did it with A. Philip Randolph Institute every day driving people to city hall from the public housing projects, having them cast their vote early in the basement of city hall, then taking them for a hotdog after they finished and taking them back home or taking them back to where they were picked up from. And we did that religiously. That’s how you do it. You come up with a plan and a program.
Now you do it even more efficiently and effectively because you can use the electronic communication system. Period. We didn’t have the electronic communication system. My last time ever on the ballot was 1999. And we didn’t have that. It was not available to us. So we had to use the practical paper method and we did that. Now you can actually produce an absentee ballot application and get that done easier by way of the social media context and the person who masters that is going to be enormously benefitted by virtue of being able to do that. A fellow named Ace Smith, who runs Hillary’s operation just did that to Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders had no real access to absentee balloting, although he had great command of the social media. He didn’t translate it into an absentee ballot process. In some states they are now going written ballot. Oregon, I think, is 100 percent written ballot. I think we’ll eventually get close to that in California. But we were the pioneers when we didn’t have electronic means to assist us.