Former mayor to get star treatment

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Wednesday June 20, 2012
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He once walked Market Street with reporters in tow in a race to prove Muni was faster than a pedestrian. And on Sunday, former Mayor Willie Brown will ride up Market Street not in a Muni bus, but a convertible, as this year's lifetime achievement grand marshal in the San Francisco Pride Parade.

Brown, who served as mayor for two terms from 1996 to 2004, was game that day in 1998, when two San Francisco Chronicle reporters joined him after the paper noted that "walking down Market Street was as fast as riding beneath it." The mayor, wanting to give Muni another chance, lost the race that day, and was happy about it.

"Maybe you guys will write about something besides Muni," Brown told the paper.

In a recent interview at the bar of the St. Regis in downtown San Francisco, Brown, 78, talked about local politics and his long history of advocating for the LGBT community. He was pleased that he has been selected for the lifetime achievement honor, but had some reservation.

"They should be given after you've gone," Brown said of lifetime achievement honors. "Your life is still ongoing. But it's quite an honor."

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown

Before becoming mayor Brown served over 30 years in the state Assembly, including 14 as the powerful speaker. But it was while he was an assemblyman, representing San Francisco, that he became aware of, what was at the time, a burgeoning gay rights movement.

"It was the election of 1968 to the Assembly," Brown recalled, "that was the first time I attended the Society for Individual Rights meeting on 6th Street."

SIR was an early gay rights group founded by William Beardemphl, Jim Foster, Bill Plath, and others, including Bay Area Reporter founding publisher Bob Ross. In the 1968 election, the group heard from several candidates for office. Brown recalled that he arrived to the meeting "a tad bit late" and found himself at the end of the line, behind John Burton, and the subject of the Model Penal Code came up. The place went "crazy," Brown said, because in that law was a section dealing with sex between consenting adults that gay rights activists wanted repealed. Brown said that the chances of achieving that change to make gay sex legal would be better if it was excerpted out of the larger law and turned into its own bill, which Brown did.

"It took five years," he said, to pass it. "After I introduced the bill in 1969 it took on a life unto itself. We organized over the next several years, including the 1972 Democratic National Convention, where Jim Foster of San Francisco became the first openly gay person ever to address a national convention."

In 1975, Jerry Brown, who was in his first term as governor, signed the bill that repealed the state's sodomy laws, but only after the Legislature exhausted every type of parliamentary procedure in the state Senate, where the vote was a tie.

"The tie was orchestrated by [George] Moscone," Brown said, referring to the man who would later become San Francisco's mayor and be assassinated along with gay Supervisor Harvey Milk.

"A black state senator from Los Angeles cast the 20th vote," Brown said. "A black lieutenant governor broke the tie and that enabled us to put the bill on Brown's desk."

The state senator was Nate Holden, the lieutenant governor was Mervyn Dymally.

It would be just three years later that Moscone and Milk were murdered in San Francisco City Hall by disgruntled ex-Supervisor Dan White. Brown said his reaction upon hearing the news was "disbelief."

"For me personally, it took me eight to 10 years to get over those deaths," Brown said. "I wanted nothing to do with local government."

Brown had spoken with Moscone just 15 minutes before he was killed. The City Hall murders occurred on November 27, 1978, just a few days after the horrific Jonestown massacre in Guyana, where 909 followers of People's Temple leader Jim Jones died, all but two from cyanide poisoning. Jones had gotten his start in San Francisco.


A changing California

California has changed dramatically in the years since Brown was in Sacramento, and Brown believes the current budget troubles have their roots in the voters' decision to approve term limits in 1990. More than the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which drastically lowered property taxes and decreased revenue to local governments and school districts, Brown argued, term limits have altered the Legislature.

"The order of the day is cuts," Brown said

But Brown, a Democrat, also lays blame at previous Republican governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he's worked with. On Schwarzenegger's first day in office he revoked the vehicle license fee.

"That robbed the state of $35 billion since the day he wiped it out, without reducing the cost of services. You can't cut taxes without reducing services," Brown said.

San Francisco, he added, is in better shape than other local jurisdictions, perhaps because of a philosophy that most political leaders share.

"We don't start with the idea to cut," Brown said. "We start out with what to do and figure it out. We don't suffer from a no-tax pledge."

Prop 13, however, is considered the third rail of state politics and not many politicians are willing to take it on. One exception is gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who held a hearing this spring to look at the assessment of commercial property, a gaping loophole in Prop 13, Ammiano argues, because companies with complex ownership structures often avoid reassessment because no owner acquires more than 50 percent of a property.

Brown indicated he was supportive of Ammiano's proposal.

"It's a noble effort and he should do it," Brown said.

Interestingly, Brown and Ammiano squared off in a unusual election in 1999 when Ammiano shocked the political establishment by making it into the mayoral runoff as a write-in candidate. The race divided the LGBT community and although Brown prevailed, Ammiano continued to serve on the Board of Supervisors before being elected to the Assembly.


Achievements, disappointment

Brown had several accomplishments as mayor. He instituted domestic partner ceremonies for same-sex couples well before marriage equality became the major issue it is today. He signed the city's landmark equal benefit ordinance, which prohibits the City and County of San Francisco from entering into contracts or leases with any entity that discriminates in the provision of benefits between employees with domestic partners and employees with spouses. He appointed numerous LGBTs to boards and commissions and the city spent millions of dollars on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.

But Brown said rather than singling out any particular achievement, he is most proud of a generation of elected officials he had an impact upon.

"First opening the door for them or assisting them," he explained.

Brown appointed Gavin Newsom to a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Newsom, of course, went on to be mayor �" famously ordering city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in February 2004 �" and is now the lieutenant governor.

He also appointed Mark Leno to a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Leno went on to be elected to the Assembly and currently serves in the state Senate.

Brown also had a hand in the political career of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and said that the first time Barack Obama stepped foot in California it was at his invitation.

"It's a living museum of elected officials who continue to serve," Brown said.

The former mayor's one major disappointment is the failure to build a new 49ers stadium. Voters narrowly passed a ballot measure authorizing the stadium when he was mayor in 1997, but "subsequent events in Louisiana disrupted that effort and it never got back on track."

Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo relinquished control of the 49ers as part of a settlement following his legal troubles in Louisiana.


Keeping busy

These days, Brown continues to help raise money for local organizations, including youth groups. And he's joined the ranks of those he used to grumble about as a columnist for the Chronicle.

"I've generated more unacceptable opinions expressing my opinion," Brown quipped. "I can't seem to satisfy anyone."

In preparing for his Sunday column, Willie's World, Brown said that he usually starts coming up with ideas on Monday, and mulls topics over, making notes. By Thursday, "I figure out how to do 1,000 words," he said.

Lately, he's been opining on the presidential race.

"Obama, he wins," Brown said. "It's his to lose, let me put it that way."

But the president has hit a rough patch in the campaign, having to explain himself.

"That's a terrible place in which to be," Brown said.

Offering advice to the president, Brown said that he should "show up where [Mitt] Romney is so that the former governor is forced to be spontaneous. He is incapable, in my opinion, of clear thoughts."

Finally, Brown, one of San Francisco's best-dressed men, was asked what he will wear on Sunday. He laughed.

"This time will be a great challenge," Brown said, adding that he has participated in the parade before and always planned an outfit.

He said he will probably be stopping by Wilkes Bashford's store and was thinking baby blue. In his recent column, he alluded to his clothing choices, wondering what he should wear "particularly when I'll be following more than 300 Dykes on Bikes."