WILLIE BROWN by James Richardson


A Biography
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 An informed and entertaining biography of the San Francisco mayor and longtime speaker of the California State Assembly. Sacramento Bee senior writer Richardson finds the origins of Brown's most renowned characteristics--defiant pride and unabashed deviousness--in the politician's experience of growing up black in the viciously segregationist Texas of the 1930s and '40s. A gambler uncle brought him to San Francisco, where Brown attended law school by day while working as a janitor by night in the same building. Brown learned politics as an NAACP activist and within the burgeoning Democratic organization created by future congressman Phillip Burton, which ultimately would be called the ``Burton-Brown Machine.'' After his election to the Assembly in 1964, he slowly worked his way into the good graces of legendary speaker Jess Unruh, whose combination of ruthlessness, mendacity, and concern for the powerless set an example that Brown would follow throughout his career. Richardson gives lucid accounts of Brown's machinations, such as getting elected speaker in 1980 by horsetrading for Republican votes and hanging onto the post in 1995 even after losing his majority in the Assembly; Republicans' frustration with the man whose avowed desire was to be ``Speaker for Life'' was a major factor in their support for term limits, which forced Brown to seek a new challenge as mayor. Richardson doesn't cover up the warts in this portrait: Brown's use of power to land high-paying legal clients and wring big campaign donations from special interests, the lack of concrete legislative achievement, and Brown's utter duping by People's Temple dictator Jim Jones. Still, this is a fairly sympathetic look at a politician who did a great deal to minimize the effect of this budget-slashing era on schoolchildren and the poor. This is a must-read for anyone interested in recent California history or in politics as sport. (24 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-520-20456-5
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1996