There are two important dates for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The first is March 20, 1934, when Willie Lewis Brown Jr. entered the world in the East Texas community of Mineola. The second date, more important from a political standpoint, is Aug. 4, 1951, the day he arrived in San Francisco.
The City by the Bay hasn't been the same since. California's fourth largest city and one of the nation's most culturally diverse regions is enjoying something of a technology boom under the leadership of Brown, who spent more than three decades in the state Assembly before returning "home" to defeat the incumbent mayor in late 1995 and assume the post in early 1996. While Brown's agenda has a strong social service component, he also plans to transform San Francisco into a city of the future through economic development. He intends to use technology to keep San Francisco an economically vibrant city.
Brown told government officials in attendance at the Cities of the Future Conference in December, that he sees San Francisco as a prototype of tomorrow's city. "I want to make this the smart city. I want to make this the city of the 21st century, and I want to do so with all of the kind of brainpower contained in this room."
The city is at the edge of a peninsula. Because of its location, the city can't grow out, but technology can take it up. It has its landmarks and legends -- the Golden Gate, Jack Kerouac, Fisherman's Wharf, Alcatraz, Willie Mays, the TransAmerica pyramid, the Grateful Dead. The eventual vengeance of the San Andreas fault is accepted as the price.
San Francisco is also unique in its political makeup. Whereas many cities operate under a council/manager format or in a mayor/council system -- the latter recently enacted by voters across the bay in Oakland, where former California Gov. Jerry Brown is now mayor -- San Francisco's welcome signs note entrance into "the city and county of San Francisco." Brown is in a strong mayor post, overseeing a city and county along with a board of supervisors.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is one of the more notable of the 39 names on the list of former San Francisco mayors. Brown is hoping to keep his name off the ex-mayors' list for a few more years, figuring that if he can successfully steer through the next election, he can carry out his goal of
making City Hall a truly smart building, with teleconferencing and television broadcast facilities -- important public projects that can't be completed in a short period of time.
"My re-electability will ensure the opportunity to complete this. That's the future I project for Willie Brown," said Brown, who shares Bob Dole's habit of speaking of himself in the third person.
The Brown of Renown
His eyesight has been known to fail him at times, but that has only heightened Brown's tremendous vision. "Long before I became mayor, the city had become addicted to the idea of being on the cutting edge with reference to technology," Brown said after his speech. "They had created an environment for all of these computer-types to live in. So, San Francisco becomes, literally, an incubator for technology from a governmental standpoint and the use of every aspect of technology."
San Francisco was also the incubation site for Brown. He was educated on the streets and at California State University, San Francisco. He eventually became a lawyer -- even helping arrange counsel for political protesters -- and a major force in the NAACP. Two years after losing his first Assembly run, Brown claimed victory in 1964, and kept his seat until deciding to run for mayor in 1995. While others have served longer in office, Brown spent 1980 to 1995 as speaker of the Assembly, a record that can never be matched under new term limits. During that 15-year period, the only African-American speaker and arguably the state's second most powerful politician was also chair of the powerful Committee on Ways and Means and a truste of the California State University system. He is San Francisco's first black mayor, and some say he is one of the most influential African Americans in the country.
Part of that belief is from Brown's charismatic persona -- his love of expensive cars and flashy clothes, his brief stint hosting a TV show during his Assembly days and his general outspokenness. Another part of that belief is from his political experiences and success.
In This Corner
Despite his success, Brown, as expected, has his critics.
"He is the symbol, the poster boy, for term limits," said former State Sen. Quentin Kopp. Brown and Kopp have known each other for about 40 years, and both are lawyers from San Francisco, but the similarities end there. In their former posts, they represented different areas of the city.
"I have a different view of government and governmental integrity," said Kopp, an Independent who has returned to practicing law full time. "He's meant little of enduring substance because he is oblivious to details and he desires attention and publicity, and obtains it. He aspires to glamour, aspires to an aura of the spectacular and has little for the nuts and bolts of government."
Kopp, who served on state information technology committees and helped keep the statewide Y2K remediation within its $235 million budget, suggested that Brown start to focus on the minutiae, notably the potential impact of Y2K.
Former Assemblyman Larry Bowler has a different slant on technology in San Francisco, suggesting that Brown just find a way to get the buses running on time. Part of San Francisco's charm, Bowler said, is the panoramic views of ocean, bridges and skyscrapers. To enjoy those views, Bowler added, residents and tourists want reliable transportation.
Bowler, recently removed from office by the six-year term limit, initially campaigned on a theme of "I'll Be Willie Brown's Worst Nightmare." When that slogan got the Sacramento- area Republican elected, Brown got him the office known as the "broom closet," which had three of its four walls surrounded by stoves and vents from a Capitol cafeteria. During his 10 months in the broom closet, which is no longer used as an office, Bowler remained true to his word, cutting wires in a Republican caucus room he thought Brown and other Democrats had bugged.
For Bowler and Brown, the frequent clashes are in the past, and now the mere mention of the other's name is met with a smile. In fact, while Bowler maintains the party line, he offered his former nemesis a backhanded compliment.
"Willie is a very colorful individual," Bowler said. "I used to stand in awe watching him manipulate
the rules. I have never met anyone more masterful than he is at the ability to accumulate and exercise power. He is the quintessential power-broker, and he does it by, first of all, knowing the rules -- he wrote most of them; he was in fact, by his own definition, the 'Ayatollah of the Assembly.' And
he would reward his supporters and punish his detractors.
"I was a detractor so I got a lot of his punishment."
Brown is no longer into punishing his detractors. Instead, he is offering a hand to those in need. He wants the city to train its own entry-level workforce, aimed at people in the lower income category.
"My role in all of this is first to be responsive to the resource demand and resource need," Brown said. "Secondly, to make sure that the application of technology can be mastered and utilized by ordinary citizens. My role is to be the drum-beater, the ribbon-cutter, beating the drums for the resources to go in place."
He is beating a big drum with the U.S. Conference of Mayors as chair of the housing and community development committee. Brown and Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, chair of the technology committee, agree that there needs to be affordable housing, and that those facilities can be made far more livable with technology. Brown and Campbell are literally taking what the two committees do and trying to convince the federal government that affordable housing and technology belong together.
"For San Francisco, much of the economic lifeblood depends on people coming to the city for tourist purposes," Brown said. And not just to buy T-shirts at Fisherman's Wharf, but to see plays and visit the Palace of the Legion of Honor and the city's respected museums. "All of that is what the city is all about."
The mayor would like to have all of that pertinent information on the city's Web site so a tourist can plan an entire vacation, including the flight and lodging, from a computer. According to Brown, that could provide the city with a tremendous amount of revenue at minimal expense. "We need to be out there and up there for people to depend on the telephone and the Internet to do what needs to be done."
Brown has the bandwidth to meet the challenge. What isn't as certain, however, is whether the challenge is enough to excite Brown.
Newsweek called Brown one of the 25 most dynamic mayors in the nation. A New Yorker profile described him as the consummate example of democracy in action. A cover story in The Washington Post said that Brown held the keys to San Francisco.
While Willie Lewis Brown Jr. isn't the most technologically knowledgeable person, he knows what he wants and isn't afraid to go after it or speak his mind. In Willie Brown: A Biography, by James Richardson, Brown said, "My public utterances have always created consternation in most people, and they've always been somewhat of a burden for me because I've had to do lots of explaining over the period of my life. I will say candidly what everybody else is thinking, and I will say it in words that are sometimes at least quotable, and with some flavor. And that always gets me into some difficulty."
But there is nothing "virtual" about Brown -- he is definitely real. All of his actions, regardless of how they are viewed, are methodical and deliberate -- just the way he's carrying out his tremendous vision.