Mr. WILLIE BROWN (Former San Francisco Mayor; Former Speaker, California State Assembly): I am Willie Brown. I am formerly the mayor of San Francisco and formerly the speaker of the California State Assembly for 15 years.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
For decades, Willie Brown was California politics. He is today's "California Character," our series on Californians who in some way embody the Golden State.
Willie Brown spent more than 30 years in the state assembly. He was the first African-American assembly speaker and the longest-serving, and probably the most powerful. He dubbed himself the Ayatollah of the assembly. Then he became San Francisco's first black mayor. He's known for his political savvy, his larger-than-life personality, and his sense of style - lots of expensive hats and Italian suits.
Willie Brown joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.
Mr. BROWN: Thank you.
BRAND: Well, what hat are you wearing today?
Mr. BROWN: I'm wearing a panama. It's summertime, and it's just appropriate to celebrate with that kind of a hat.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRAND: What are you celebrating?
Mr. BROWN: Life itself. At 75 years of age, I celebrate every day.
BRAND: Excellent. Well, you are retired now. But if you could, shall we say, put on your figurative hat and pretend you're still speaker of the assembly, why is it that California can't get an agreement through, pass a budget and work its way out of this massive deficit? What do you say to people who are watching this and wondering what's different about California politics?
Mr. BROWN: California is burdened with a two-thirds vote requirement. California is burdened with something called term limits. In a democracy, it works best when people get to know each other and when, in some cases, people with superior information and knowledge on certain subject matters are, in fact, looked to for advice and counsel. You don't have any of that in Sacramento.
And then when you have the additional item of requiring two-thirds votes, you leave the tyranny of the process completely to an irresponsible third of the people, and that can be destructive, as is the case in the state of California. Eliminate term limits, get rid of the initiatives, do something about the two-thirds, and you will not have the stalemate that you currently have in the state Capitol.
BRAND: Now, you mentioned term limits. Those term limits were put in place largely because of you, because you were serving more than 15 years as assembly speaker.
Mr. BROWN: Well, there clearly were objections by some people to my longevity. They couldn't beat me simply because I actually did the job that you need to do, and my colleagues continuously re-elected me. You can only hold it, if you please, every day, 40 other people or more. I did that better than anyone who had ever, ever been speaker, and probably as well as anyone who will do it in the future. I did it, and I would still be speaker today without the advent of term limits.
BRAND: Some people said that the term limits were put in place because it was a way of cleaning house, that when you have politicians such as yourself in office for long periods of time, cronyism creeps in, corruption may creep in. And, in fact, you were investigated for many years by the FBI for corruption -never charged, never convicted. And you once said, you were quoted in an article as saying, this is politics, you punish your enemies and reward your friends.
Mr. BROWN: I don't know of any other way to govern in a democracy except to build a consensus. And you build a consensus with those people who, one, believe in you; two, who follow your advocacy; and three, who have the same commitment you have to doing what needs to be done to achieve a goal. Some people may call it cronyism, some people may call it deal-making, some people may call it working with your friends. Let me tell you, in a democracy, that's what you need to do.
BRAND: You were speaker of the assembly. You were in Sacramento for more than 30 years. You were San Francisco mayor for two terms. If you could point to one single accomplishment in all those years in public service as your proudest moment, what would it be?
Mr. BROWN: There would never be an occasion when I could point to only one thing in the almost 40 years of my holding public office.
BRAND: But what about accomplishments in terms of legislative achievements?
Mr. BROWN: That's too many in 40 years. There's no single one.
BRAND: Pick one, just one you really like. Just one.
Mr. BROWN: There could - no, there could never be one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROWN: There never could be just one. You'd have to take my career year by year - and in some cases, month by month. I don't think you could find anything that would singularly reflect the true nature of a 40-year career, at my level.
BRAND: You grew up in Texas, but you've lived in California for most of your life and in fact, you are synonymous with California politics. I'm wondering, what does California mean to you? When you say I'm a Californian, what does that mean to you?
Mr. BROWN: California afforded me the opportunity to have a career in the world of public service. This is a nation-state. This is a place in which every kind of activity one may wish to engage in, can be engaged in. Every aspect of what one would hope to be exposed to worldwide is virtually available here in California. You really don't have to leave to achieve, to indulge or to experience. That's what California means to me.
BRAND: Willie Brown, longtime political power broker in California, now trying to groom the next generation of California politicians at the new Willie L. Brown Jr. Leadership Center at San Francisco State University.
Willie Brown, thank you very much for speaking with us today.
Mr. BROWN: Thank you.
BRAND: And to see photos of Willie Brown and just a few of the hats in his collection, go to our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.