Willie Brown Biography

Mayor (1934–)
Willie Brown is a politician who became the first African-American speaker of the California State Assembly in 1980. He later served as mayor of San Francisco.


Willie Brown was born in Mineola, Texas, in 1934. After moving to California for college, Brown won election to the California State Assembly. In 1980, he was elected speaker, a post he held until 1995. He was first elected mayor of San Francisco in 1996, and, after leaving office in 2004, Brown briefly co-hosted a radio talk show and established an institute on public service and politics.

Early Years

Raised in the depths of the Great Depression in the segregated East Texas town of Mineola, Willie Lewis Brown Jr. was born on March 20, 1934. The strong women of his family -- his mother, Minnie, and her mother -- shaped his childhood, in part because his father, Lewis Brown, a railroad porter, was often absent.

To help keep food on the table, Brown's family ran a small gambling and drinking hall. As a young man, Brown was self-assured and at times brazen -- traits that would later define his political career. As family lore has it, when police raided his family's home looking for moonshine, Brown stood in front of the officers and demanded to see a search warrant.

As his home state's segregationist policies wore on him, Brown became increasingly eager to move. In 1951 Brown left Texas to attend San Francisco State University, where he originally set out to become a math teacher.

Early Political Career

Campus politics and the politics of the moment in general soon pulled him in a different direction. He became heavily involved in his church as well as the NAACP, the latter providing his first foray into the world of campaigning.

After graduating from San Francisco State in 1955 with a degree in political science, Brown enrolled at the University of California Hastings College of Law. By the early 1960s he was a practicing attorney in San Francisco, making waves not just for being an African-American lawyer in a city where few black attorneys existed, but also for his determination to take on cases few lawyers wanted to touch.

Eyeing a future in politics, Brown made an unsuccessful run for the state Assembly in 1962, but lost in the Democratic primary. Two years later, the more experienced Brown returned and handily won a seat.

Quickly, Brown made a name for himself in California politics, mixing party loyalty with a willingness to pick battles with the assembly's powerful speaker, Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh.

In 1968 he endorsed Robert F. Kennedy for president and spent a good deal of time with the senator on the campaign trail as Kennedy sought to win the state's presidential primary.

After initially failing to win the Assembly's speakership position in 1974, Brown pieced together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to win the seat in 1980, making him the first African-American to lead the Assembly. He served as speaker until 1995.

Mayor of San Francisco

In 1996, Brown took over as mayor of San Francisco. As the city's first African-American mayor, Brown was both a celebrity (he was regularly seen palling around with movie stars) and a leader who wasn't afraid to jump into the trenches of city politics.

During his two terms, Brown helped usher in a renaissance in his adopted city. City Hall was restored, new development projects gave old neighborhoods major facelifts, and tech money fueled a huge spike in real estate prices. In addition, Brown made a point of packing City Hall with an increasingly diverse staff.

But Brown, a relentless fundraiser, had his critics. Allegations of corruption followed him, as his political opponents alleged that the awarding of jobs and contracts was driven by cronyism.

After leaving City Hall in 2004, Brown briefly co-hosted a radio talk show and established an institute on public service and politics.

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