Wily Willie plots to be San Francisco boss

The former barber's assistant who has captivated Americans with his manoeuvrings in California state politics has more tricks up his sleeve, Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles
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The Independent Online
Ask any American pundit who is the wiliest politician in recent history, and the same names will generally be bandied about: Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, perhaps Franklin D Roosevelt. But now there is a new name on the list, a man of lesser office but with guile to bring a blush to the cheeks of the hardest political operator. Step forward, please, Willie Brown.

Mr Brown is preparing to run for election as mayor of San Francisco after a long stint as the Democratic Speaker of the California state assembly, a tenure which not only made him one of the most powerful black politicians in the US, but also one of the Republicans' most hated figures.

For 15 years, he wielded power by dispensing favours to his supporters (plush offices, cosy jobs, parking spaces) and mercilessly goading his opponents, vowing to "make them all look like eunuchs". But nothing became his Machiavellian nature more than the manner in which he left office - or rather, half left.

Last November, the Republicans won a two-seat majority in the assembly, part of a bicameral legislature that runs America's most populous state. For most run-of the-mill Democrats, this would have been the end of the road, especially as he was due to be thrown out under term limits next year.

But Mr Brown, a former shoe-shine boy from Texas and one-time lawyer to San Francisco's pimps and prostitutes, is not run-of-the-mill. As a boy sweeping up in a barber's shop, he used to fish out quarters from a spittoon, tips from racist white patrons. The time had come to plunge his fist into another unsavoury area ... the enemy camp.

After much manoeuvring, he snuffed out the Republicans' majority by persuading one of them to turn independent and vote for him as Speaker, keeping him in power. The move cost the backbencher his job: his constituents voted to recall him from office, the first electors in 81 years to inflict such a punishment on a state politician.

Facing crisis for a second time, Mr Brown then recruited another Republican, offering her the Speaker's chair. Last week Doris Allen, a moderate, was elected with the support of every Democrat and none of her own enraged party.

And finally, Mr Brown delivered his masterstroke by ensuring that his reward was to be made "Speaker Emeritus", a new role that gives him considerable control over Mrs Allen, and includes a power-sharing deal in which most Democrats can keep their committee positions.

Mr Brown, 61, was campaign manager for Jesse Jackson when he ran for President in 1988, so he knows how to play hardball. But few doubt that his campaign to be San Francisco's mayor will explore the full repertoire of his craft. His opponents are expected to include the incumbent, Frank Jordan, and Roberta Achtenberg, a former housing official in the Clinton administration who is openly gay.

It remains to be seen how San Francisco responds to Mr Brown's flamboyant image. For years, he has exasperated investigative journalists who have failed to dig up anything incriminating despite his penchant for $1,500 Italian suits,expensive cars and glamorouswomen. He pitched up at the Academy Awards, threw flashy parties and patronised the best restaurants.

But he has never made any secret that he made a fortune by working on the side as a lawyer for corporations, some of which did business with San Francisco's City Hall, or that took in more contributions from the tobacco industry than any politician in the US Congress. "When you take $65m to $70m, some people will question whether you have a soul," he has observed, "but I have a soul." In December, San Francisco will be given its opportunity to judge. If past performance is anything to go by, he will put up a highly entertaining fight.