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Gov. tops party cast with a real character

Willie Brown will be a headliner tonight at Schwarzenegger's gala.

January 05, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Willie Lewis Brown Jr., former "Ayatollah of the Assembly," ex-mayor of San Francisco, government consultant, fashion plate, lightning rod and -- by his depiction -- a living, breathing work of art, returns to center stage tonight in Sacramento.


No Democrat was more reviled by Republicans than Brown, who served a record 15 years as Assembly speaker before voter-imposed term limits -- the "anti-Willie Brown law," he called it -- chased him from the Capitol.

And yet tonight he will preside over Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's second inaugural fete, resplendent, no doubt, in a bespoke tuxedo and symbolizing the bipartisanship that made the event, and all its Hollywood dazzle, possible.

"It's in his DNA," Richard DeLeon, a San Francisco State emeritus professor and longtime Brown watcher, said of the moth-flame relationship between the ex-speaker and the spotlight. "Like coming home for Christmas," said Stanlee Gatti, a San Francisco designer and Brown intimate.

For all their superficial differences, the governor is a kindred spirit of the famously flamboyant Brown, a showman who loves to startle audiences and defy expectations. So maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising to see Brown surface amid the Schwarzenegger splendor, a dozen years after leaving the speakership. What better way to confound convention and underscore the governor's political outreach than to invite an old GOP nemesis like Brown into the tent -- and, better yet, make him ceremonial ringmaster?

"It's good politics for Arnold, good business for Willie and entertaining for everyone else," said Republican strategist Dan Schnur, alluding to Brown's lucrative law practice and sassy wit.

It surely helped that Brown's preference was clear in last November's election. He openly mocked his party's gubernatorial nominee, the then-struggling Phil Angelides, and even featured Schwarzenegger at his annual San Francisco breakfast bash less than a month before the vote -- touting the governor to a crowd of 1,000 or so Democratic loyalists.

Both are shrewd, adaptable and, ultimately, pragmatic politicians.

Brown, a consummate deal-maker, spent most of his time as speaker under a pair of Republican governors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, and worked well with both. For many in Sacramento, those days are but a distant memory. State welfare payments shrunk, sentencing laws were stiffened and California went on a prison-building binge, pleasing Republicans. Democrats won expanded environmental and health protections, and divestment of billions of dollars from companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa.

"He was a very useful pinata on the campaign trail, but in the Capitol, Republican governors worked with him to get things done," said Schnur, a former Wilson aide.

Similarly, after a disastrous lurch to the right, Schwarzenegger last year struck up a productive partnership with legislative Democrats, cutting deals to fight global warming, boost the minimum wage and reduce the cost of pharmaceutical drugs. He won more than a quarter of the Democratic vote in romping to reelection. "It's hard to imagine Willie doing this for a Republican other than Arnold," said Rob Stutzman, a former advisor to Schwarzenegger.

Their matching styles may explain the mutual attraction. Both are brilliant self-promoters and exuberant personalities, possessed of outsized egos and a penchant for outrageous comments that have landed each in trouble more than once. (As mayor, Brown apologized for calling San Francisco 49ers quarterback Elvis Grbac "an embarrassment to humankind." Schwarzenegger, most recently, said he was sorry for making leering comments about "hot" Latinas.)

Brown, of course, is by far the more practiced politician.

In a career spanning nearly four decades he lost only one election, his first try for the Assembly in 1962. He won the seat two years later and held it for 31 years, becoming speaker in 1980. He won thanks to the support of Republicans who backed him over Democrat Howard Berman, figuring that Brown was more moderate. But the GOP soon enough soured on Brown, making him the proverbial poster child in the drive to slap term limits on Sacramento lawmakers.

Brown, dogged by corruption investigations that followed him from Sacramento to San Francisco City Hall, suggested there was more than a hint of racism in the fierce opposition he engendered over the years. He has never been charged with criminal wrongdoing.

"I think I bring out those feelings of hate because I symbolize a liberated black male," Brown told Ebony magazine in a 1996 interview. "I symbolize a black man who is equal and who demonstrates equality. And that generates great fear."

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