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The Honorable Willie L. Brown, Jr.

By Liz Hafalia
San Francisco Chronicle
Public Service

California Connection:

b. 1934

  • Longtime California politician and resident


Biography current as of induction in 2024

Two-term mayor of San Francisco and legendary speaker of the California State Assembly, Willie L. Brown, Jr. is widely regarded as the most influential African American politician of the late 20th century. During four decades at the center of California politics, government and civic life, he worked with every California governor from Edmund G. “Pat” Brown to Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Raised in segregated Mineola, Texas, Brown first became interested in government while attending San Francisco State College, where he participated in campus politics and in the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP. After earning a degree in political science, he went to Hastings law school, where he was elected president of his class. Few African American attorneys practiced in San Francisco at the time, and Brown made a name for himself by taking on cases others dismissed as hopeless.

Elected to the Assembly in 1964, Brown played an important role in the California Democratic Party throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s. He made his first impact on the national stage in 1972, when he electrified delegates to the Democratic National Convention with a fiery speech delivered during a credentials fight.

From civil rights to education reform, tax policy, economic development, health care, international trade, domestic partnerships and affirmative action, Brown left his mark on virtually every aspect of politics and public policy in California. From 1980 to 1995 he exercised unprecedented power in the legislature as the longest-serving speaker of the Assembly in state history. Then, as Mayor of San Francisco, he refurbished and rebuilt the nation’s busiest transit system, pioneered the use of bond measures to build affordable housing, created a model juvenile justice system and paved the way for a second campus of the University of California, San Francisco, to anchor the city’s position as a center for the burgeoning field of biotechnology. 

After leaving office in 2004, Brown wrote a regular newspaper column for the San Francisco Chronicle, hosted a daily radio program and became a frequent commentator on the national cable news network MSNBC. He shared the lessons of his life—in and out of politics—in his 2008 autobiography “Basic Brown.” Today, Brown heads the Willie L. Brown, Jr., Institute on Politics and Public Service, where this acknowledged master of the art of politics shares his knowledge and skills with a new generation of California leaders.

View more inductees from the 17th class, inducted in 2024.