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Chapter Eighteen— The Edge of Despair
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Chapter Eighteen—
The Edge of Despair

My blood runs cold when I think about what happened in the last few days, but there's no way anyone in his right mind could have projected what would happen.
Willie Brown
Aftermath of Peoples Temple,
November 21, 1978

Willie Brown mostly sat on the sidelines as Leo McCarthy and his allies forged an ambitious liberal legislative record. With Jerry Brown as governor, it was a golden period for Democrats. Environmentalists found themselves appointed to the regulatory boards they had long battled. Cesar Chavez and his underdog United Farm Workers union were suddenly welcome in the halls of power that had spurned them in Sacramento. As McCarthy's chief lieutenant, Howard Berman became Assembly Democratic majority leader and brilliantly put together a political compromise on farm labor with a bill creating the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, giving farmworkers enforceable rights for the first time in the nation's history. The huge majority of fifty-five Democrats in the Assembly ran over the Republicans with votes to spare.

Even Willie Brown, although frozen out of the leadership, shared in some of the glory. One of the biggest legislative triumphs of his career came in the spring of 1975. As he had done in nearly every session since coming to Sacramento, Brown introduced legislation to repeal California's century-old law prohibiting "crimes against nature." This time, with a new governor sympathetic to the civil rights of gays, the newest version, Assembly Bill 489, stood a chance of becoming law. Jerry Brown privately told gay leaders he would sign AB 489 but would not campaign for it because of


persistent questions about his own bachelorhood.[1] The heart of the growing gay community was in the Castro district, once the stronghold of the Irish in the days of Ed Gaffney. However, following the 1971 reapportionment, the neighborhood was no longer in Willie Brown's Assembly district. Even so, he kept his pledge to fight for the repeal of the antihomosexuality law. As an added benefit, the bill gave Moscone in the Senate high visibility back in San Francisco, where he was running for mayor.

Willie Brown's bill easily passed the Assembly in March on a 46-22 vote and headed to the more conservative Senate.[2] There the bill immediately ran into heavy opposition from fundamentalist Christians. "Sodom and Gomorra probably had the same type of leadership as Willie Brown is presenting the Assembly," said the Reverend James Wilkins, pastor of the Landmark Baptist Tabernacle church in Sacramento.[3] A group formed called the Concerned Christians of California, which swore it would qualify a ballot initiative repealing Brown's bill if it passed.

Moscone brilliantly guided Brown's bill through the Senate's committee structure and brought it to the Senate floor. The climactic moment came in the Senate on May 2, 1975. Opponents read from the Bible and denounced Brown's bill for more than an hour.[4] The opposition was led by Republican Senate leader George Deukmejian, who was rapidly becoming the most visible conservative officeholder in the state now that Reagan had departed. After the Senate roll was called at 1 P.M., the vote stood at a 20-20 tie. Under the state constitution, the lieutenant governor, as president of the Senate, could cast the deciding vote. Not since 1967 had a lieutenant governor been called upon to break a tie. But at that moment newly elected Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, the highest-ranking black in statewide office, was in Denver. He was immediately summoned home, and he grabbed the first plane he could.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Deukmejian suggested that the bill's opponents should leave so that the Senate would have no quorum and the bill could die. Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Mills quickly locked the doors, holding the remaining thirty-two senators in the Senate chambers. Mills sent the highway patrol to round up those who had already slipped out. During the lock-in, one senator's wife suggested that her husband should immediately resign from the Senate rather than see the bill pass.

Dymally's airplane touched down in San Francisco, and he quickly boarded a highway patrol helicopter that rushed him to Sacramento. Dymally arrived in the Senate chambers at 7:47 P.M. "The president of the Senate votes aye!" he announced in his native Jamaican accent.

Brown hovered in the Senate chambers waiting for the vote, and then embraced Dymally at the Senate podium once victory was ensured. Dymally's vote sent the bill back to the Assembly for approval of minor changes. A week later the Assembly passed the final version of AB 489 by a 45-26 vote and sent it to Jerry Brown's desk.[5]


The victory was bittersweet for Willie Brown. He had pushed the legislation for a decade, and now it was poised to become law. But Brown was out of power, and it was the doing of others, especially Moscone and Dymally, that finally brought the bill to victory.

Brown's frustration showed. As AB 489 sat on Jerry Brown's desk, Willie Brown attacked the new governor and defended his old nemesis, Dymally.[6] Brown criticized Jerry Brown for not making his black lieutenant governor, Dymally, "part of the official family" and for not consulting black leaders when appointing blacks to government posts. Willie Brown's words seemed oddly timed given the success of his bill. On one level, he was repaying Dymally for the decisive vote by lobbing a verbal grenade into Jerry Brown's office reminding him that the votes of black politicians had made possible the homosexual legalization bill. But on another level, his criticism was a measure of Willie Brown's frustration at being locked out of power. A white Speaker and a white governor ran Sacramento, and no matter how well-meaning they were, blacks still needed to court them to win rights for the outcasts of society, including themselves.

"It's always harder to work with liberals than conservative white folks," Brown said on May 10 in a revealing interview on KQED, the public television station in San Francisco. "The liberals think they know about your community, whereas with a man like Ronald Reagan, you can embarrass him more easily. And whereas a Ronald Reagan recognizes and respects the blacks' own power structure, Jerry Brown is the type who reaches in and pushes his own man."

Two days later Jerry Brown signed AB 489 with no comment. The law, which took effect on January 1, 1976, eliminated criminal penalties for adultery, oral sex, and sodomy between consenting adults over the age of eighteen. The Coalition of Christian Citizens immediately announced the formation of a referendum campaign to repeal the new law. "It's put the state on record that we approve of homosexuality," said Republican state Senator H. L. Richardson of Arcadia.[7]

A month later the Legislature sent to Governor Brown Senate Bill 95, authored by Senator Moscone, to reduce the penalty for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana to a maximum fine of $100. Willie Brown was the floor manager for Moscone's bill in the Assembly, which approved it 42-34, turning aside Republican efforts to delay the vote. During the debate Brown held up what looked like a marijuana cigarette. "It's time the criminal justice system stops assuming you are a big drug pusher if you possess one, two, or three joints," he declared.[8] Later, Brown said his stage prop contained ordinary tobacco. Brown, for his part, said he smoked neither marijuana or tobacco.

One of the marijuana bill opponents, Republican Assemblyman Robert Cline of Van Nuys, argued that those who supported the bill were "the Pied Pipers of permissiveness." Republican Assemblyman Briggs declared that the Democrat's platform in 1976 would be "Grass, Gays, and Godlessness."


However, the Assembly gallery burst into cheers when the vote was announced. Jerry Brown signed the bill.

By midsummer Willie Brown was praising the governor, saying, "Jerry Brown has the opportunity to make the best governor the state of California has ever had."[9] By the end of the year, Willie Brown and Leo McCarthy were trying to patch things up as part of a wider political truce between the two political camps that had warred so long in San Francisco. Brown and McCarthy shared lunch together at Mae's Oyster House in San Francisco, and a month later Brown moved into a slightly larger office in the Capitol. The Phillip Burton and Leo McCarthy camps in San Francisco politics reached a détente in 1975, allowing Moscone to run for mayor of San Francisco, John Foran to take his place in the state Senate, and Art Agnos to run for Foran's Assembly seat.

Willie Brown remained hugely frustrated with politics. He increasingly spent his time attending to his private law practice, and his outlet for his considerable nervous energy was in living the high life of a San Francisco sophisticate. His taste for fast cars, women, and nightclubs seemed insatiable. He ate lunch every Friday with Herb Caen, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle , and Wilkes Bashford, who ran an expensive men's clothing store catering to San Francisco's elite. The trio often donned tuxedos after dark and set forth into San Francisco's dazzling discos, bars, and restaurants. Brown did Bashford a favor by appearing with George Moscone in a newspaper advertisement in which he was shown leaning against an upscale bar holding a cocktail glass and wearing a hip outfit.[10] The caption read, "We also serve fashion, quality and exciting ideas to some very special people." Brown got rid of his Sacramento apartment "when the bacon rotted in the refrigerator."[11] He ate out almost every meal, calling Restaurant Robert in San Francisco his "second kitchen."

It was widely noticed when Brown put his jet-black Porsche Carrera up for sale. The car, which could clock 145 miles per hour, was not fast enough for him. He posed with the car for pictures in the newspapers and put ads in The Wall Street Journal , all the while keeping an eye on purchasing a $30,000 turbocharged Carrera that could go 220 miles per hour.[12] Taking a jab at Jerry Brown's fabled clunker, Willie Brown quipped, "My body would reject a Plymouth."[13]

To pay for his increasingly conspicuous consumption, Brown and his law partner, John Dearman, began taking on higher-profile, and higher-paying, law clients. Brown's most sensational client was Oakland Raider halfback George Atkinson, who was accused of embezzlement and larceny stemming from a sordid liaison with a bank teller. Brown elicited testimony from the leading prosecution witness, the bank teller, that she had had sex with five Raider football players while Atkinson watched. Atkinson was found innocent. Brown also represented Atkinson in a slander lawsuit against


Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who asserted that Atkinson was part of "a criminal element in the NFL."[14] Noll beat the lawsuit.

Brown defended San Francisco bail bondsman John Ballestrasse in federal court on charges of lying to a federal grand jury about alleged payoffs to state and city narcotics officers. The Federal Organized Crime Strike Force prosecuted Ballestrasse.[15]

Outside California, Brown became a high-priced political hired gun, most notably for promoters of a 1976 ballot proposal in New Jersey to legalize gambling in Atlantic City. Brown was paid $10,000 plus $2,034 in expenses, considered a handsome sum at the time, to make speeches to black audiences to convince them that casino gambling was a good deal. Brown spent three or four days a week in New Jersey during the casino campaign.[16] His critics at home viewed him as cynical and mercenary. Even his admirers believed that Brown had reached the depths by selling to the highest bidder his status with the black community. The Sacramento Bee scolded him in an editorial. "We can't help thinking it's a dent in his image, a departure from the mark he has made in California and national Democratic politics as a champion of liberal causes," the editorial lectured. "Admittedly, he never got where he is today by doing the accepted or expected thing."[17]

None of his clients, however, embarrassed him the way Samuel J. Conti embarrassed him.[18] Conti was known in San Francisco as the "Prince of Nudity and Neon," and he was the biggest purveyor of sleaze in the city. He had been arrested for serving liquor after hours, and his House of Ecstasy had generated seventy complaints to the police department in a short time span. Despite his troubles with the police, Conti applied for new liquor licenses and hired Brown to help him get them. In gratitude Conti sent him a $2,500 six-foot wide-screen television, but Brown did not list it on his annual Statement of Economic Interest for 1976, the public disclosure form required of him as a state official under Proposition 9. Brown first claimed, "[Conti] has never given me anything—period." Five months later Brown acknowledged receiving the TV from Conti, but by then state Attorney General Evelle Younger had opened an investigation.[19]

As it turned out, the television was delivered after the annual reporting period closed, so Brown was legally in the clear. The flap, however, was politically damaging—and avoidable. To add insult to injury, the TV did not work right after one of Brown's children smeared their fingerprints on the delicate cloth screen. Brown tried unsuccessfully to send the TV back to the manufacturer, but it would not take the set back. Conti still owed Brown money, and Brown finally accepted the TV in lieu of fees.

As the Conti case made clear, Brown needed a higher class of clientele. He complained to Republican Assemblyman Bill Bagley that while white lawyer-legislators bagged corporate clients to supplement their meager legislative salaries, all he could get were pornographers and whores.[20] No one criticized


white legislators for representing large corporate clients, but he was slammed for taking a television set that did not work from Sam Conti. In Brown's view, the press and his colleagues practiced a double standard.

Bagley, who was also a lawyer, could do little to help his friend other than to agree he was right. The simple fact was that Brown could not win clients in Sacramento; whether it was his skin color or the political baggage he carried, the end result was the same. He would have to get better clients somehow in San Francisco, and doing so became the focus of his considerable energies. He quietly began building his practice with developers and corporations who wanted not his courtroom skills but his political skills in San Francisco. In the span of three years, Brown took his law firm from a two-bit operation defending pimps to an influential firm with blue-chip clients.[21] In 1975 the firm, Brown, Dearman and Smith, was reportedly worth less than $100,000 and had only nine clients paying fees of $1,000 or more. Three years later Brown's law firm had fifty clients paying $1,000 or more, and the firm was top-heavy with well-heeled clients, including department store operators Carter, Hawley, Hale, developers of a Neiman-Marcus store in San Francisco's posh Union Square; Joseph Seagrams & Sons; Le Club Metro; and the California State Package Store & Tavern Owners Association. All had business in City Hall and paid Brown dearly to open doors for them. Assemblyman Brown became City Hall Lobbyist Brown.

Brown, who had run for the Assembly in 1964 as the darling of preservationists for his opposition to a freeway, was now the nemesis of preservationists. As the lawyer for Neiman-Marcus, Brown presented the case in City Hall for tearing down one of the city's landmarks, the beloved City of Paris store on Union Square.[22] Preservationists tried to stop the demolition, but it went forward. Brown also lobbied for the construction of a forty-eight-story high-rise at 101 California Street, making it the second tallest building in the city. Preservationists again found themselves powerless in City Hall when battling Willie Brown, lobbyist.

In the next few years Brown's client list grew to include Olympia & York of Toronto, the largest commercial developer in the world, which had ambitious plans to build Yerba Buena Center, a $1.5 billion hotel, condominium, and shopping center on eighty-seven acres on the edge of downtown San Francisco.[23] After Dianne Feinstein became mayor in 1978, downtown development rocketed, and Brown was among the most successful lawyers representing developers. Brown arranged a meeting between Feinstein and Albert Reichmann, the billionaire cofounder of Olympia & York, during the bidding to develop the Yerba Buena Center.[24] No other developer met with the mayor, and Olympia & York won the plum.

In the next few years, before becoming Speaker of the Assembly, Brown used his new wealth to invest in at least four oil and gas drilling ventures, an Oakland radio station, a professional women's basketball team, a phar-


maceutical company, real estate partnerships, and his estranged wife's dance studio.[25] For the first time in his life, Willie Brown was a very rich man.

Brown dated women in droves, and he enjoyed being seen in public with beautiful young women. Brown's relationship with his wife settled into a mutually beneficial friendship. They never divorced, and friends said they seemed happier together living apart. She reared their children and continued to live a private life in their home on Masonic Avenue while he lived in a series of apartments. Brown came over when something needed fixing, and the two occasionally went out together. Blanche became something of a sounding board. Although she hated politics, she was among the few who could, and would, tell Willie Brown when he was too full of himself.

Brown shared his wealth with his immediate family and with his relatives back in Texas. He paid their airfare to bring them to San Francisco for annual Thanksgiving fetes, and he treated his mother, Minnie, to a grand tour of Europe. The former maid enjoyed the fruits of her son's work, and she shopped in stores never dreamed of by the white families of Mineola for whom she had cleaned and cooked decades earlier. "A declaration of poverty is not a prerequisite to being a good public servant," he said, a refrain he was to repeat year after year. "It has added to what my daughter calls 'star quality.' I'm conscious that folks look at me to see what I'm wearing."[26]

Many in Sacramento assumed Brown had lost his taste for politics and that it was only a matter of time before he left the Assembly to devote full time to his law firm. However, politics was more than just his first love; it was also his meal ticket to building a lucrative legal practice. There was little other reason why a multinational corporation would seek his services when it had the pick of the best white corporate law firms in downtown San Francisco. Brown's star status in Democratic Party circles gave him something like equality with the downtown law firms, the firms that never recognized him as a legitimate lawyer.

But holding political office and having political power were two different things. Brown was acutely aware of his lack of power. Brown's frustration was obvious during the maneuvering for the 1976 Democratic nomination for president. To the gall of nearly everyone in Sacramento, Jerry Brown, with barely a year as governor under his belt, was already flying around the country running for president.

The governor worked overtime for Willie Brown's endorsement, which was still worth something. As with casino gambling in Atlantic City, Jerry Brown hoped that Willie Brown would help him win the support of blacks outside California. The governor won his endorsement in May, along with endorsements from several other prominent black Californians. Asked why he supported the governor, Willie Brown replied, "Because I think Jerry Brown can win."[27]

On the surface the endorsement looked logical—sort of. Jerry Brown was the Democratic governor of California, and endorsing him could only


help win the governor's signatures on legislation. Few professional politicians believed Jerry Brown was destined for the White House, so what could be the harm? But Willie Brown's endorsement of Jerry Brown was puzzling. Willie Brown was one of the governor's loudest critics; he declared that Jerry Brown had "1930 ideas" about poor people. "I'm not sure there's room for a Willie Brown in a Jerry Brown operation," he asserted in March. "Whether I endorse the governor will depend on whether he's a serious candidate for President, rather than just playing games, and whether he is willing to modify some of his 1930 ideas."[28]

Willie Brown even predicted, correctly, in March 1976 that Jimmy Carter would be the party's presidential nominee, and he suggested he wanted to be one of Carter's convention delegates.[29] Carter's campaign began working hard at winning his endorsement and had every reason to believe that Carter would get it. In early May Carter met privately with Brown in Charlotte, North Carolina.[30] A few days later, however, Willie Brown endorsed Jerry Brown.

Unseen even in political circles was the extent to which Jerry Brown's aides worked to get Willie Brown's endorsement. It cost the governor a judgeship for Willie Brown's law partner, John Dearman. "Someone told Jerry's lieutenants that the way to get Willie was through me," Dearman remembered. "They came to chat with me about the judgeship."[31] The conversation was circular, but everyone in the room knew what they were talking about. "I didn't want to put Willie into a position where he had to compromise his positions, and if the judgeship was being offered because they wanted Willie's support, well then I wouldn't accept it," said Dearman. "They assured me, of course, that it didn't. But, you know, during the conversation it was pretty obvious that they wanted me to talk to Willie to see if he would support Jerry for president."

After they left, Dearman called his law partner in Sacramento. "I told Willie what was going on and I said, 'You know, if you have to compromise any of your positions, hell, I don't need a judgeship.'"

"Fuck 'em," Brown replied. "Take the judgeship. I'm going to do what I want to do anyway."

Dearman was appointed to the San Francisco Municipal Court bench, and a few years later, to the Superior Court, where he has remained.

"Later on," Dearman said, "one of the [Jerry] Brown people said to me, 'You know, I'll tell you something: Willie, he really cares a lot about his relationship with you. That's all he talked about when we went and talked to him about his support.'"

Willie Brown endorsed Jerry Brown's presidential campaign in May 1976, but the marriage was not happy. The governor's staff kept Brown at a distance, and the candidate showed little interest in the black assemblyman once he had won his endorsement. Unlike four years earlier, when Willie Brown was in McGovern's inner circle, he now stood on the outside. He


arrived late for the Democratic National Convention in New York in July, and he left early. Jerry Brown ignored him throughout.

"I've told the governor and his staff that I'd help him in any way I can," he complained to reporters in New York. "They haven't been interested enough to ask me to do one thing. That might explain why I arrived late and why I might leave early. This has been a $1,000 waste for me." Asked if he knew whether the California governor would attend the evening's convention session, Willie Brown answered, "We'll know when we see three puffs of smoke and a halo over Madison Square Garden."[32] Willie Brown left the convention early, but not out of pique. One of his aides, Charles Turner, suddenly died in San Francisco, and Brown immediately returned home from what had been a foul convention.[33]

In Sacramento the political winds were shifting away from Leo McCarthy. Despite his legislative successes, McCarthy's grip on power began to loosen. He had promised too much for too many of his colleagues. He liked to view himself as the collegial professor tutoring his charges. But in fact McCarthy tried to keep power by exercising it more sternly, and his manner began to wear thin. Political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, whose first-hand observations of the Legislature made her one its most astute analysts, said one legislator told her that McCarthy was "perhaps the toughest Speaker that I have ever seen operate from the standpoint of open, bare-knuckled interaction with his members."[34] McCarthy was elected Speaker largely because his colleagues believed that he would not be an autocrat like Willie Brown. But an autocrat was what they got.

The newer members were especially tired of McCarthy's tutoring. "I had felt school-marmed by Leo so many times that I just developed a resentment," said Bill Lockyer, a Democrat who represented Alameda and the lower half of the East Bay. "It felt liked he always zeroed in on every bill I had, and micromanaged my committee, and just did things that were overly intrusive. I would characterize it as a thousand razor nicks of humiliation."[35]

Frank Vicencia, among the most experienced and pragmatic Democrats, complained similarly: "It got to the point where some of us were calling him 'professor.' It was like being in school and having a teacher over our heads when here we were all equally elected public officials."[36] It was especially galling for Vicencia, who had come to Sacramento first as a lobbyist before standing for election in a white working-class Southern California district.

McCarthy increasingly lost touch with his members. He drove home to San Francisco ninety miles each night for dinner. It gave him a family life, but it kept him away from the watering holes where his members hung out, swapped gossip, and picked up women. When John Foran warned him that a challenge was brewing, McCarthy did not believe him.[37]

McCarthy's troubles in Sacramento came just as a truce finally developed in San Francisco politics between the two warring camps of Democrats represented by McCarthy and Phillip Burton. McCarthy needed the thaw to


help him shore his position in the Assembly. Among other things, the truce brought Brown in from the political cold. Some journalists surmised that the peace pact between the McCarthy and the Burton camps came about as an explicit deal.[38] However, it was less a deal than a mutual opportunity to divide the spoils of San Francisco politics. The truce did not take place over a single lunch or with one phone call, but came about gradually as wary politicians moved one step at a time, seeing just how far they could trust each other. The agreement put George Moscone in City Hall as mayor; John Foran in the state Senate to succeed Moscone; Art Agnos in the Assembly to succeed Foran; and Willie Brown back in a committee chairmanship, although one not as powerful as Ways and Means.

Foran's departure for the state Senate had the additional benefit of vacating the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. McCarthy promoted his loyal ally, Assemblyman Dan Boatwright, who was chairman of the Committee on Revenue and Taxation. As the peace developed, McCarthy used intermediaries to test whether Brown would take the chairmanship of the Revenue and Taxation Committee. The most obvious intermediary was John Burton, although he was now in Congress.[39]

"I'm thinking of offering him Rev. and Tax, but I don't want to be turned down," McCarthy said.

"Well, fuck, let me call Willie," Burton answered.

Burton called his friend, and Brown said he would be willing to take the job. Burton phoned McCarthy back.

"He'll be happy to talk to you."

When the appointment was announced in February 1976, skeptical reporters asked Brown if he would make another move on the speakership. Burned by his experience in 1974, Brown said no.

"Nobody else has the numbers, nobody," Brown replied, acknowledging he did not have the votes. "I think he can trust me not to deliberately fuck him. If I were going to do something awful I'd let him know in advance."[40]

Giving Brown the chairmanship of the Committee on Revenue and Taxation was not a casual move. McCarthy was never known for doing anything casually. Putting Brown in the slot did more for McCarthy than just cement the peace in San Francisco politics. McCarthy needed all the help he could get on what was turning into the most politically explosive issue in California in the late 1970s: property taxes. McCarthy needed help diffusing the issue, and if the solution failed, he could always blame Brown.

In the late 1970s Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, a pair of gadflies with the power of an idea, shook California government to the bone. Jarvis, who lobbied for apartment owners, had labored for nearly two decades to reduce property taxes, with no success. "Most people either ignored us or called us a bunch of kooks," Jarvis remembered in his memoir, I'm Mad As Hell .[41] But in the 1970s, an era of high inflation, home values skyrocketed, and with them, so did property taxes. Higher home values gave the elderly, who may have


owned their homes for decades, a huge windfall once they sold them. But the rising values also brought property tax bills that threatened those living on a fixed income, like the elderly. "All of these factors added together raised the very serious point which the politicians weren't smart enough to recognize," Jarvis said. "More and more of the residential property was in the hands of people in their fifties and older. Most of these people's incomes are going down."[42]

And most of them voted. But Democratic leaders fiddled, unsure which way to turn on property tax relief. Although no one could yet see it, the stage was set for McCarthy's downfall, and in the end, Willie Brown's triumph.

At first, Jarvis and Gann were rivals pushing similar tax-cutting proposals.[43] But neither could obtain enough signatures to get a proposition on the ballot. Jarvis fell short by 1,400 signatures in an effort that collapsed in May 1977. They joined forces, and the combined Jarvis-Gann organizations gathered a million and a half signatures to qualify Proposition 13 for the June 1978 ballot.

Proposition 13 would set a baseline above which property taxes could not rise, essentially freezing property taxes where they stood. The ballot measure would also restructure local taxes to such an extent that, by some estimates, local government lost 60 percent of its revenues. More broadly, Proposition 13 ignited an antitax fervor that rolled eastward and overtook the nation. President Jimmy Carter called it a "shock wave through the consciousness of every public servant—presidents, governors, mayors, state legislators, members of Congress."[44]

Proposition 13 had built-in inequities, but it took more than a decade for those inequities to become clear, and by then Proposition 13 was so enshrined in California politics that it became politically untenable to suggest changes. The frozen property tax rate meant that those who had purchased their home before 1978 paid relatively small property taxes even when the value of their property doubled and doubled again. Their neighbors buying later were socked with a huge property tax bill.

As the tax crusaders gained steam in 1978, Democrats in the Legislature grew increasingly restive about their leaders. The tax issue appealed to Republicans; it was an issue that could only bite Democrats. As taxes continued to rise, Governor Jerry Brown presided over a government sitting on a $1 billion reserve, and millions more were held in reserve accounts by local governments. The reserves looked obscene as taxes continued to shoot higher.

As chairman of the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee, Willie Brown put together a property tax relief measure backed by McCarthy. It was a tough sell. After lengthy hearings, with a blizzard of statistics on assessed valuations, tax distributions, and capitalized earnings, Brown's committee offered up a complex bill that offered $712 million in property tax rollbacks and renter rebates. The bill was loaded to give more relief to those at the


lower end of the economic scale, benefiting an estimated 85 percent of the state's households. Brown also amended his bill to index state income taxes so that wage earners' increasing wages would not eat up a disproportionate share of their income. The provision foresaw an issue that Ronald Reagan would use two years later in his march to the White House. Willie Brown was among the few in his party who understood the political implications of reforming income tax indexing. Unfortunately for the Democrats, few others got it. Brown's bill would have dissolved most of the unseemly reserves while giving tax relief to those who needed it most.

A two-thirds majority was needed in each house—fifty-four votes in the Assembly and twenty-seven votes in the Senate—to pass any tax bill. With a fifty-seven-vote majority in the Assembly, and a Democrat in the governor's office, the Democrats were in the driver's seat. They could pass any bill they wanted and could ignore the Republicans.[45] However, the Democrats dithered. Jerry Brown supported a modest measure offering about $610 million in tax relief and hoarding a larger piece of the state reserve funds. Senate Democrats, led by Senator Nicholas Petris, proposed their own version offering $1.3 billion in tax relief, partially financed by raising income taxes on the wealthy to support property tax relief for the neediest. Republican Senator Peter Behr offered his own proposal, and managed to get a bill over to the Assembly before lobbyists for real estate brokers began nicking it to pieces in Brown's Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee. Behr later called it a "death by a thousand cuts" but managed to get his bill out of the committee and onto the Assembly floor.[46] The only reason for his success was the power of Speaker McCarthy. "Leo was a brick," Behr said, in forcing passage of his Senate Bill 1.

None of the legislative proposals, however, could compete with Proposition 13's apparent simplicity, or its visceral get-back-at-government vengefulness. Behr and other legislators finally suspected that Jarvis and Gann really did not want any legislative solution and were going out of their way to derail all of the bills, Republicans' and Democrats' alike.[47] The promoters of Proposition 13 wanted victory at the ballot box regardless of cost.

The state reserves continued to grow. Brown changed his bill, and when it passed the Assembly in June 1977, it looked more like Petris's bill. Brown's bill now had $1.1 billion in tax relief, benefiting an estimated 60 percent of the state's homeowners, and it raised income taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers. The average homeowner rebate would be about $283 a year, with income tax reductions for couples earning below $60,000. Brown's and Petris's bills headed off to a conference committee with members of both houses to work out the differences.[48] The trouble was that the legislation was too little, too late.

By the time the legislation was moving, the newest revenue estimates projected that the state of California would have a $2.7 billion surplus because inflation was pushing property taxes ever higher. Proposition 13 was


unstoppable, and it easily passed at the polls in June 1978 despite the nearly united opposition of the state's political leaders. The Democratic majority in the Legislature and the Democratic governor waited too long—and by doing so they sowed the seeds of a conservative political movement that would soon overtake them with a vengeance.

Willie Brown did not acquit himself well in the campaign against Proposition 13. Many who were otherwise against the proposal believed that Brown overstepped the bounds when he suggested that cities voting for the proposition should be the first to be inflicted with subsidy cuts from Sacramento. Editorial writers were quick to condemn Brown's stance.[49]

As it turned out, however, Willie Brown did not pay much of a political price for his efforts to stop Proposition 13. The Assembly Speaker was Leo McCarthy, and the public associated him most closely with the legislative dithering. So did his legislative colleagues. McCarthy could not escape the blame for the Legislature's failure to craft a credible answer to Proposition 13. The Democratic governor escaped the blame. Within days after the June election, Jerry Brown appeared at a joint session of the Legislature and declared himself a "born again" tax cutter although he had opposed Proposition 13. His Republican opponent in the fall election, Attorney General Evelle Younger, was vacationing in Hawaii and failed to identify himself with the popular ballot initiative at that crucial juncture. Jerry Brown went on to easily win reelection.

Meanwhile, Willie Brown's on-again, off-again relationship with Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally took yet another odd twist in 1978. Five days before the November 1978 election, Dymally's Republican opponent, Mike Curb, declared to reporters at a campaign stop in Redlands that he was certain Dymally was a "criminal."[50] Curb had no evidence, only rumors brought to him by reporters. "I'm certain that he has been guilty of criminal offenses while in public office," Curb declared. Dymally hired Brown as his lawyer for a slander suit. Brown put on a show for reporters, standing on the steps of San Francisco City Hall with Mayor George Moscone to defend Dymally. But it was too late for Dymally to undo the smear.

Other than Jerry Brown's reelection, the November 1978 election was a disaster for the Democrats. Dymally was thrown out of office by Curb, who had never before run for office. Curb was a record producer for Pat Boone and an advertising jingle writer. He had boyish good looks and had connections to Reagan's wealthy California supporters.

The Democrats in the Assembly lost seven seats. Their majority now stood at fifty votes, four short of the two-thirds vote needed to approve fiscal bills without help from Republicans. There were now thirty Assembly Republicans, and sixteen of them had been elected that year, enough by one vote to control the Republican caucus. The new crop of Republicans who came to Sacramento in the conservative wave were an entirely new breed. They became known as the "Proposition 13 babies," and they were intensely


ideological and were contemptuous of the older Republican leadership that had held the fort for so long.[51] The new Republicans were so conservative that the Democrats soon insulted them by dubbing them the "Cavemen." The new conservatives relished the title and adopted it as their own.

Although Democrats were chagrined about there being so many new Republicans, the election cleared away many of Willie Brown's problems. The four blacks who had voted against him in 1974—Julian Dixon, John Miller, Bill Greene, and Leon Ralph—were gone. New potential allies arrived on the scene, including Michael Roos, a Tennessee-born white liberal elected in a 1977 special election from Los Angeles, and Maxine Waters, a former Watts teacher, elected to the Assembly in 1976, whose fiery oratory was nearly the match of Willie Brown's. She had met Brown ten years earlier at the Bakersfield conference of black state leaders, and she considered him then a prima donna. But once in the Assembly, she became one of his most unwavering supporters, and he never forgot it. Joining them in November 1978 were black Democrats Elihu Harris, from Oakland, and Gwen Moore, from Los Angeles. Willie Brown quickly turned them into allies.

While the election presented Willie Brown with opportunities for the future, terrible blows awaited him in San Francisco. A week after the election, the world awoke to grisly news of murder and suicide in a South American jungle by a cultish group from San Francisco known as the "Peoples Temple."[52] Details were sketchy at first, and for most Americans, indeed most Californians, it was the first time they had ever heard of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple. But for San Francisco politicians—particularly Willie Brown—Jones was sickeningly all too familiar.

A charismatic self-styled minister, Jones had built a big congregation in San Francisco by appealing to the poor, youths, and blacks. He cultivated the powerful, particularly George Moscone and Willie Brown. He was white but said that he wished he had been born black. Jones embraced liberal causes, and he produced volunteers for politicians. "If you were having a rally for a presidential candidate, you needed to fill up the crowd, you could always get busloads from Jim Jones's church," recalled Agnos.[53] Jones helped Moscone in his election for mayor in 1975 and then fostered the false notion that his busloads provided Moscone with his margin of victory.

Jones shamelessly used the San Francisco politicians, demanding and getting favors from them, particularly from Willie Brown. Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs detailed Brown's favors for Jones in Raven , their penetrating 1982 biography of Jim Jones. They noted that it was Brown "who provided the bridge to the Establishment power structure" for Jones.[54] He asked Brown to give an interview for a "documentary" on the Temple. Brown


dutifully went along and praised the Temple for its good works as he would have for any constituent group that asked for a testimonial. Jones spliced Brown's comments into the middle of a film on his "miracles," making it look like Willie Brown was giving personal testimony about Jones' healing powers.[55]

Brown seemed oblivious to Jones's hucksterism and demagoguery. At a testimonial dinner for Jones in September 1976, Brown played master of ceremonies to an adoring crowd of the rich and powerful in San Francisco.[56] As one politician after another sang Jones's praises, Brown offered the final accolade: "Let me present to you a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein . . . Chairman Mao. . . ." The room burst into thunderous applause as Jones soaked it up.

Jones repaid the politicians with contempt. He invited them to address his congregation, and ridiculed them when they weren't looking. Even as Brown did more and more for him, Jones detested Brown for his sports cars and clothes and women. Once, while Brown was addressing the congregation, Jones sat behind him and flipped his middle finger into the air.[57]

Reiterman and Jacobs observed that the San Francisco politicians failed to understand that Jones's following was not as large as it seemed. Jones could turn out hundreds of volunteers at will, but he really was not producing many votes. As it turned out, only several dozen of Jones's followers were registered to vote out of the 913 who later died in Jonestown.[58] Still, the perception of power translated into power, and Moscone appointed Jones to chair the city's Housing Authority.

As journalists began to expose Jones's abuse of his followers, including beatings and stealing from their bank accounts, Brown continued to stand by him. The more Jones was attacked, the more Brown defended him. At a July 31, 1977, rally on Geary Street, Brown proclaimed, "When somebody like Jim Jones comes on the scene, that absolutely scares the hell out of most everybody occupying positions of power in the system."[59]

Moscone began to feel duped by Jones, but Brown continued to help him even as Jones began moving his followers to his "Jonestown" compound in a Guyana jungle. Magazines and newspapers, particularly New West and the San Francisco Examiner , continued writing exposés, and family members of his followers began looking for anyone who could help them. Finally, Congressman Leo Ryan announced he would lead journalists and family members on a fact-finding mission to Jonestown after the November 1978 election. But even as events began to spin tragically out of control, Brown went forward with plans to host a fund-raiser for the Temple on December 2, 1978.

Ryan's mission was catastrophic. The visit began tensely, and a Jones follower tried to stab Ryan. Several of Jones's followers asked to leave with Ryan. As they boarded a small airplane to leave, a truckload of Jones's followers came out of the jungle and opened fire on Ryan, his staff, and the journalists following him. Ryan and four others were killed, and others, including his aide, Jackie Speier, were seriously wounded. As Speier, who lay


bleeding on an anthill, and the other survivors hid in the jungle, Jones led 913 followers, including 200 children, to their deaths.

Brown was not alone among San Francisco politicians taken in by Jones and the Peoples Temple. But Brown was one of the last to catch on to the monster that was Jim Jones. Even as the bloated bodies of the dead were removed from the jungle and the wounded were airlifted by the U.S. Air Force to hospitals in the United States, Brown said he had "no regrets" over his association with Jones.

"If we knew then he was mad, clearly we wouldn't have appeared with him," he told Jerry Burns of the San Francisco Chronicle . Setting aside the warning signs that had been building for months, Brown declared, "My blood runs cold when I think about what happened in the last few days, but there's no way anyone in his right mind could have projected what would happen. It's like saying I wouldn't have voted for Richard Nixon in 1960, which I didn't do, if I knew what he was going to do later at Watergate."[61]

Other politicians stumbled over themselves to distance their past association from Jones; Moscone said he had been "taken in." But Brown told Burns he would not try to disassociate himself; to do so was dishonest. "They all like to say, 'Forgive me, I was wrong,' but that's bullshit. It doesn't mean a thing now, it just isn't relevant."

In the aftermath federal investigators found a hit list Jones kept of those he wanted murdered in the event he was ever arrested or killed.[62] On that list were George Moscone and Willie Brown.

Why Willie Brown stuck with Jones, even as the Peoples Temple began to unravel, is hard to fathom nearly two decades after the tragedy. Other politicians sensed trouble, including his friend Moscone, but Brown continued to praise Jones. Brown interpreted attacks on Jones as attacks on the black community who comprised his followers. Brown considered it the honorable course to stand by Jones when others ran for cover. On a deeper level, Brown's show of loyalty possibly was his way of compensating for the perception of his own arrogance and disloyalty that cost him the speakership in 1974. Perhaps, still feeling the sting from those events, Brown needed to show that friends do not flee from friends for political expediency.

In the view of some of his associates, it was the flip side of Brown's greatest strength. He always helped a friend in need when he could, even when it was in his best interest to hide. There were other times ahead when Brown's unflinching loyalty would reach up to bite him. In the 1990s Brown refused to distance himself from Mark Nathanson, a friend he had appointed to the Coastal Commission who was sent off to prison for taking bribes.[63]

"What Willie Brown has is a loyalty," said Art Agnos, who himself became mayor of San Francisco in 1987 with Brown's help. "Sometimes it can be a flaw. If Willie is your friend, you never have to think twice about it."[64] Agnos was the beneficiary of that. When Agnos lost reelection after serving one term, Brown immediately appointed him to a safe sinecure on an obscure


state board. Brown was accused of cronyism, but to Agnos, Brown had thrown him a life preserver when he needed it most. "Willie never flinched, and I was down, I had been defeated. He didn't blink."[65] Agnos saw in Willie Brown the same loyalty he gave Jim Jones even when it hurt.

Leo Ryan's aide, Jackie Speier, barely survived her Jonestown wounds. Eight years later she won a seat in the California Assembly. Brown opposed her in a Democratic primary, but once she was elected, he went out of his way to help her through new personal travails, including the death of her husband. Speier became one of his firmest political defenders.

Nine days after the Guyana massacre, San Francisco was jolted again. For Willie Brown, it was one of the biggest blows of his life. George Moscone was assassinated in his City Hall office.

Dan White, a former police officer and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, had resigned from the board because of money worries. When friends offered financial help, White pleaded with Moscone for his job back. The mayor at first agreed but then reversed himself after being persuaded that he could replace White with a liberal and start getting his agenda passed by the Board of Supervisors. To Moscone it was nothing personal, just politics. White saw it otherwise.

On the morning of November 27, 1978, White slipped through a basement window at City Hall with a loaded .38 caliber revolver and headed for Moscone's office.[66] Meanwhile, Moscone and Brown, two old friends from law school and countless political wars, sat in the mayor's private sitting room adjoining his large ceremonial office. They chatted for fifteen minutes, swapping gossip and talking over the White situation. Brown and Moscone made plans to go Christmas shopping in a few days at the Wolf's Den, a lingerie shop where women modeled silk and satin for men. Plans set, Brown hurried to leave for a court date with a law client.

Moscone's secretary ushered White into his office. As Moscone started to fix him a drink, White pulled out the gun and shot him twice. He then walked over to Moscone's slumping body and shot him twice more in the brain. White slipped out a side door. He then saw Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay supervisor, and beckoned him into a small office, where he shot him five times.

Board President Dianne Feinstein was the first to find Milk's body. As she felt for a pulse, her finger slipped into a bullet hole on his wrist. She rushed to the mayor's office, and aides told her Moscone was dead as well. Minutes later, an ashen Feinstein was on the steps of City Hall announcing that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk were dead.

Brown heard the news from a bailiff in court, and rushed back to the mayor's office. That night, Brown was one of the first to comfort Gina Moscone, the slain mayor's wife. She had heard the horrible news on her car radio as she was leaving her cousin's funeral seventy miles away, and collapsed when she got home.


In Washington, D.C., John Burton took the news very hard. He was abusing cocaine, and his second marriage was falling apart. There was constant friction with his brother, Phillip, who treated him as a junior partner of the family firm. John's behavior was erratic; his floor speeches in the House of Representatives became babbling rants. John Burton was deeply troubled, and he was devastated by Moscone's death.[67]

Brown dealt with his grief the only way he knew how, by throwing himself into the politics of the situation. In the next few hours he helped Feinstein sort through the city charter and determine the line of succession. Feinstein needed six votes from her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to become mayor. Brown quickly endorsed her and over the next few days helped Feinstein nail down the liberals on the board.[68] Feinstein, who had got her start in politics walking a picket line for Willie Brown at a whites-only housing development, won 6-2 and became mayor.

In the days ahead Brown gave a eulogy for his slain friend at Glide Memorial Methodist Church. He sounded upbeat, and he won loud applause. "San Francisco stands before the nation as the only city in the world where there is a chance for democracy to work," he declared. "Because democracy works here, we've got to be prepared to tolerate and understand philosophies and persons who are undemocratic. . . . San Francisco is the most tolerant city in the world. Harvey Milk and George Moscone gave their lives for that idea."[69]

His most moving eulogy for Moscone was the one he gave on the floor of the Assembly, the setting most fitting for such a tribute.[70] He told of how he and Moscone had "pushed brooms together" as janitors at Hastings law school, and of how much his friend enjoyed life. He recalled his final conversation with Moscone: "On that day, he was really, genuinely enjoying himself."

But the most emotional tribute that day came from Assembly Republican leader Paul Priolo, who recalled taking a trip to Rome with his friend. Choking back tears, Priolo declared: "If the people of San Francisco have any sense, they'd elect Willie Brown mayor tomorrow and let him carry on the work of George Moscone."[71]

Brown's flurry of politicking and eulogizing hid one of the most anguished episodes of his life. Years later he recalled his feelings. "I was turned off by the mayor's job then."[72] He had toyed with running for mayor over the years, but now he wanted no part of it.


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