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'The Real Slick Willie.' (San Francisco, California, Mayoral Candidate Willie Brown)

By King, Patricia; Kosova, Weston | Newsweek, December 4, 1995 | Go to article overview

'The Real Slick Willie.' (San Francisco, California, Mayoral Candidate Willie Brown)


King, Patricia, Kosova, Weston, Newsweek


Frank Jordan had an image problem. It was late October--just weeks before the November election that could end his reign as mayor of San Francisco. Jordan was ahead in the polls, but his campaign was dull. His main Democratic primary opponent was Willie L. Brown Jr., the nimble-tongued former speaker of the state Assembly. A flamboyant lawyer, the 61-year-old Brown was getting more ink for a $90,000 Jaguar and his $2,500 Brioni suits than the mayor could hope to match. How could Jordan, a plodding ex-cop, draw attention away smoothie like Brown?

He could pose buck-naked in a shower stall with two talk-radio hosts on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner. Though he was depicted only from the waist up, the damage was done. His supporters were dumbfounded. Jordan tried to explain. Just a prank, the mayor said. "It shows that as an elected official I'm squeaky clean, and I have nothing to hide." Brown smiled. "I've seen the picture," he mused, "and Frank Jordan does have something to hide."

The stunt didn't help. Brown beat hide in the Nov. 8 election, and Roberta Achtenberg, the lesbian activist and former Clinton official, ran third. She then threw her critical support to Brown. Now polls show Brown as much 27 points ahead; there's near-universal agreement that he'll win the Dec. 12 runoff against Jordan. Already Brown is one of the most powerful black politicians in the country. As mayor, he would no doubt emerge as an advocate for America's cities and a witty liberal foil for conservative budget cutters.

Brown once ridiculed the life of a big-city mayor. "Street lights, dog do and parking meters are not my cup of tea," he told a reporter. But California's term limits forced him to look for a new job for the first time in three decades. For 15 of those years, Brown lorded over the California Assembly as speaker, using his mastery of parliamentary tricks to rival the governor as the most influential man in California. The "ayatollah of Sacramento," as Brown liked to call himself, kept jealous watch over the smallest details. Vote with him, and you were rewarded with a choice parking space. Cross him, and you were banished to a basement office. After meeting Brown in 1992, Bill Clinton quipped, "Now I've met the real Slick Willie."

Brown was equally conspicuous outside the Statehouse. His job as speaker paid him $86,400 a year, but he made millions as a corporate lawyer.

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