'The Real Slick Willie'

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 from a 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 him 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 as 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 reward-ed-with a choice parking space. Cross shim, and you were banished to a basement of-rice. 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. Opponents charged that he routinely flouted conflict-of-interest laws by representing clients who had business in the capital-but FBI investigations went nowhere. Brown insists he does everything by the book. On election night Brown testily dismissed his detractors as "slimebags."

Eloquent liberal: The son of a railroad porter from Mineola, Texas--a poor town "about as big as a toothpick," says his friend the Rev. Cecil Williams--Brown fled to the Bay Area in 1951. He worked his way through San Francisco State and Hastings law school, and became a local civil-rights activist. In 1964 he won the seat he'd hold for more than 30 years. Since then, Brown has cultivated an eloquent liberal voice-and cultivated an appetite for sports cars (one year a Ferrari, the next a Porsche) and tailored clothes (Playgirl once named him one of "the world's 10 sexiest men"). When his mother turned 75, Brown threw her a four-day bash complete with a black-tie dinner cruise around San Francisco Bay. The entertainment: Diana Ross.

If Brown wins the election, he may be forced to dip into his savings. City ha!l--unlike the state Assembly--is a full-time job, and he will have to give up his law practice. He used to complain he "couldn't live on" the job's $139,000 salary. Now he says he's willing to sacrifice. The speaker emeritus has also been forced to do something he avoided for virtually his entire political life: campaign. As speaker he rarely faced a serious challenger in his home district. But this year he's had to practice a kind of block-by-block politics, listening to people's endless gripes about . . . street lights, dog do and parking meters.

Still, there is complicated work to be done. In Sacramento, Brown made waves on emotional issues like affirmative action, but he also knew his way around a budget. In San Francisco, he'll need every bit of that experience. Next year the city may lose as much as $600 million in federal money for everything from health care to welfare. Brown is making expansive promises-he wants to reform the schools and overhaul the city's despised public-transportation system-that may be hard to keep. But don't tell that to Brown. "Anyone can make the shot when they have the ball," he told NEWSWEEK. "The challenge is making the shot when you don't have the ball." Say this much about Brown: you won't catch him with his pants down.

'The Real Slick Willie' | News