Former SF mayor, ex-California Assembly Speaker, and longtime political string-puller Willie Brown turns 90 years old today, and the tributes are pouring in for the man whose SF political machine may still be as strong as ever.

Everybody has a favorite Willie Brown story, considering the man has been active in politics for about 60 years now, and turns 90 years old today. My favorite Willie Brown story is from James Richardson’s 1996 book Willie Brown: A Biography, about when Brown was a California state Assembly member in the 1970s. Brown was in then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s governor’s office, engaged in a shouting match with Reagan, who famously kept a large jar of jellybeans on his desk.  

As Richardson writes, “In anger, Brown thrust his hand into Reagan's legendary jelly bean jar and then declared that he knew that neither Reagan nor his staff would eat the jelly beans because his black hand had been inside.”

Brown reflected on his 60 years in politics, and his 90 years on the earth, in a 90th birthday interview with KTVU seen below.

“My relationship and my training and my involvement with the Burtons [John and Philip], with George Moscone, with Nancy Pelosi, with Dianne Feinstein, with Bill Clinton, it’s unbelievable,” Brown told KTVU. “All those years, there was always something I would get involved in, nationally and otherwise. It always transferred into a very comfortable level for me to participate.”

Hailing from Mineola, Texas, Brown worked as a shoe-shine boy in a whites-only barber shop, and attended a high school that was actually called Mineola Colored High School. He moved to San Francisco in 1951, and eventually became a civil rights attorney, and was eventually elected to the state Assembly in 1965.

Brown would be a trailblazer when he became California’s first Black state Assembly speaker in 1980. But he blazed a few trails before then, as the SF Standard points out that it was a Willie Brown bill that decriminalized gay sex in California in 1975 — a bill that it took six years for Brown to get passed.

Much has been made of the fact that Brown dated now-Vice President Kamala Harris, though this happened before he was mayor of San Francisco (she was still an Alameda County deputy district attorney). Brown was elected SF mayor in 1995, and served two terms.

Brown has technically been retired since he left that office in 2004, trading down to a now-canceled Chronicle column, free Election Day lunches, doing background lobbying and consulting work, and getting the Bay Bridge named after him. But you could argue, with the successive administrations of Gavin Newsom, Ed Lee, and London Breed, that the Willie Brown machine is still very much running San Francisco.

Related: Willie Brown Mistakenly Listed as Dead [SFist]

Image: Dale Cruse via Wikimedia Commons