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A Bridge by Any Other Name: Willie Brown Span blowback

September 16, 2013

In its current session, the California Legislature considered 103 bills dealing with highways or highway infrastructure—and roughly one-third of those bills named bridges or roadway sections after people the legislators deemed deserving.

Among the honorees were the correctional guards of Soledad State Prison, the Tuskegee airmen, and the Seebees. Many of the designees were police officers or highway patrolmen. But only one such effort engendered any citizen blowback: last week’s nonbinding resolution to rename the western span of the Bay Bridge after former San Francisco mayor and past Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

The general objection, voiced on radio talk shows and in comments to newspapers, that it is unseemly to name high-profile projects after public figures who have yet to shuffle off the mortal coil. San Franciscan and former city ethics commissioner Bob Planthold has gone to San Francisco Superior Court to seek an injunction blocking the name change, contending that the resolution violated Senate rules because Brown is still living, and also because it was not sponsored by a legislator whose district includes the bridge. In the Assembly, Tom Ammiano, whose district includes the bridge, abstained, and various former San Francisco supervisors have written to Gov. Jerry Brown opposing the idea. Even the governor himself tsk-tsked the proposal, stating he considered it best if the span kept the “iconic” name it has borne for almost four decades: the Bay Bridge.

And in some quarters, there’s simply resistance to naming anything after Willie Brown. His critics—and there are many—see him as a self-regarding fashion plate less interested in the commonweal than in advancing his own interests and those of his allies.

Brown’s supporters—and again, there are many—question why critics are focusing their ire on the idea of naming a bridge after an African American politician when they never seemed to mind the countless pieces of state property rechristened for political figures who were white guys. (In fact, the state NAACP reportedly is fundraising privately to, if need be, pay for signs to be erected next year at entrances to the the western span.) They also consider critiques about Brown’s political gamesmanship naive: certainly, Brown was implacable in pursuit of his goals, and perhaps at times ruthless, but that hardly distinguishes him from the legions of pols gnawing rubber chickens between Sacramento and Washington. Moreover, Brown got things done, enforcing his will through liberal applications of both charm and intimidation. And if that’s not the mark of a statesman, it at least identifies a master politician.

Besides, if not Willie Brown, who? That’s the question the former mayor himself hinted at in his Saturday column in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he relayed a heartwarming tale of meeting an African-American youngster at Jones Memorial Methodist Church who asked him how he managed to get a bridge named after him. 

“…I realized then that this was the first time the state had named something after an African American other than a street, an office building, a housing project or a school in a mostly black neighborhood,” Brown wrote. “The bridge is a highly visible public project—it reflects not just the black community, but the whole community…(It) helps black kids understand that you don’t need to be a good jump shooter or a rapper to get somewhere, that if you go to school and work your tail off, you may get a bridge named after you someday…”

Critics may dismiss that as self-serving— but Brown has stridden the halls of power in Sacramento and San Francisco like an Armani-clad colossus, and he was and remains a potent political and media force. And those are the kind of politicians who get bridges named after them.

“It just seems a bit overblown to me,” said Dan Schnur, who’s been a Cal lecturer in American politics and a longtime go-to Republican strategist who has served as communications director for John McCain, Pete Wilson and the California Republican Party. “We’ve heard the argument against naming inanimate objects for living politicians before. I’m having trouble taking it seriously. There’s always the concern that the honoree might do something publicly embarassing before he dies. But if that happens, it’s always easy to change the name. And naming a bridge after a mayor, especially a larger-than-life mayor like Willie Brown, is hardly unusual.”

Like Schnur, Cal lecturer and former state assemblyman Ted Lempert is somewhat mystified by the brouhaha. A Democrat, he served in the Assembly under Brown’s leadership and admires the former speaker.

That said, he continued, “Look around the state and you’ll see plenty of transportation projects named after people who had far less impact than Willie Brown. Yes, there has obviously been some criticism about him, but he’s also been extraordinarily effective. And the man knows his stuff. Once when I was in the Assembly, he took issue with something I said and he screamed at me—I mean, screamed at me—citing precise state code sections to support his point. He’s incredibly sharp. I think you can make a very good case that we should have a debate on how we name projects, and perhaps establish some firm criteria. But I don’t think we should suddenly attempt that in response to this case. And frankly, we have more pressing matters at hand.”

Jack Citrin, the Heller professor of political science at UC Berkeley, sees the criticism of Brown as a manifestation of a larger issue. “Brown has been something of a lightning rod, but I think it also connects to a broader, diffuse sentiment against politicians in general,” Citrin said. “Also, the (new span of the) bridge is part of the problem. It took forever to build, there have been all sorts of problems associated with its construction and safety, and it went way over budget. It didn’t leave people with good feelings.”

If the comments generated by Brown’s Saturday piece in the Chronicle are any indication, Citrin is on to something. Almost unanimously, they slag Brown, the decision to name the bridge after him, politicians in general—or all three. 

A poster with the handle of kervinlee summed up the general mood: “The only public structures that I would approve of being named after any politicians, living or dead,” kervinlee wrote, “are penitentiaries.”

—Glen Martin

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