SACRAMENTO — The state Legislature on Thursday approved naming the iconic western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a towering California political figure who is both revered and reviled.
Brown was the Assembly’s first black speaker and the longest-serving speaker in state history, presiding over the 80-member house from 1980 to 1995.
His tenure, political acumen and ironclad grasp on one house of the Legislature made him the most powerful state politician of his time, next to the governor.
“He was like a Michael Jordan or a Magic Johnson or a Larry Bird. ... He made other people better,” said Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, who presented the resolution in the Senate.
Yet Brown, who is 79, also became a lightning rod for his critics, who eventually used him as their poster child for a ballot initiative that imposed term limits on state lawmakers.
ACR65, the resolution naming the western span the “Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge,” passed the Senate on a 26-7 vote Thursday. It was approved previously in the Assembly on a 68-0 vote.
Resolutions do not require the signature of the governor, who opposed this resolution. It doesn’t affect the celebrated, new eastern span of the bridge, which opened after Labor Day weekend.
Of the handful of senators who voted against the resolution Thursday, only Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, spoke during the floor debate.
Anderson said he admires Brown and believes he deserves having the span named after him, but said he could not vote for the resolution because it departed from the state’s rules for naming infrastructure projects after people. One of the criteria is that the person being honored should be deceased.
To make his point, he asked his colleagues to consider whether a public project had been named for Bob Filner, the former Democratic congressman who recently resigned as San Diego mayor after numerous women came forward to say he had sexually harassed them. Filner was a champion of civil rights and an advocate for the poor and minorities, a history that could have persuaded someone to name a public project or institution after him, Anderson said.
“If we had named something for Bob, we would regret it today,” he said.
Shortly after the Senate’s vote Thursday, opponents filed a lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court seeking an injunction to halt the resolution from taking effect. The suit, filed on behalf of a San Francisco resident, claims the Legislature bypassed its own rules for naming structures and disregarded a public outcry against the resolution.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Brown said he did not ask that the span to be named after him but was honored by the recognition.
He also took a jab at the lawsuit, calling it a waste of the public’s money.
“The process was totally transparent, everybody has been heard and there was a vote. What could be more clear?” he said. “Why didn’t they file to stop it from being considered in the first place? Don’t wait until you lose.”
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was opened for traffic in 1936. The soaring gray towers of its western span have become an iconic symbol of the Bay Area. A new eastern span opened earlier this month, years behind schedule and billions over budget.
Aside from lawmakers who voted against the plan, three former presidents of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had asked the Senate to block the move.
Their letter to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, called Brown “a very controversial figure.” All had their differences with the former speaker during his time in office.
The resolution, by Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, was a priority of the Legislature’s black caucus. Notably, its lead supporters were from Southern California, not the Bay Area.
Hall’s three-page resolution says Brown “is widely regarded as one of the most influential politicians of the late 20th century, and has been at the center of California politics, government, and civic life for an astonishing four decades.” Brown currently heads the Willie L. Brown Jr. Institute on Politics and Public Service.
According to the resolution, no state money is to be used to pay for the signs naming the span.
Associated Press writer Terry Collins in San Francisco contributed to this report.