Thursday, October 17, 2013

Naming things for politicians

The California legislature decided to waste some of its time renaming the western span of the (San Francisco-Oakland) Bay Bridge after former Assembly speaker and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.

Brown was a member of the California State Assembly for thirty years and its Speaker for fifteen before serving two terms as San Francisco's mayor. He was a consequential politician in his day, but he wasn't a saint and he engendered his share of controversy. He was a major reason California voters enacted term limits for state legislators: he and others had all but grown roots in the state house. Brown also thinks very highly of himself, even as politicians go: a lot of us were surprised he and his ego fit inside San Francisco's massive City Hall dome. In short, he is something of a polarizing figure around the state.

Plus, he's still alive. Most politicians, even in this age of brazenness, have the good sense to wait until their former colleagues have been dead for a bit before bringing their names up to grace public monuments.

Fortunately for California's Democrats, they didn't have to do the heavy lifting.

The rename, which covers the bridge from Yerba Buena Island to San Francisco, was co-authored by San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting and was a top legislative priority for the state NAACP.

The backing of the powerful civil rights group was one of the key reasons the name change sailed through the Legislature with hardly a peep of opposition. San Francisco’s other Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, opposed the name change but abstained from the vote.

The Senate vote came after lawmakers on the Transportation Committee had waived a rule against naming roadways for people who are still alive.

As Matier and Ross (the San Francisco Chronicle's political gossip columnists) noted, some of the Bay Area's most powerful Democratic state legislators stayed mum and/or abstained from voting on the resolution. It seems likely that, although they were reluctant to cross Brown openly (he still carries a lot of weight in state Democratic circles), they could see how greasily self-serving this maneuver looks for both the NAACP and Brown himself.

Speaking of Brown, he, as the consummate pol that he is, has had the good sense to display a little humility. A little.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “In the long run, it will always be the Bay Bridge.

“But for today – I am the bridge.”

He does know how to make self-aggrandizement more charming than it has any right to be, does Mr. Brown.

But yes, Willie — in the long run, it will always be the Bay Bridge. Not least because it unostentatiously does its job, and "unostentatious" is the very last word anyone would use to describe you.

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