Willie Lewis Brown, Jr. was born in Mineola, Texas. He enrolled at San Francisco State, hoping to become a math instructor. Once in college though, he was quickly swept up into the world of campus politics. He became active in his church, and in the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP. After earning a degree in political science, Willie Brown went to Hastings law school, where he was elected president of his class.
Throughout the '60s and onto the '70s, Brown played an increasingly important role in the California Democratic Party. He made his first impact on the national stage in 1972, when he electrified delegates to the Democratic National Convention with a fiery speech delivered during a credentials fight. When Unruh stepped down in 1974, Brown seized the chance to run for Speaker of the Assembly but did not win. By 1980, Brown was ready to try for the Speakership again, and won the office with an unexpected coalition of 28 Republicans and only 23 Democrats
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Brown exercised unprecedented power in the legislature, dictating budget agreements to a succession of Governors, Democratic and Republican. When Willie Brown ran for re-election in 1994, California's newly-enacted term limits assured that it would be his last stint in the legislature. Although Brown easily retained his Assembly seat in 1994, Republicans won a one-vote majority in the California State Assembly and it appeared that Willie Brown's record-setting tenure as Speaker was finally over. Brown pulled off a remarkable upset, clinging to his leadership of the Assembly by a margin of a single vote, cast by a Republican member whose loyalty Brown had won in an earlier session.
Willie Brown had returned to San Francisco to run for Mayor and was easily re-elected to a second term, ending in 2003.