In 1986, the Edmund G. Brown State Building on the corner Van Ness and Mcallister in San Francisco was dedicated. In attendance was the late governor, whom the building was named after. He was introduced by then California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr.
Former Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, the father of current Gov. Jerry Brown, spoke at the dedication. “I knew cousin Willie would get this building named Brown one way or the other,” he joked.
Nobody laughed harder or louder than Willie Brown at the comment. The two are not related; but nobody worked harder than Willie Brown to get that building funded. But it is considered gauche to name a building after a current, sitting politician—so naming it after a figure with the same name is a bit genius.
On Thursday, the state Senate agreed to name the older, wester span of the Bay Bridge after Willie Brown. The new name passed out of the state Assembly on a 68-0 vote and state Senate 26-7. Gov. Jerry Brown, as Mayor of Oakland, had much to do with the final bridge development as Willie, who was Mayor of San Francisco.
Thus, the new name of the Bridge could just as easily have the name of Edmund G. Brown Jr. But it would certainly be unseemly for the governor to name it after himself while in office. Naming it for “cousin” Willie makes a whole lot of sense, and it is a nice gesture coming from this governor—not to mention a sign of genius.
There is no question that Willie Brown deserves the honor of having part of the bridge named after him, given his lifetime of service to the city and county of San Francisco. Considering the political heavyweights who share that last name, there isn’t an infrastructure project since 1958 that does not have a Brown imprimatur.
In San Jose, we have some important things named for politicians: the airport bears the name of Norm Mineta, the train station is dedicated to Rod Diridon, Susan and Phil Hammer have their names on the Rep theater, and the soon-to-be-completed renovation of the convention center will still feature Tom McEnery’s name in its official title.
Naming things after living beings is sometimes controversial. Former State Sen. Quentin Kopp once opined, “I don’t believe in naming anything after people who are living.” One might find such a sentiment ironic, as Kopp’s freeway sign adorns highway 380. He must have changed his mind.
But it is appropriate to name structures to honor those who have historically made a difference. It’s only a bonus if they live to see it.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.