Rep. George E. Brown Jr., dean of the California congressional delegation, a leading advocate of science and a champion of liberal causes, is dead at the age of 79.
The oldest member of the House of Representatives, who first gained national attention for his early opposition to the Vietnam War, died Thursday night at Bethesda Naval Hospital of an infection contracted after heart valve replacement surgery in May.
The 18-term Democratic congressman arrived on Capitol Hill when John F. Kennedy was president and Bill Clinton was in high school. Elected in 1962 from a Los Angeles-area district, he served until 1970 but gave up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate. Unsuccessful, he returned to the House in 1972, winning election from the 42nd Congressional District in San Bernardino County.
The longest-serving congressman in California history, Brown spent a cumulative 34 years in the House. From his first days as a lawmaker to his last, he remained true to his liberal convictions, even after becoming a perennial Republican target and almost losing his seat in 1996 in an increasingly conservative district.
But the cigar-chomping, rumple-suited Brown was best remembered Friday by Republicans and Democrats alike as a nonpartisan friend of science who pushed environmental protection and space exploration.
"An irreplaceable voice for science and justice," President Clinton said of the late congressman.
"With George, a commitment to science always rose above party labels," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who succeeded Brown as chairman of the House Science Committee after the GOP takeover of Congress in 1995. "America has lost its foremost science advocate."
End of an Era in California Politics
Brown's death ends an era in California politics. He arrived on Capitol Hill when members of Congress earned $22,500 a year (they now make $136,700) and the state's House delegation numbered 38 (it is now 52).
His influence extended to present-day Congress members, such as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who recalled stuffing envelopes for Brown's 1962 campaign at age 8, and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who served as press secretary for Brown's Senate campaign.
"He was the last of a breed," Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said. "Politicians today read polls, and he never read polls."
Amy Isaacs, national director of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, said Brown held firm in his liberal views "no matter how lonely it got."
Brown's wife, Marta Macias Brown, said: "In his peaceful way, George was a tenacious fighter for the public good."
No date has been set for a special election to fill the remaining 18 months of Brown's term.
Colleagues paid tribute to Brown on the House floor Friday, adjourning in his memory and lowering the flags at the Capitol to half-staff.
The son of an orange picker, Brown was born March 6, 1920, in the Imperial County community of Holtville.
During World War II, he registered as a conscientious objector and worked in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Oregon but later joined an Army unit and became a second lieutenant in the infantry.
After the war, with a degree from UCLA in industrial physics, he went to work as a civil engineer and held various administrative jobs for the city of Los Angeles.
First to Integrate Housing at UCLA
Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto), who served on the congressman's staff from 1968 to 1979, said Brown had long been interested in social causes--dating back to the late 1930s, when he was president of the student housing association at UCLA. Brown was the first to integrate the university's housing, taking a black student as his roommate, Longville said.
"That got the attention of a lot of people, including another young student, Tom Bradley, who became his lifelong friend," the assemblyman said in an interview.
Brown became active in organizing farm workers and in other labor activity in the 1940s and saw politics as a way to promote his views.
"He wanted a pulpit. He saw political office as an opportunity to enlighten the electorate," Longville said.
Brown won his first election--to the City Council in Monterey Park--in 1954.
Four years later, he was elected to the Assembly, where he introduced the nation's first bill to ban lead in gasoline. And four years after that, he was elected to the House from a district that then included East Los Angeles.
Brown earned a name for himself by opposing the nascent Vietnam War, drawing accusations that he was a Communist and disloyal to Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson.
As the war escalated and Johnson sought increased funding and more troops, Brown said the president was pretending that the "peace of mankind can be won by the slaughter of peasants in Vietnam."
During the war, Longville said, "George probably cast the most courageous votes of his career. He was convinced in his first year in Congress in '63 that we were pursuing a bad policy in Vietnam."
So conscientiously opposed to the war was Brown that in 1966 and 1967, he was the only member of Congress to oppose the military appropriations bills, Longville recalled.
"George was decades ahead of the crowd. He was consistently looking at the far frontiers of things that needed to be addressed when other politicians were still addressing last year's issues," Longville said. "His three most prominent characteristics were vision, courage and integrity."
At the height of the Cold War, Brown voted against money for civil defense, saying it "created a climate in which nuclear war becomes more credible."
And he pushed for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was proud of his vote, and displayed in his office a photo showing him beside Martin Luther King Jr. at the law's signing by President Johnson.
In 1970, with Richard M. Nixon in the White House and the country bitterly divided over the war, Brown ran for the U.S. Senate but lost the Democratic primary to more moderate fellow congressman John V. Tunney.
Eager to return to political life, Brown moved to a newly drawn congressional district in the Inland Empire, winning election in 1972--and reelection every two years since.
Throughout the years, he remained ideologically consistent--voting against the deployment of troops in the Persian Gulf War and opposing the military use of space, including President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" plan to place anti-satellite weapons in space.
When Reagan was referring to the Soviet Union as an evil empire in the 1980s, Brown promoted closer ties between American and Soviet politicians and even shared in a special Emmy Award for orchestrating a satellite-linked, televised town hall meeting among them, Longville recalled.
But he voted in 1980 for the B-1 bomber, explaining: "If the B-1 was being built in some other state and I didn't have two Air Force bases and a lot of retired military people who feel strongly about the B-1, I'd probably have voted the other way."
Pushed for Creation of the Federal EPA
Brown's true passion was science and technology. He was an early advocate of protecting the deteriorating ozone layer and developing solar power. He championed the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said it was fitting that the final bill introduced by Brown was the Sequoia Protection Act to eliminate commercial logging and mining in areas of Sequoia National Forest.
"From my earliest days, I was fascinated by science," Brown told the New York Times earlier this year. "I was fascinated by a utopian vision of what the world could be like. I've thought that science could be the basis for a better world, and that's what I've been trying to do all these years."
In 1992, when he was facing a tough reelection campaign, more than two dozen scientists sent out a fund-raising letter on Brown's behalf, saying: "The scientific and technical community rarely has had a person so perfectly fit to represent its interests and concerns in Congress."
Francis Carney, professor emeritus of political science at UC Riverside, said Brown's success in holding on to his 42nd District seat for so many years was no mystery.
"He was interested in the use of government in improving the quality of people's lives, and people understood that about him," Carney said. "He was never embarrassed about his views. They were always out there. People knew how he felt and respected it."
And, Longville said, "he found it was much easier to achieve things if you let someone else take the credit for it. George was never a self-promoter."
Brown is survived by his wife, six children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Times staff writer Faye Fiore contributed to this story.