Willie Brown, the former Mayor of San Francisco, cast a politician's eye on the crowd gathered Thursday at the 16th annual James B. and Billie Keegan Leadership Awards.

Such a congregation of community leaders and corporate sponsors would be invaluable support for his next run for office.

"I would very much like this mailing list," he said to laughs from the 400 guests gathered at the Doubletree hotel in Rohnert Park.

It wasn't clear if Brown's joke revealed a real intention to return to the fray. But he made it clear it would be impossible for him to return to the California State Assembly where he served for than 30 years.

Noting that Gene Traverso, the event's honoree, had served Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for 27 years on various boards, Brown focused his keynote speech on underscoring that such lengthy service was not possible for Sacramento politicians — to the state's detriment.

Since 1990, state legislators have faced term limits, restricting state senators to two, four-year terms and Assembly representatives to three, two-year terms.

For Brown, the result wasn't bad — he left his 15-year perch as Assembly speaker to become mayor of San Francisco. But the state as whole, he said, hasn't fared so well.

Far from reforming government, term limits robbed Sacramento of its statesmen, replacing them with a rotating cast of newcomers afraid to take on the worsening issues of the day, he said.

In 1999, three years after politicians started to term out, the state passed an unsupportable bill to sweeten public pension benefits, which continues to haunt state finances, something that wouldn't have happened with veteran leadership, he claimed.

"It took 16 years before I became Speaker of the California State Assembly," he said. "Now it takes six weeks."

Not that Brown was above reproach. Local attorney Jack DeMeo, a classmate of Brown's at Hastings College of the Law, introduced his friend with a speech that revealed Brown once accidentally wrecked an elevator at the school to the tune of $50,000.

Brown later appropriated that amount to the school as chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, DeMeo said.

As Brown took the stage, he jokingly chided his friend for telling the story: "Especially the reimbursement process," Brown said.