SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Willie Brown on Tuesday criticized top Democrats for refusing to take a stand on the reelection of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, declaring that "it's an insult to the voters" for any politician to sidestep the issue.
Brown, the Legislature's most powerful Democrat and an outspoken supporter of Bird, said it is wrong for Mayor Tom Bradley, U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston and other Democratic leaders to duck questions on Bird for fear that it will hurt their own election chances.
"Anybody who has a position on Rose Bird or is asked ought to tell people what their position is," the San Francisco assemblyman told a press conference. "You can say I choose not to tell you because it's a secret ballot. But I think that's a mistake. I think you ought to tell people how you vote on the issue, period."
Bradley, who is gearing up for a rematch with Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, has supported Bird in the past but recently has refused to answer questions about his current position. He says he is consulting with a panel of lawyers and other advisers to determine how best to handle the ticklish political situation.
Cranston, who faces reelection this year, has refused to make any comments on the race, saying that to do so would further politicize the court.
Republican Party leaders have been trying hard to tie Bradley, Cranston and other Democrats to the Bird court and its controversial rulings against the death penalty in hopes that both the controversial chief justice and her supporters among Democratic candidates will be rejected by the voters in November.
In a recent Los Angeles Times Poll, a third of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote for Bradley or Cranston if either supported Bird. On the other side of the coin, about a third said they are more likely to vote for Deukmejian because of his criticism of the court.
Last weekend, that message seemed to hit home with Democrats when the state party ended its 1986 election kickoff convention in Los Angeles by rejecting an effort to put the party on record in support of Bird. Instead, the party adopted a platform that stressed the need for an independent court and called for lifetime appointments of justices.
Brown, who did not attend the convention, applauded the party's decision to avoid a vote that he said would make the Bird reelection a partisan issue. But he said individual candidates should not be immune from speaking out and he rejected the theory that supporting Bird will cost Democrats votes.
"It's an insult to the voters, frankly," Brown said, in response to questions about the refusal of both Bradley and Cranston to take a position on Bird. "Voters are incredibly intelligent and they know damn well you are not (responsible for) Rose Bird no matter what position you have on the issue. They ought to say, 'Yes, I'm voting' (for Bird) or 'No, I'm not voting.' "
Asked whether that advice applies specifically to Bradley and Cranston, Brown said "it goes for every politician." Later, Brown said that Cranston's refusal to comment on Bird is his "own position and he can live with it."
Cranston's campaign manager, Darry Sragow, responded that Cranston's decision to stay out of the state Supreme Court confirmation battle is "very consistent with his longstanding record with regard to the courts. Over the years he has felt very strongly it should not be politicized."
Ali Webb, a spokeswoman for the Bradley campaign, attempted to separate the mayor's stand from that of Cranston, saying that Bradley ultimately will issue a statement "about the court and about the justices." Webb added that "it's only fair and appropriate that the mayor be given as much time as he feels necessary and not go by others' standards whether they be Republicans or Democrats."
State Democratic Chairwoman Betty Smith of Oakland acknowledged that the Bird reconfirmation election is a volatile issue and said she agrees with Brown that politicians who fail to speak out "will have to live with the consequences later."
Like Brown, Smith said she is not convinced that publicly supporting Bird is tantamount to political suicide. "I've seen the polls and I know that people think it is," she said. "I just don't think it will make or break a candidate."
Brown also offered some advice for Bird, saying that she needs to take advantage of some articulate supporters who can "get into the halls and the homes of this state and take the message about the need for independence on the court and the unfair attack that is being waged."
Brown, however, said he has no advice for Bradley because "he's doing better in the polls than anything I ever could envision."