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Power Breakfasting, 1961 : Jesse Unruh's Ascent to the Speakership

November 01, 1987|JAMES R. MILLS | From "A Disorderly House: The Brown/Unruh Years in Sacramento," by James Mills, to be published this month by Heyday Books. Mills was chairman of the Democratic caucus and head of the Assembly Rules Committee during the '60s.

ANY NUMBER of theses, dissertations, articles and books have been written about the age of Unruh in the California Legislature. They have explained to all who cared to read that Jesse Marvin Unruh became the speaker of the California Assembly by persuading his predecessor, Ralph Brown, to appoint his friend Bob Crown as chairman of the Elections and Reapportionment Committee to preside over the gerrymandering of the Assembly after the decennial census of 1961. As work on the reapportionment bill progressed, Crown and Unruh could--and did--trade off districts to members in return for their votes for Unruh as speaker.

But he was actually mounted upon the speaker's rostrum by a cabal of nine liberal Democrats, of which I was one. John Williamson, a lean, gray, Bakersfield service station operator, had stopped by my desk on the floor to have a few words with me. "Jim, there are a few of us who meet on Tuesday mornings for breakfast in a little room upstairs at the back of the Chukker on J Street. We're all Democrats who haven't been around here very long. This morning the other members asked me to invite you to become a member."

"Thank you," I said. "I'd like to."

I attended my first meeting the following Tuesday. Among the subjects discussed was the bill that created a judgeship for Ralph Brown. The entire breakfast club agreed that it would sail through to final passage without opposition and that there would then be an election to choose a new speaker.

By that time, two members of the Assembly, Jesse Unruh and Carlos Bee, had let it be known that they wished to be considered as candidates for the speakership. They had each rounded up 28 votes of the 41 required to elect a speaker in the 80-member Assembly.

One morning over our bacon and eggs, Tom Carrell drawled sleepily, "You know, most of us are uncommitted in the speakership fight. We hadn't ought to let ourselves get picked off one by one by Jess or Carlos. We ought to agree among ourselves that we're all going to go together as a group."

All of us stopped chewing as if we had simultaneously bitten down on something surprisingly delicious.

Carrell took a long sip of black coffee. "You know," he rambled on, "if you can agree to that, we'll be the ones who'll decide who the next speaker will be, and I can't think of anybody I'd rather have do it." . . .

(The group meets at Carrell's house to discuss who they will support.) After hours of discussion, Carrell roused himself to make a little speech. "It seems to me that most of us are for old Jess, and we ought to find out if there's anybody here who doesn't think he can go along. Jess knows about our meeting, and he told me he'd stick around his house. Why don't I just call him up and ask him to come on over?"

One passionate young attorney in the group protested, "I'm not at all sure I'm willing to go along. Big Daddy can be pretty heavy-handed, you know, even now. Can you imagine what he'd be like if he was the speaker?"

On entering the house, Jesse Unruh filled it with his mighty presence. He lowered himself into a chair that Carrell had pulled up to the table for him. It was next to Mrs. Jack Casey, a very proper and refined lady. The dinner plates had not yet been cleared away. He gazed at the one in front of Mrs. Casey. There was still some food in it.

He boomed, "Black-eyed peas!" He seized the nearest fork and cleaned the leftover peas off Mrs. Casey's plate.

After dinner, Carrell said, "Jess, we just wanted to tell you we've decided we're going to support you, but--"

The attorney broke in, "But we have to have a commitment from you that you'll give all of us chairmanships."

Our huge visitor responded with all the sincere cordiality of a college football coach recruiting at a high school.

"Everything's open. I haven't promised any chairmanships to anybody else. I can't start handing out chairmanships till I see how the Assembly should be organized."

This went on in the same vein for another 10 minutes, the same question asked over and over and the same answer given in reply. . . .

Unruh was unperturbed. "I can only tell you that if you go along, none of you will regret it."

Tom Carrell slipped drowsily into that opening. "That's good enough for me. How about you, John?" John Williamson said, "That's fine with me." Tom looked at Gus Garrigus. "How about it, Gus?" Garrigus smiled expansively and said, "Everybody knows Jess' word is good. I'll go along."

And so it went, until all had concurred, one by one.

When we escorted Jess Unruh out and saw him slip into his sporty Borgward as if it were a tight shoe, we knew we were saying good night to the next speaker of the Assembly.

Copyright 1987 by James R. Mills. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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