SACRAMENTO — Republican Larry Stirling considers himself a policy man, not a political hack, so he would just as soon avoid the internal jockeying for position that often dominates the time of the California Assembly.
Democrat Steve Peace, on the other hand, has a reputation as a man drawn to action. He is comfortable with political intrigue. If there's a good brouhaha afoot, you're likely to find him in the middle of it.
The two differently tempered San Diego-area assemblymen were both in the spotlight last week as Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's control over the lower house endured under its most serious threat in seven years.
Peace of Chula Vista was there by choice, dividing his party in hopes of shifting its direction closer to his own point of view. Stirling of San Diego was there by obligation, uniting his party at a crucial moment.
The two lawmakers agree that the recent struggle is a sign that the power of the once-dominant liberal wing of the Democratic Party is waning. Both say it is only a matter of time before moderate or conservative Democrats, or even Republicans, gain enough seats to control the Assembly.
"What we have in the house are the liberals from the late 1960s and early '70s now in power," Stirling said of Brown, a San Francisco Democrat, and his inner circle. "They are in power, and the public is coming up behind them a little more conservative. So the more conservative forces are attempting to hasten the day when the liberal control, or the more liberal control, is 'sunsetted.' The liberals are attempting to delay that day. That's the struggle you see going on."
Peace, one of five Democrats who have rebelled publicly against Brown's leadership, sees the battle as the inevitable result of the increasingly suburban nature of the state. Soon, probably when legislative districts are redrawn after the 1990 census, he believes lawmakers from suburban and rural areas will wrest control from the urban legislators--mostly from Los Angeles and San Francisco--who have held sway in the Legislature for more than two decades.
If that happens, Peace foresees a Legislature more reflective of the independent-minded California voter and less prone to the bitter clashes between the extreme elements that have come to dominate both parties in Sacramento.
"It boils down to whether you believe in this agenda of confrontation on either side, the hard right and the hard left, or if you believe in an agenda that's more government-oriented, in terms of producing a product as opposed to making statements about where the respective political parties stand," Peace said. "Most people do not get up in the morning and exercise their political credentials."
Brown, of course, weathered last week's challenge and held onto his speakership. No direct move to replace him was made, and many lawmakers insist that his job is not even in any danger. But the simple arithmetic--36 Republicans plus 5 dissident Democrats form a majority in the 80-member house--demonstrates that Brown can no longer impose his will on the Republicans the way he once did.
That was all too clear last week when Peace and his four colleagues--Rusty Areias of Los Banos, Gary Condit of Ceres, Charles Calderon of Alhambra and Gerald Eaves of Rialto--combined with Republicans to force votes on controversial policy issues that had been bottled up in committee by liberal Democrats.
The first, and most dramatic confrontation, came when Peace made an effort to withdraw from the Public Safety Committee a bill that would require convicted prostitutes to undergo testing for the fatal disease AIDS and make it a felony for anyone to engage in prostitution after being tested positive for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus.
The bill had been defeated earlier in the committee, and the move to bring it to a vote of the full Assembly was considered a direct attack on Brown, who controls the committee system. No such attempt has been successful in 25 years.
This one wasn't either. But supporters of Peace's bill prevailed anyway, because language almost identical to that in Peace's measure was amended into another bill already on the Assembly floor and was then approved overwhelmingly by the house. Somehow, in Brown's eyes, this parliamentary move was less of an affront than pulling the bill from committee.
Peace's role in the uprising was clear. As the author of the bill and a member of the group of rebel Democrats, he was putting himself squarely on the line against Brown's leadership.
Peace Feels Brown's Sting
Peace has been punished for his tactics. Brown earlier this month removed him as a member of two powerful committees--Ways and Means, which votes on all appropriations bills, and Finance and Insurance, a key panel at a time when skyrocketing premiums make insurance reform one of the state's most volatile issues.