SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, confronted with growing uncertainty over his ability to remain in power, confirmed Wednesday that he is urging campaign contributors to cut off donations to five dissident Democrats who have challenged his leadership.
At the same time, some Capitol lobbyists predicted that Brown's seven-year reign in the Assembly will come to an end this year and hinted that the San Francisco Democrat is beginning to lose his effectiveness as Speaker.
'Support Me, Not My Enemies'
"I've told every person that I speak to, 'Only contribute to people who are going to elect me to the speakership, period,' " Brown acknowledged in a brief interview. "I have told them very clearly to support me and not my enemies, whether they be Republicans or Democrats."
Brown's attempt to deprive the five Democrats of campaign funds moves the Assembly battle for power into the arena of the state's major special interest groups, whose money often can make or break a campaign.
In recent weeks, the Speaker's power has been undermined as a result of his fight with the so-called "Gang of Five" dissident Democrats because he can no longer guarantee the minimum 41-vote majority needed for passage of legislation.
For example, a bill that would adopt anti-discrimination provisions for AIDS patients and create a commission to set state policy on the disease is stalled on the Assembly floor, where Brown so far has been unable to muster the votes needed for final passage.
Brown vehemently rejects the notion that he will lose his leadership position and insists that he will be elected Speaker again when the new session begins next December. He also downplays any threat from the rebel faction, a group of conservative Democrats who have joined with Republicans to win passage of controversial legislation.
"I will be a candidate for reelection to the state Assembly and the speakership, and I'll win both," he said.
Most lobbyists--often referred to as members of the "Third House" because of their influence in the Capitol--would not speak publicly about the Speaker's political future because it could jeopardize their bills in the Assembly.
But John P. Quimby, a lobbyist for San Bernardino County and a former member of the Assembly, was willing to say for publication what many of his colleagues seem to be thinking:
"I don't think it's any great courageous, insightful statement to say that by the first of 1989, Willie won't be Speaker," Quimby said. "The man's time has gone. I think he's been a great Speaker, but times are changing."
Informed that some lobbyists were speculating that his days as Speaker are numbered, Brown responded: "They haven't said it to me. Nobody's said it to me. Nobody will dare say it to me."
Brown could remain as Speaker until the November elections, Quimby and other lobbyists predicted, in part because no strong candidate has emerged so far to succeed him.
Brown's fate, they said, will depend on whether he can heal the wounds in the splintered Democratic Caucus and hang on to an Assembly Democratic majority in the fall elections. The Democrats now hold a 43-36 majority over the GOP, with one vacancy.
The Speaker's future also will depend on whether he really wants to keep the job. Last year, he joined a Los Angeles law firm and has been spending increasing amounts of time on his private practice.
"There's a tremendous amount of speculation that he may be in serious trouble but few people think anything happens right away," said one lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous.
Plenty of Incentive
Brown has a strong incentive to remain Speaker at least through the July Democratic National Convention. As national campaign chairman for presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, Brown could play a pivotal role as power broker at a deadlocked convention. However, his national influence could be greatly diminished if he were no longer Speaker of the California Assembly.
The strength of Brown's hold on the speakership may be best demonstrated by his own ability to collect campaign contributions and funnel them to his fellow Democrats.
Brown raised nearly $2 million in campaign funds in 1987--a non-election year--and finished December with $1.2 million in the bank.
So far this year, there is no sign that major campaign contributors are defecting from Brown, although one lobbyists hinted that donors now may "hedge their bets" by also giving money to his possible successors.
"From our side of the street the Speaker is the Speaker is the Speaker," one lobbyist said. "If at midnight tonight, the house decided to choose a new Speaker, his (Brown's) money would dry up before the sun comes up--but not before that time."
Or, as another lobbyist put it, "They'll have doubts but still give him the money."
A key test of Brown's ability to continue raising money will be on April 20, when his next fund-raiser is scheduled for Sacramento.