SACRAMENTO — It is Thursday morning and Assemblyman Dennis Brown is once again of the Legislature but not in it.
His desk is empty while his colleagues, milling around the ornate Assembly chamber, wrap up another week of public business by voting on a handful of bills before hastily deserting the Capitol for a weekend in their respective districts.
A few miles away, the Los Alamitos Republican sits quietly in a Bible class, jotting notes about the Holy Spirit as his burly teacher inveighs against the growing American indifference to homosexuality, fornication, idolatry, covetousness, strife, drunkenness, materialism, pornography, suggestive body language and dirty jokes.
Reminded during break that the same sins have been loosely used to describe the conduct of the Legislature, Brown smiles.
"Now you know why I want to get out," he joked.
One of the Legislature's most extreme conservatives, notorious for his habit of voting against almost everything, the six-term lawmaker has begun to turn his back on the business of the Capitol to start a new life as a born-again Christian and prospective lay minister.
The change, he says, began with a religious experience early last year and culminated in his surprise announcement March 5 that God had directed him not to run for reelection from a safely Republican district, which includes portions of Long Beach and coastal Orange County.
Brown also says that his decision to quit politics--a passion since high school--was influenced by a growing disillusionment with what he calls a "rotten" governmental system that falls short of representing the will of the people, and encourages the crass exchange of votes for campaign contributions and speaking fees.
There was also the little matter of his narrow escape from felony charges for his cameo role in the controversy over the forging of President Reagan's signature on 440,000 campaign letters in 1986.
But now Brown, 41, says he feels at peace. He is intentionally distancing himself from the backslapping world of the Capitol, where once he helped direct conservative attacks on liberal legislators and government spending for social programs. He has quit his position on the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee and skips floor sessions so he can dedicate more time to religious classes at the Capital Christian Center, a large local evangelical church.
"You know, the Bible spells it out so perfectly, how the world will despise you, how you'll be persecuted, how you will be laughed at," he said. "Since I made my announcement three weeks ago . . . , I've noticed a difference in how people treat me. I haven't been insulted or anything. People are a little bit more uneasy around me, a little standoffish.
"Some of my closest friends, I can kind of see that they're not as interested in being as close personal friends as they once were."
Some of his political enemies--such as Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson)--are as uncharitable as ever, however. They are still fuming over Brown's 11-year record as one of the so-called "Cavemen," a group of conservatives that prides itself on fighting government from within.
Floyd also questions the timing of Brown's religious redirection. Could it be that Brown felt politically vulnerable, especially since the Huntington Beach oil spill highlighted his record of voting against environmental legislation? Or that conservative voters these days seem to be at odds with Brown's anti-abortion position? "If Jesus was responsible for getting him out of the way, Jesus was not interested so much in him as He was looking out for the rest of us," Floyd said.
It was near-religious fervor that delivered Brown, a stockbroker and former Los Angeles County chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, to the heavy doors of the Capitol in 1978. Proposition 13 had captured the angry mood of the electorate, and Brown rode that mood to victory in a Democratic district on his first try for public office. The district's boundaries later were changed, increasing the number of registered Republicans.
"It was a stroke of luck," Brown said. "If it hadn't been for Prop. 13, I don't think there is any doubt that I would not have won that race."
His race was one of seven that threw out incumbent Democrats in favor of conservative Republicans. Two other 1978 Assembly victors were Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), a chum of Brown from Young Republican days at USC--and Ross Johnson (R-La Habra). Two years later, John Lewis--Brown's best friend, former college roommate and top aide in Sacramento--was elected from another Assembly district in Orange County.
The group formed the nucleus of the conservative faction in the Assembly that, while not numerous enough to prevail, was powerful enough to block or scale down government spending. Brown himself concentrated on changes in the state tax code. "There were enough of us coming up here to feel that mandate, and we did have an impact during the early tenure," Brown said.