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Brown Reign as Speaker in Jeopardy


SACRAMENTO — Cheered by erasing the Democratic majority in the Assembly, Republicans said Wednesday that they are poised to oust their longtime nemesis, Speaker Willie Brown, and take control of the lower house for the first time in 25 years.

With the help of more than $800,000 pumped into key races in the closing days before Tuesday's election, Republicans knocked off four incumbent Democrats, picked up at least four open seats previously held by Democrats, and were losing only one from GOP ranks.

As a result, the party lineup in the Assembly appears temporarily deadlocked at 40 to 40, jeopardizing but not necessarily scuttling Brown's speakership, according to Democrats who in the last legislative session outnumbered Republicans 47 to 33.

The decisive factor for Brown could be the outcome of a race in the Long Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula area that remains unsettled. Democratic Assemblywoman Betty Karnette, who won a surprise victory two years ago, led by 64 votes, but GOP leaders predicted that a count of several thousand absentee ballots would make Republican Steve Kuykendall, a Rancho Palos Verdes councilman, the victor and give them a majority in the Assembly.

"I fully expect that Republicans will take control" when all the votes are counted, said Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, a onetime advance man for George Bush who became GOP leader two years ago.

Marcia Ventura, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar and recorder's office, said the official vote canvass will begin today and must be completed by Nov. 29. She said the next update may not come until Monday.

As grim-faced Assembly Democrats gathered for lunch at a Sacramento steakhouse, Brown, one of California's most powerful politicians and a symbol of everything Republicans loathe, conceded that his record 14-year speakership is in danger. But, he said, "I'm going to try to get it out of jeopardy."

"I anticipate, unless there are 41 persons gone some other place--I will be Speaker," a subdued Brown later told a crowded Capitol news conference. "My job was not dependent on my success in seats as long as I have (the votes)," said Brown.

Asked whether he can deliver the votes to keep his post, however, Brown would say only that "I don't think anyone else has 41."

Democrats also lost ground in the state Senate but held on to their majority, ensuring that President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer of Hayward will remain at the helm of the Senate.

The new lineup will apparently be 21 Democrats, 17 Republicans and two independents. That would be the fewest Democrats since 1974.

The biggest Democratic defeat was dealt to Sen. Dan McCorquodale of Modesto, who represented suburban Silicon Valley for much of his 12 years in the Senate and was running in a newly reapportioned San Joaquin Valley farm district. In an expensive race, McCorquodale was defeated by Republican Richard Monteith.

In another San Joaquin Valley district, freshman Sen. Phil Wyman (R-Hanford), a bedrock conservative, was narrowly ousted by Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno). Costa had lost to Wyman in a special election last year. And in the Los Angeles area, Sen. Ralph Dills (D-El Segundo), first elected to the Assembly in 1938, survived the stiffest challenge of his career.

But attention in the Capitol on Wednesday was focused on the fate of Brown, one of the nation's most powerful African American public officials. For years, the liberal Brown has been a favorite election target of GOP candidates.

If the Republicans take the Karnette seat, they will have a majority of 41 votes in the Assembly, at least until Assemblyman Richard J. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia) resigns to take a seat in the state Senate that he won Tuesday in a special election. He also won reelection to the Assembly.

Brown said that any challenger will need to secure 41 votes to oust him.

To get the magic 41 votes, Republicans would need Mountjoy to stay in the Assembly long enough to vote for Brulte. Under Senate rules, Mountjoy has a "reasonable period of time" to move to the upper house, apparently allowing him to back Brulte in a speakership fight in December. Mountjoy said he would favor Brulte.

But even if Mountjoy moved to the Senate, the lineup would favor the GOP by a 40-39 margin--paralleling a situation that Brown faced in 1988 when he was challenged by a group of dissidents known as the Gang of Five and the house had only 79 members with one vacancy.

At that time Brown barely won a fifth term because of a provision in the state Constitution that allows election of a Speaker with a majority of those actually holding office, meaning that Brown was able to win the Assembly's top post with only 40 votes.

Brown's fate is cloudy even if the Democrats hold on to the Karnette seat and neither party begins the next legislative session with a majority.

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