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Willie Brown Calls Session as Grip on Assembly Weakens


SACRAMENTO — As Assembly Speaker Willie Brown saw his Democratic majority slip away Monday, he took the unprecedented step of calling the Assembly back into session for Thursday.

Brown (D-San Francisco), the longest-reigning Speaker in state history, was cryptic about the purpose of the session, saying only that it was being held to sort out rules by which the Assembly would operate in the event of a 40-40 split between Republicans and Democrats in the 80-member house.

Speculation was rife in the Capitol that Brown will attempt a political maneuver to keep himself in power next year.

The new Assembly elected last Tuesday will not be sworn in until Dec. 5, meaning that for now, Democrats retain a majority of 47 seats, to 33 for Republicans.

But while Brown might try to use that majority to ensure that Democrats retain influence, his scheme could be undone by the Rule of 41, which he invoked so effectively during his 14 years as Speaker.

That rule says simply that whoever gets 41 votes, a majority in the Assembly, controls the day. While Brown's partisans clung to hope that he could somehow hang onto power, Democrats now appear to have lost the Assembly for the first time since 1969.

"The Rule of 41 dictates where and what and whom," said outgoing Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who was elected to the Senate. "It's going to be very difficult for Democrats to do anything other than assume there will be 41 Republicans running the house."

By day's end, Brown's hope of holding a Democratic majority all but disappeared as Republican Assembly candidate Steve Kuykendall edged ahead of Democratic incumbent Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) by 476 votes as counting of absentee ballots continued. She had been ahead by 64 votes on Election Day.

While the vote totals in a few other Assembly races around the state remained in doubt pending the count of absentee ballots, the results were not expected to cut into the Republican lead. With Kuykendall ahead, the GOP would hold a 41-39 majority, apparently dooming Brown and opening the way for a Republican Speaker, most likely Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.

Kuykendall received $125,000 from tobacco giant Philip Morris USA in the closing days of the election. Monday, however, Kuykendall said he is "not a friend of tobacco."

Kuykendall said the cigarette manufacturer, which was hit hard when the Legislature earlier this year approved a statewide smoking ban, probably "wanted Willie Brown gone as Speaker--they wanted a better business environment."

The Speaker, one of the most powerful posts in state government, selects Assembly committee chairs and thus shapes policy on everything from the state budget to farming to gambling. The Speaker also can raise large campaign donations from businesses and others with interests before the Legislature.

In calling for Thursday's session, Brown broke with tradition.

In years past, the Legislature has gone out of session in August or September and not reconvened until early December, when new members are given the oath of office. Assembly Clerk E. Dotson Wilson said records show that one house of the Legislature never has been called back under such circumstances, "but there is nothing in the rules that prohibits it."

Brulte called Brown on Monday to determine the point of Thursday's session. At the time, absentee ballots in the Karnette-Kuykendall race had yet to be counted.

Brown told Brulte that he wanted the Assembly to adopt rules allowing the it to operate in the event of a 40-40 split, said Phil Perry, Brulte's spokesman.

"Given that Ms. Karnette has been turned out of office, and Mr. Kuykendall will be coming to Sacramento, we don't understand the purpose," Perry said.

Exactly what Brown had in mind was the grist of speculation and rumor throughout the Capitol.

"Rumors are wild. Rumors are rampant," said Geoff Long, a veteran Ways and Means Committee consultant.

Should the Republicans win a majority, it is not clear how long they could control the lower house. One, and probably two, Republican Assembly members are expected to leave.

Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia) was elected to the state Senate in a special election last week, but also won reelection to his Assembly seat. He has vowed to keep his Assembly seat as long as it takes to cast a vote for Brulte as Speaker, and then move to the Senate, where Democrats still hold a 21-17 majority, with two independents.

Once Mountjoy leaves for the Senate, the GOP majority would be 40 to 39.

Orange County Republican Assemblyman Ross Johnson of Fullerton and Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) also may be leaving. Johnson and Allen are both considering running for the state Senate seat being vacated on Jan. 2 by Marian Bergeson, who was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

If either Johnson or Allen departs, the Assembly would be plunged into a 39-39 tie.

Times staff writers Mark Gladstone and Eric Bailey in Sacramento and Ted Johnson in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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