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Is Willie Brown on the Eve of Political Destruction?

November 20, 1994|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's political obituary has been written before. But, as Mark Twain might caution, reports of Brown's demise have always been "exaggerated." There may be other political venues in the Speaker's future.

Brown arrived in Sacramento after the 1964 election and proceeded to make then-Speaker Jesse M. Unruh's life miserable. His independence cost him time in legislative Purgatory, but not for long.

By 1974, Brown was the anointed heir-presumptive to retiring Democratic speaker Robert Moretti. But he was vanquished by then-Assemblyman Leo T. McCarthy, who collected members' support in exchange for perks and power. That loss taught Brown an important lesson: The speakership cannot be inherited. In the 80-member Assembly, it has to be won--read: bartered for--vote by vote until 41 votes are secured.

In the bruising 1980 speakership war, Assemblyman Howard L. Berman, who controlled the majority of the Democratic caucus, forgot "the rule of 41." Brown remembered. He "gave away the candy store" to form a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to beat Berman.

In 1988, the legislative antics of dissident Democrats--the "Gang of Five"--temporarily left Brown without enough votes to protect his speakership. He was forced to turn again to Republicans for cover--until the fall elections enabled him to regain 41 loyal Democrats.

The 1994 elections were not so kind to Brown. As the absentee-ballot count winds down, Brown's best hope is to begin the next legislative session with an Assembly split 40-40 between Democrats and Republicans. Brown called the lame-duck Assembly (dominated by a safe Democratic majority) into special session last week to craft a rule that would allow bills to be paid if the new Assembly cannot elect a Speaker when it convenes next month. Not incidentally, the session also offered Brown a means to send a message that he was still in charge--until James L. Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), the current Assembly minority leader, or anyone else, can muster 41 votes.

But no matter what stunts Brown may pull over the next two years, this time Brown is irrevocably on the verge of losing his speakership powers.

If the new Assembly convenes with a Republican majority of 41 votes, conventional wisdom predicts that Brulte, who oversaw Republican Assembly victories, should be elected speaker. And he might if GOP maverick Paul V. Horcher, still smarting from a long list of affronts by his caucus, stays loyal to his party.

Even if Horcher hangs with the GOP, the balance of power in the Assembly is likely to teeter precariously between the Republicans and Democrats for at least the next few months, as GOP Assemblyman Richard J. Mountjoy resigns to take a state Senate seat he won in a special election and other Republicans jockey to replace Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who will take a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

To add to the dilemma, term limits have destabilized leadership by diluting a Speaker's ability to reward supporters and punish opponents.

In such precarious circumstances, nobody's control over the Assembly can be assured for long, without some sort of negotiated settlement. If Brown cuts a deal leaving him in the Speaker's chair, he will probably have to cede some power, staff, resources and appointments to Brulte and the Republicans. Brown could wind up Speaker in name only.

In fact, whoever wins will likely find his legislative sails trimmed by the overriding need for bipartisan cooperation if anything is to be accomplished. To ensure continuity of leadership, the next Speaker--and future speakers--may have to share control of the Assembly with members of a powerful Rules Committee. That's the way the state Senate operates.

If Brown can't pry Republican votes loose, he could wind up as minority leader, an alien and diminished role for him. When Unruh assumed that post, after losing the Assembly to the Republicans in 1968, he found his agenda blocked, his fund-raising clout diminished and his political career temporarily stymied.

Brown could be similarly frustrated. The ability to raise large sums of campaign money is the fuel that has powered his speakership.

But in today's confrontational politics, obstructionism can be as potent as activism was in Unruh's day. Brown has already discovered the clout that stems from the ability to block legislation. And he knows you don't need the speakership to do that.

Losing the speakership, furthermore, need not mean an end to Brown's political career. He has rarely flirted with higher office, a recognition of his considerable political baggage. Indeed, on surpassing Unruh's tenure in office, Brown announced he intended to remain Speaker "in perpetuity."

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