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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Willie Brown's Unlikely Turn as Folk Hero

December 08, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It was a two-day tragicomedy starring Willie Brown as the unlikely hero. All the laughing was at Republicans, the gang that couldn't count straight. The tragic character was Paul Horcher, the man without a party. Or political sense.

Brown's brilliance was not a shocker. The twist was that Brown, long a public villain, suddenly became a folk hero. People love a good comeback tale. Joe Montana in the fourth quarter. George Foreman, oldest heavyweight champ.

We open with GOP leader Jim Brulte boastfully predicting a quick knockout of the overmatched Brown. We close with Republicans cowering in caucus, not daring to venture within the old wizard's reach.

Willie the magician. He turns 39 Democratic votes into 40 when Horcher deserts the GOP, declares himself an independent and votes to keep Brown as Speaker. No knockout this day. It's a 40-40 draw.

The second day, a chief clerk whose parliamentary rulings had thwarted and angered Brown suddenly calls in sick, suffering from stress. Brown--"the senior member"--takes over as parliamentarian and presiding officer. Republicans run. Without a quorum, the magician can't turn himself back into a Speaker.

Time for an intermission. Next act: Jan. 4.

*

So where does all this stand, the greatest speakership fight of all time? The greatest, at least, since Willie Brown won the last momentous fight 14 years ago. Certainly it's bigger than the great fight he lost six years before that.

The point here is that Brown is a veteran brawler. As he said after his famous 1980 triumph, "Now this little black kid can count." Brulte, the untested challenger from Rancho Cucamonga, obviously hadn't learned to count by Monday's vote. That much we know. And really little else.

Where we stand is that Brulte won the first round, the Nov. 8 election when Republicans presumably picked up enough Assembly seats for control. Brown won the second round when Horcher defected and the clerk got sick. And about the only other thing we know is that everything else is guesswork.

We don't know for sure why Horcher, representing a conservative district in the east San Gabriel Valley, sided with Willie Brown of liberal San Francisco. Or why the clerk, a Brown protege, disappeared.

We can guess, however.

Maybe I'm Pollyannaish, but I think the clerk legitimately got sick. And not just because he produced a doctor's note. It makes for a better story to envision Brown taking him for a ride and suggesting a vacation. But the clerk is an uptight guy. And on Wednesday, after several hours of presiding over a tense House, he was verbally abused by some of the most verbally gifted Democrats. I'm guessing he got a pretty good headache.

*

As for Horcher, how can anyone assess irrationality or deal with an irrational man?

Here's a lawmaker who betrayed his party colleagues two years ago by accepting Brown's offer of a coveted committee vice chairmanship while the GOP caucus was fighting to get another Republican appointed.

Here's somebody, ironically, who in a Senate race this year accused his conservative opponent of being a lackey for Brown. A politician who refused to return the telephone calls of a governor trying to lobby for a Republican Speaker. But somebody who assured a friend he'd "be there for the governor" on the vote.

A dazed-looking man who showed up Monday with two press releases--one explaining why he'd deserted the GOP (the right wing has taken over), the other (soon discarded) saying why he'd voted for Brulte. Whose top aide promised a Brulte liaison that Horcher would be the GOP leader's 41st vote. A turncoat who minutes later during the roll call shouted "Brown" and banged his fist on the desk--instantly igniting a local recall movement.

What did Brown promise Horcher? Nothing, they both insist. And I believe it.

My guess is that Brown--despite the magician mystique--did very little to win this round. The most important thing he did was name Horcher to that committee vice chairmanship and so ruffle Republicans that they angrily treated their colleague like dirt for two years. A sullen, bitter Horcher finally took his revenge.

While Republicans were giving Horcher the silent treatment, Brown was playing him like Itzhak Perlman on a Stradivarius.

Now, what we don't know is whether in the next act Willie Brown will revert to being a villain, making it easier for some Democrats to vote against him. Whether Jim Brulte will learn to count. And just how tragic Paul Horcher will become.

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