Assembly powerhouse Willie Brown, in a wide-ranging interview Thursday with Times editors and reporters, said the maneuvering that denied Republicans leadership of the Assembly earlier this month resulted not from his legendary political skills but from "pure, unadulterated luck."
And, in remarks sure to ratchet up the level of rancor developing between the former Speaker and the GOP leader seeking to replace him, Brown criticized Assemblyman Jim Brulte as a man captive to his own errant ambitions who is refusing to bend for the good of the Assembly.
"Mr. Brulte, he hasn't hit the wall. He still thinks he can win the speakership," Brown said, clearly delighted at the recent turn of events. "Apparently, the month of promising the world that he was going to be Speaker raised the level of expectations among Republicans so much so that they are irrational. . . . They really thought their time had come and when it became apparent their time had not come, they became really angry."
Brulte returned the sentiment in kind, angrily denouncing Brown in a telephone interview from his Sacramento office as a man willing to do anything to retain the speakership. Technically, there is no Speaker at present because the Assembly has deadlocked 40 to 40 between Brown and Brulte.
"The voters of California overwhelmingly voted for change," Brulte said. "And there are two candidates for Speaker. One, Willie Brown, represents the status quo. The other, Jim Brulte, represents change."
Brown and Brulte also disagreed over the terms of a deal that Brown said he offered the Republican leader to solve the Assembly's leadership dilemma. Brown told The Times that he promised to step down as Speaker in July, after the state budget is enacted, and give the job to Brulte. Brulte said Brown only promised to turn the job over at the end of 1995. Either course, Brulte said, is unacceptable to Republicans.
In other comments during the one-hour interview in Los Angeles:
* Brown said he would support lending state money to newly bankrupt Orange County if it is necessary to keep police and fire agencies and the schools afloat. But he noted with some glee that he looks forward to the pleas of the very Orange County legislators who have turned a deaf ear to bailout requests from other areas, including Brown's own earthquake-ravaged San Francisco in 1989.
* He described Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as potentially a "very strong" GOP nominee for the presidency in 1996, and said his own party was in such disarray that it could no longer figure out the most basic of political calculations--the makeup of its constituency.
* In tones more bittersweet than defiant, Brown said racism has stalled his political climb, which he said he had hoped could end at the presidency.
"I had to make the hard decision that the speakership was where I would spend my energy and my time and make my contribution," he said. "I could not even consider any other alternative that I might foresee as equal to my skills simply because of the level of racism that exists in this state."
Brown said Republicans had consistently made him a "hate object," putting him on the ballot figuratively although he has never officially ventured outside his safe San Francisco district. He said his race contributed to their success in demonizing him, comparing it to former President George Bush's use of a black convict to slash at Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.
"It's very easy for a guy in Chico to make me out as an evil person," he said. "There's a certain amount of racism in the system, particularly in those isolated places where . . . there's no diversity. And when someone up there says Willie Brown is evil, just look at him, you automatically get Willie Horton or you automatically get somebody who is awful. That makes it very difficult."
He acknowledged, however, that he has contributed to his own political pigeonholing with his extravagant lifestyle and freewheeling verbiage.
"I am not an ordinary person by any stretch of the imagination," he said, and then issued a wide grin. "I work at not being ordinary."
The speakership, and titular control of the Assembly, was thought to be in Republican hands after the returns came in from November's elections. The GOP won 41 seats, a bare majority that could have delivered the top job. But a month after the election, events took a dramatic turn.
In a showdown vote in the Capitol, all of Brown's Democrats backed him, giving him 39 votes. He was able to block Brulte's ascent when Republican Paul Horcher of Diamond Bar, asked for his vote, banged his fist on his desk and shouted "Brown!"
The move stunned Republicans, who thought they had Horcher's vote and who claimed that Brown had bought him off. Horcher subsequently announced that he is leaving the GOP to become an independent, and Republicans are mounting a recall against him.
But Brown said he knew he had Horcher's vote a month before it was cast.