He is at once the consummate insider and undeniable outsider, the man who has wielded unprecedented power in the halls of the Legislature as its longest-serving Speaker and, all the while, nursed the hurt that his political career will end there because, he says, California will not let an African-American man rise higher.
Whatever people think of him, he is the most polarizing of California political figures, a representation of awfulness to Republicans and the symbol of liberal persistence to Democrats. Say his name--everyone calls him "Willie"--and the vision conjures before you: The man in the luxurious Italian suits, shoes that cost more than a month's rent, the flashy sports cars, the visible love life and wisecracking, acerbic, genteel, insulting, gracious, ever perplexing Willie L. Brown Jr., assemblyman from San Francisco.
For the first time in 14 years, that is all he is--even though his staff continues to rankle Republicans by sending out press releases calling him "Speaker Brown." He is, actually, \o7 former\f7 Speaker Brown, the Assembly currently having a vacancy at the top. But even that has only added to the Brown legend.
Republicans, of course, counted him out, as so many have this former shoe-shine boy from Mineola, Tex. They had, after all, won 41 seats, a bare majority, in the Assembly last month, and with that came the speakership. Or so they thought. On judgment day earlier this month, all 39 Democrats cast their lot with Brown, and then--with a dramatic slap on his desk--so did Republican Paul Horcher of Diamond Bar.
The resulting 40-40 tie denied Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga the speakership. It prompted Horcher to cut his ties to the GOP--he turned independent. It led his spurned colleagues to mount a recall against Horcher. And it left Brown where he so often has been in the last 14 years, smiling and figuratively, at least, in control.
He says he has offered a deal to Brulte, allowing Brown to be Speaker until July, when Brulte would assume control. But Republicans refuse to consider it.
On Thursday, he was in Los Angeles, talking with reporters and editors from The Times about the serious business of government. But first there is small talk, of the kind that always arises around Brown. No, he is not going to Orange County, to see firsthand the financial crisis that has crippled that Republican outpost. No, he is not going to Sacramento, to do the state's business.
No, after this coffee-and-conversation, he is going Christmas shopping. But not at any mall. The Republicans may have cast his coveted speakership into limbo, the voters might have turned their noses at the liberalism he has long espoused, but Willie L. Brown Jr. is not trimming his sails. He is headed for Armani, he says with a cackle. There, he hears, he might score a deal.
Question: \o7 How in the world did you do it?\f7
Answer: It was pure, unadulterated luck. I had nothing to do with Mr. Horcher's decision.
Mr. Horcher came to me in early November--after the results became very clear--and he said, "If you are a candidate for Speaker, I will support you." About six months ago, he wanted to change registration, and he came to see me, and I suggested to him that he probably could not get elected (in his Republican district).
But they (Republicans) were so nasty to him . . . . If they walked into a room of this nature, and the only seat available was next to Horcher--nobody would sit in the chair. I could not assign any Republican to sit next to him on the floor. They just wanted to ostracize him; they wanted to destroy him. It really drove him batty. He was really angry. I've never seen anybody as angry. And his motivations were greater than any that could be generated by greed . . . .
Now, I had trouble with my membership. That required some skill, keeping all the membership in place while so many misrepresentations were being made. Each was told they were going to be dealt with harshly (by the Republicans). I had to keep saying it is not about winning the speakership--it is really about the policy agenda . . . . You should not compromise yourself just for personal reasons. Fortunately, not one Democrat did.
Q: \o7 Where do you go now?\f7
A: Mr. Brulte, he hasn't hit the wall. He still thinks he can win the speakership. 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 generally have built themselves into the Newt Gingrich mold. They really thought they were part of the national movement; they really thought their time had come. When it became apparent their time had not come, they became really angry. They are really, really angry.
I started Nov. 10, trying to talk to Brulte. I said the chances are of a 40-40 tie. I knew of Horcher. But I said, even if it isn't 40-40, you can't run this place with only a one-vote majority. It's crazy to even try to run it . . . .