By agreeing to share power with a Democratic minority, Republicans in the state Assembly are about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Imagine what would have happened if, having won control of the House of Representatives after wandering 40 years in the political wilderness, Newt Gingrich was unable to win the speakership.
Imagine, just for a moment, that Rep. Richard Gephardt, the leader of the Democratic minority, had persuaded just enough Republicans to vote for him as Speaker.
No matter what the circumstances, no matter what the reasons and no matter who was responsible for the political betrayals, such a development would have been viewed as a personal failure for Gingrich. In addition, for blocking what was perceived as a sure thing, Gephardt would rightly be viewed as a political genius.
Something like that happened in Sacramento. While the GOP was celebrating its success at the national level in November, Californian Republicans were perhaps even more surprised and euphoric over their capture of 41 seats in the 80-member Assembly, seemingly assuring the election of a Republican Speaker. But wily Speaker Willie Brown pulled one more rabbit out of his hat and somehow denied the inevitable.
As Assemblyman Richard Katz, a Democrat from Panorama City, put it: "If Gephardt had done for the Democrats in Washington what Willie Brown is doing for the Democrats here, they'd be naming buildings after him."
That's true. It's also true that if Gingrich had failed to capitalize on the election of a majority of Republicans to the House, the Republican caucus would be shopping for another candidate for Speaker. And that's just what the Assembly's Republicans ought to be doing right now to resolve the speakership impasse.
Let's face it. Not only did Willie Brown work a little political magic by pulling over to his side Whittier Republican-turned- independent Paul Horcher, but, no matter how you slice it, would-be Assembly Speaker Jim Brulte blew it. Republicans had the votes and couldn't cash them in.
As much as Brown deserves credit, Brulte needs to accept some blame. That means stepping aside, at least temporarily, to make room for a compromise Republican candidate.
One candidate with significant support among the Democratic caucus has emerged. His name is Bernie Richter. He's a principled conservative from Chico who could end the stalemate and avoid working out the complicated details of a political power-sharing agreement.
Assembly Republicans have been understandably skeptical about supporting any candidate who might attract Democratic votes, and, more important, who is being supported as a compromise by Brown. Yet, Republicans should recall that Brown himself came to power 14 years ago with the support of Republicans who thought they were outsmarting their political opponents.
It's time for Assembly Republicans to claim their electoral mandate. Brown's Democrats are conceding it to them. All they need to do is take it by electing Richter as Speaker.
Why Richter? Because he is not power-hungry or ego-driven. He is a pragmatic man of ideas, one of the principals behind the legislative effort for civil-rights reform that would scrap affirmative action quotas in all state hiring and college enrollment policies. Just elected to his second term, the successful Northern California retailer is obviously not a lifer in politics--a quality that strikes a responsive chord with the public these days.
Shortly after the Horcher fiasco, Brulte announced that no other Republican would be an acceptable alternative to him as Speaker. In other words, he would rather establish an unprecedented power-sharing arrangement with the Democrats than accept a second-banana position for himself.
An undiluted speakership is a powerful institution. Why throw it away--or compromise it away--over personalities? Newt Gingrich did not win the House speakership on the power of his personality alone but on ideas--on a "contract with America." That's the model Assembly Republicans should follow.