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Why Arnold invited Willie Brown

December 31, 2006|James Richardson | JAMES RICHARDSON, chaplain of the state Senate, is the author of "Willie Brown: A Biography."

IF YOU ARE NEW to California, or missed a few chapters of the long-running Sacramento political melodrama, you may be excused if you are somewhat bewildered by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's choice of Democratic kingpin Willie Brown as master of ceremonies at the governor's Jan. 5 inaugural.

Is this the same Willie Brown who tormented Republicans for nearly 15 years as the self-proclaimed "Ayatollah of the Legislature," the same former Assembly speaker who stuck it to Republicans on policies as diverse as tort reform and taxes, the same guy who went on to become mayor of ultra-liberal San Francisco?

Yes, that Willie Brown.

You are entitled to wonder whether Schwarzenegger's invitation to Brown signals an era of bipartisan cooperation or a complete cave-in by the governor to the Democratic-dominated Legislature. Well, you are probably wondering too much. For it may simply be that Schwarzenegger, the former actor turned politician, knows a great entertainer when he sees one. If nothing else, Brown, 72, will be worth a few laughs at the inauguration. The show is already the hottest ticket in Sacramento.

Brown's role as emcee also says something about Schwarzenegger feeling safe in his own skin, for he will surely need a thick hide to withstand the ribbing and one-upmanship that will flow when Brown takes the stage.

When I last interviewed Brown, he was preparing to leave office as mayor of San Francisco. He referred to the state Capitol as "Comedy Central," but after he left City Hall, it took him no time to make his way back to his old haunts and take up life as a lobbyist, consultant and go-to man.

Brown also represents a reality that Schwarzenegger must continue to bow to if he's going to get anything done -- play by Sacramento's rules. Brown is the living icon of those rules. After all, he wrote them. In fact, Schwarzenegger came to that realization last year after his four ballot propositions were overwhelmingly defeated. After that debacle, the governor made deals with Democratic legislative leaders, and the results all but ensured his reelection.

That Schwarzenegger and Brown are friends is hardly surprising, given that they have similar temperaments and tastes (though Brown dislikes cigars and is not known to have ridden a motorcycle). Both Brown and Schwarzenegger like expensive clothes and cars, and both enjoy being seen in high-end restaurants. Both have an appreciation of each others' world: Brown loves to attend the Academy Awards and has Hollywood friends, and Schwarzenegger, in reality, is no newcomer to politics, having raised money and made guest appearances for a variety of GOP candidates for a decade before he ran himself.

The two became friends soon after Schwarzenegger won the 2003 recall election and replaced then-Gov. Gray Davis, whom Brown always considered drab and too much the loner. As governor, Schwarzenegger appeared as a guest on Brown's weekly podcast program. And Brown famously snubbed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides by inviting Schwarzenegger to his annual San Francisco breakfast in October, where he announced to the assembled professional Democrats that Angelides was doomed to defeat.

All this fits an old story. The many contradictions of California politics are embodied in Brown, an African American politician who grew up in Depression-era Texas and was elected to the California Assembly by a predominantly white district in San Francisco. He has flourished through every political tidal wave of the last half-century, from the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s to the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and the anti-tax crusades of the 1970s. Most remarkably, Brown was elected speaker of the Assembly in 1980 after besting his Democratic rival, Howard Berman, by winning the crucial support of Republicans.

Over the years, Republicans raised enormous amounts of campaign cash by demonizing Brown. He, in turn, raised enormous amounts of campaign cash by branding Republicans as dangerous reactionaries. What was seldom noticed in the overheated rhetoric is that Republican Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson enjoyed huge success by cutting deals with Brown. Deukmejian was able to ramp up the largest prison construction program in history and toughen nearly every criminal law. In exchange, Deukmejian signed sweeping environmental protection laws and approved of California's divestment of billions of dollars from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa, both goals of Brown.

In 1992, Wilson was handed what was then the worst budget deficit in the state's history, and his approval rating plummeted. After a standoff that lasted the summer, Wilson balanced the budget by compromising with Brown. The deal helped set the stage for Wilson's reelection, and Brown mortally wounded the Democratic nominee, Kathleen Brown, by declaring her a sure loser.

If all that sounds familiar, it should. Governors get things done in Sacramento by making deals with legislative leaders, one at a time. Legislative leaders get things done by helping governors. Posturing eventually gives way to legislating. Few have done it longer than Brown, and none have mastered the art as skillfully or as creatively. Brown has advised every governor since Ronald Reagan. That Schwarzenegger consults with the old pro is only smart -- and could make for entertainment as well.

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