Controversial Assembly Speaker : Willie Brown: He Has the Power, Plans to Keep It
More than five years after artfully maneuvering into power in the midst of a bitter struggle between two Democratic colleagues, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown claims to have mastered the art of the impossible.
Bucking a conservative trend among California voters and frequent controversy generated by his own political style, Brown has survived a voter mandate to slash the Speaker’s powers, quelled much of the vocal opposition to his leadership in the Assembly and emerged with his Democratic majority solidly in place. Today, he seems to be firmly entrenched in his volatile and powerful post and has no plans to give it up.
“When people talk about the end for me, they are talking about 20 years from now,” Brown said during a recent Los Angeles fund-raising dinner.
Expanding on that prediction during an interview in his San Francisco law office, Brown boasted: “My future plans are to be Speaker, and that’s unlimited. . . . I’ve always proven to be the impossible and to do the impossible and this will be no different.”
Already Brown has outlasted every Speaker except Jesse Unruh, California’s anointed Big Daddy of politics who managed to hold the speakership reins for seven years. That is a record that friends say Brown is intent on breaking.
It will be no easy task, however. Democratic voter registration has been on a six-year slide, and now a number of Brown’s most loyal supporters and potent fund-raisers in the Assembly either are retiring or running for another office. There is also an unsettling investigation into connections between some of Brown’s top lieutenants and convicted political corruption figure W. Patrick Moriarty.
If none of that has shaken his confidence--and he insists that it has not--Brown these days is being called on to defend his speakership against an unflattering picture painted by critics, some of whom say his controversial image is hurting the Democratic Party.
Although widely respected for his political skills, some colleagues contend behind the scenes that Brown mostly acts as a “groundskeeper,” focusing on holding his Democratic majority together while not risking erosion of his power by taking strong stands on policy issues that are divisive within his caucus.
Set Fund-Raising Pace
Many also blame him in part for the Legislature’s ceaseless emphasis on campaign fund-raising. Even while portraying himself as the Assembly’s strongest advocate of campaign reform, Brown has set the pace with extravagant fund-raisers, taking in millions of dollars from lobbyists and firms with important matters pending before the Legislature.
It is not a new practice, nor is it strictly the domain of Assembly Democrats. Republican Gov. George Deukmejian with his $7.2 million in contributions for his reelection effort--much of it raised from big business and those who have dealings with the state--easily holds the record as California’s most potent fund-raiser.
But Brown, using a system of money transfers that has drawn strong criticism from Republicans, has become, in effect, the state’s largest political donor. In the last general election, he raised $4.2 million--much of it from powerful special interests--dispensing it to Democratic colleagues in tough races. That is more than three times the amount raised by his immediate predecessor, Leo McCarthy, in his last year as Speaker.
Some lawmakers report they now spend 50% to 70% of their time raising money during election years.
Said one veteran lobbyist: “I’ve had legislators talking (to me) in front of their staffs, saying, ‘Why haven’t you been around here to help me?’ They’re very open about (the money). . . . This whole thing didn’t start with Willie, but he is so smart that he knows how to play it better than anyone.”
Brown remains defiant to criticism about his leadership style, insisting that to force his ideology on his colleagues “would do irreparable damage to the institution and certainly to the speakership.”
‘My Greatest Regret’
But in discussing fund-raising excesses, Brown was contrite, confessing that the damage to the Legislature and his own image caused by the present system of financing legislative campaigns “is my greatest regret.”
“I think there is an unsavory appearance,” he said. “It gives the institution a black eye, and I want to remove it.”
Nonetheless, Brown complained that while Deukmejian raises far more than he does from many of the same special-interest groups, “no one ever suggests that (the governor) signed a bill because of some campaign contribution.”
Asked why he does not try to set an example by limiting his own fund-raising activities, Brown said: “Because I’m not a fool. . . . I’d be sitting there, and my successor probably would be someone who would be making horrendous, horrible public policy. So I am willing to take the heat.”
Just two years ago, when Democrats were holding their national convention in Brown’s hometown of San Francisco, he was awash in national publicity as California’s first black Speaker and a celebrity in his own right. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and “60 Minutes” all carried favorable profiles liberally sprinkled with his provocative wit and enlivened with accounts of his gold-plated taste in clothes and cars. Newsweek called him the “Ayatollah of California.”
This year, however, California magazine called Brown the “King of Juice” in a cover article that focused on what it described as his skills at squeezing campaign donations from influential special interests. Time magazine, too, homed in on Brown’s fund-raising in an unflattering portrait of “California’s Political Gold Rush.”
Brown, meanwhile, bitterly resents being continually asked by reporters to comment on the Moriarty investigation. The probe, which thus far has brought 10 indictments or convictions, involves charges that lawmakers, some close to Brown, were offered favors, including profitable business deals and prostitutes, to support legislation sought by the former fireworks magnate.
‘Newspaper Story Only’
In his most combative style, Brown turns those questions away by noting that no Assembly members have been criminally charged and by repeatedly referring to the investigation as “a newspaper story and a newspaper story only.”
Clint Reilly, a longtime Democratic campaign manager and one of only a few Democrats to publicly criticize Brown, contends that the Speaker’s public persona is fast becoming a liability to the party.
“What is basically being projected to the world is that the Democratic Party is a combination of Calvin Klein and Miami Vice,” Reilly said. “This is what the workingman’s party has been reduced to, this man who is walking around in $1,500 suits, who’s driving $100,000 cars. You like to read about these people, but don’t want to be represented by them.”
Bobbie Metzger, former press secretary to the Speaker and an unabashed supporter, argued that Brown’s image has suffered because, unlike many politicians, he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he lives “in the fast lane, he has money and he knows the right people.”
It hasn’t always been that way. The son of a railroad porter in Mineola, Tex., Brown’s beginnings were humble. Growing up in his grandmother’s one-room house, he worked as a janitor to pay his way through college and law school and has appeared to be running from those memories ever since.
Close associates say his flamboyance and tastes for expensive suits and flashy cars, such as his $100,000 Ferrari, are a reaction to those early days of poverty that seemed to have ignited his ambition and an insatiable desire for respect.
1980 Speakership Battle
Brown’s leadership style, according to friends and foes alike, was forged in a 1980 speakership battle in which Brown adroitly rose to power in a vacuum created by a split between then-Speaker McCarthy and his challenger, then-Assemblyman Howard Berman, who represented Los Angeles’ affluent and politically active Westside.
Allying himself with a minority of Assembly Democrats who were fed up with a yearlong stalemate, Brown bucked convention and cut a deal with Republicans that gave him the majority he needed to become Speaker.
It was a nasty and expensive fight. In the end, McCarthy was ousted because--it was charged-- he spent too little time looking after the concerns of Assembly members and too much time pushing his own political and ideological agendas. Two years later, McCarthy and Berman both left the Assembly and ran successfully for higher office--lieutenant governor and House of Representatives, respectively.
Brown learned two important lessons: Keep the members happy, and big battles raise big money.
His formula for success included a “consensus” style of leadership that allowed others to take credit for important legislation even when it originated in his office.
Brown also began to step up his efforts to build a huge war chest, expanding on fund-raising techniques pioneered by Unruh. Because he represented a safe district politically and seldom faced a serious challenge to his own seat, Brown could target lobbyists on both sides of every big spending battle and then give the bulk of his money to colleagues, bolstering his own power base and his Democratic majority.
Learned From Predecessors
“I learned from all my predecessor Speakers, both from their strengths and weaknesses, and I have desperately tried to avoid repeating any of their mistakes,” Brown said.
A skillful tactician, he also learned to apply the considerable powers of his office to reward friends and punish enemies. Democratic loyalists get such perks as bigger offices and key committee chairmanships that not only are influential but provide a base from which to raise large campaign contributions. Other supporters get appointments to state boards and commissions.
Brown also was successful in applying his carrot-and-stick approach to Republican rivals. After providing him with the votes he needed to become Speaker, Republicans found themselves with more power in running the Assembly. But after the 1982 elections in which Brown succeeded in unifying his divided Democratic caucus, he had little need for GOP support and stripped Republicans of their new-found powers only to return them once again in 1984 when they agreed to elect a minority leader that he favored.
Early on, Brown’s style seemed to pay dividends. He was instrumental in pushing through Deukmejian’s plan for curing a $1.5-billion deficit left behind by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., as well as other important legislation.
It included an $800-million boost in public school financing that Deukmejian first fought against and then embraced as his own and a major overhaul of Medi-Cal and private health insurance programs that was moved through the house so rapidly that physician groups and hospitals were unable to muster their forces in time to defeat it.
Applauded for Stands
Brown was also applauded within his own Democratic caucus for the strong stands that he has taken on such divisive issues as apartheid and community college fees.
But while Unruh is remembered for professionalizing the Legislature and McCarthy is given credit for opening the committee system to public scrutiny, Brown’s decision to keep his name off important bills left him with an uncertain legacy.
Late in 1984, he moved to change all that. Vowing to become the “focal point” in policy matters in his house, Brown unveiled an ambitious list of legislation that for the first time would carry his name. “I don’t intend to walk away until I’ve got that footnote in history,” he declared.
It was, by all outward signs, a new Willie Brown, buoyed by the 1984 elections in which voters repudiated a series of hostile ballot initiatives and election campaigns mounted against more than half a dozen of his Democratic allies.
Working behind the scenes, he also managed to limit the effect of Paul Gann’s Proposition 24, the 1984 voter-approved initiative aimed at curbing the Speaker’s powers. Brown did that by persuading a group of Republicans headed by Assemblyman Pat Nolan of Glendale to approve rule changes that, while appearing to satisfy the measure, left his considerable powers intact.
With those victories behind him, however, Brown succeeded in enacting only one measure on the long list of legislation that he vowed would become the legacy of his speakership.
That was his mandatory seat belt bill. He considers passage of that bill the “high point” in his 22-year legislative career that also was marked by sponsorship of a bill to decriminalize marijuana use in small amounts and a “sexual bill of rights” that legalized all forms of sex between consenting adults. Remaining on his list are major health-care reforms, measures to expand control of toxic wastes, a package of anti-crime bills and a much talked about political campaign reform measure.
‘I Will Succeed’
“Score cards mean nothing to me,” Brown said of his unrealized legislative agenda. “I will succeed in one way or another.”
This year, for the first time, Brown went on television one day before the governor’s State of the State address in early January to present the Assembly Democrats’ vision of California’s future on issues ranging from toxics to insurance. But some of the party’s most important priorities were inadvertently left out, and colleagues privately complained that the message seemed aimed more at the Capitol lobby and legislative insiders than at the public at large.
Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hayden of Santa Monica said he believes Brown is “struggling to find a balance between two poles--a caretaker or a Speaker who exerts leadership on issues.”
“I wish he would take a strong stand on some of those intensely divisive issues,” Hayden said, “but he may be right that it would undermine the unity of the Democratic majority.”
In one highly controversial instance last year, Brown took such a stand, but the fallout did little to bolster his image. In a rare display of raw political power, Brown halted all Assembly business while he publicly twisted the arms of his colleagues to gain passage of a bill opening California’s lucrative eyeglass business to corporate franchises.
Even tough-talking Assembly Rules Committee Chairman Louis J. Papan (D-Millbrae), who just hours before had assailed the bill on the Assembly floor, changed his vote after Brown called him to the dais for some face-to-face lobbying. “Leadership has to be reinforced,” Papan later told reporters.
Brown has repeatedly denied that his actions were related to major contributions given by interest groups on both side of the issue. But he has has never fully explained why he stepped into the eye of the storm. Close associates said they know but will never tell, a stance that only fueled the Capitol’s rumor mill.
‘Stay Out of the Fight’
“One way to raise money is to stay out of the fight; let caucus members fight over it until there is a fairly close balance,” GOP Assemblyman Robert W. Naylor of Menlo Park offered as one explanation. A former minority leader who has often clashed with Brown, Naylor asserted: “Having an unresolved position generates money from both sides.”
Of all the moves Brown has made in recent years, none has stirred as much controversy within the Assembly and among Brown’s own employees as his decision late last year to hire as his chief of staff veteran Democratic campaign consultant Richard Ross.
The appointment of Ross, an abrasive but street-wise political adviser to most Assembly Democrats, openly fused politics and public policy under one office as never before. At the same time he was overseeing the Speaker’s legislative agenda, Ross continued to head a successful private political consulting firm that had a solid lock on the campaigns of most Assembly Democrats. His appointment led to the defections of several top Brown staffers.
Within three months of taking the job, Ross found himself embroiled in charges that he used state money to promote the candidacy of certain Democratic Assembly members. Specifically, Ross set up a telephone boiler room operation of state-paid workers to conduct voter surveys in the districts of four Democrats who were expected to face tough reelection challenges this fall.
The Fair Political Practices Commission said it found nothing illegal about the operation since the callers did not “expressly advocate the nomination, election or defeat of any candidate.”
Ross, who has since taken a leave of absence from his state job to run Democratic campaigns, told a Times reporter: “I’ve been playing it close to the foul line for a long time. But politics is like baseball. Ties go to the runner.”
Brown bristles at any suggestion that he might have erred in hiring Ross. “I want policy people who are campaigners,” Brown said, “and I will defend their conduct from any criticism, period.”
Despite such controversies, even disaffected staff members remain fiercely loyal to Brown while his critics continue to paint him as symbolic of all that is wrong with California politics.
“In a way, you can’t help but like him,” said Walter Zelman, who heads the California branch of Common Cause. “And yet, you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘If I could only have the guy for a half hour and get him to do a couple of things, he’d be fantastic.’ ”
Said FPPC Director John Keplinger: “He’s just so smart. Sometimes you get the feeling that he could have been so much more.”
Held to Higher Standard
Assemblyman Thomas M. Hannigan (D-Fairfield), a loyalist who once was rumored as a possible replacement for Brown, said the Speaker has suffered because he is held to a higher standard than other political leaders. “It seems as though minorities and women have problems because they are seen by some as coming too far too fast,” Hannigan said.
As for Brown, he said he is satisfied that he runs a house “where I have less than 10 critics.”
“That is an awesome respect for my leadership, and that’s the most important thing for me,” he said. Pausing, Brown added: “That’s particularly true for anyone who can say that with any degree of honesty in the sixth year of his speakership.”