Savoring victories in a number of hard-fought Assembly races, Speaker Willie Brown asserted Wednesday he had effectively crushed a move to oust him by five dissident Democrats, and confidently predicted that he will retain the Speaker’s post with the unanimous support of members from both political parties.
“I see my future after the election just as I saw it before the election,” the San Francisco Democrat told reporters at a press conference. “I anticipated continuing to serve as Speaker of this house with no prospects of going any other place.”
Tuesday’s election, in which unofficial returns showed that three incumbent Republicans had been ousted in the Assembly, threatens the political future of Assembly GOP leader Pat Nolan of Glendale. One Republican Assembly member, requesting anonymity, said an agreement had been reached in which Nolan will step down today.
“It’s a done deal,” the legislator said.
Among the likely replacements for Nolan are GOP Assemblymen Ross Johnson of La Habra and Bill Jones of Fresno.
Over the longer term, the outcome of the election, according to leaders of both parties, also makes it much more difficult for Republicans to capture control of either house of the Legislature in time to influence the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries.
After a victory luncheon and a brief closed-door Democratic caucus, Brown announced that his party colleagues had nominated him for Speaker on a voice vote without dissent. “There are 41 votes for Willie Brown for Speaker and that is the end of the conversation,” Brown told reporters.
Uncharacteristically subdued and somber at times at the press conference, Brown cast himself in a new role as a reformer intent on cleansing the Legislature’s tarnished image. He declared that a continuing federal investigation of alleged Capitol corruption “mandates that as a leader of this house, I play the lead role in trying to change that perception. And I do intend to do that.”
Brown, the Legislature’s consummate political operator, suggested that his first step might be to curb his own appetite for political intrigue, such as the struggle for his Speaker’s post. “I want to get away from that. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t do it well. It’s frankly unbecoming,” he said deadpan.
Although Democrats hold a majority in the 80-member Assembly, Brown--with 38 loyalists--had been unable to exert control because of the defections of the dissidents, known as the “Gang of Five.” But according to the unofficial vote tally, forces allied with Brown managed to capture the exact number of seats Brown needs to retake control and assure his own political future.
In these three high-spending contests, Republican incumbent Paul E. Zeltner of Lakewood lost to Democratic challenger Willard Murray Jr. of Compton, while Democrat Ted Lempert, a San Mateo attorney, ousted freshman Republican William P. Duplissea of San Carlos. In the third race, Democrat Bob Epple, a Norwalk attorney, beat Republican Wayne Grisham, a two-term incumbent, by less than 100 votes.
However, Grisham did not concede defeat and his campaign manager said he is hopeful that the outcome will be reversed once late absentee ballots are counted. But Brown said he is confident that Epple will emerge as the winner.
Only weeks ago, members of the dissident Gang of Five boasted that they had the votes to oust Brown from the speakership. On Wednesday, the Speaker said he tried to contact the rebels but they failed to return his phone calls.
While leaving “an open door of opportunity” for the five to return to his fold, Brown cautioned that “there are no olive branches being extended to anyone. . . . They may have been a Gang of Five in a prior life, but this is a new life.”
Earlier, Brown said: “I would hope that they have completed their task of attempting to oust me. I would hope that they would be as cooperative as I anticipate all other members will be.”
Assemblyman Gary A. Condit of Ceres, one of the five, told reporters before entering the Democratic caucus meeting that while the Gang of Five will not immediately move to oust Brown, there is no talk of disbanding. “We’re back, we’re strong and we’re still here,” Condit said.
The results of the election are equally threatening to Nolan, who besides being involved in the FBI corruption investigation, fell short in his primary responsibility to build Republican membership in the lower house.
Early Wednesday, Nolan abruptly canceled a scheduled Capitol press conference at which he was to discuss the election results. Instead, he issued a stinging statement accusing the Democratic winners of conducting “a campaign of lies and distortions.”
“The Assembly Republicans were overwhelmed by massive infusions of money from the national Democratic leadership,” Nolan said.
Brown, raising his voice for the first time at his press conference, told reporters in reply, “I think (Nolan) should have been man enough to come in and look you in the face after telling you that he was going to kick me out, after telling you that I would never be Speaker. After giving you all of those crazy representations, he ought to come in and say, ‘Gentlemen, I lied.’ ”
If the official tally mirrors the unofficial returns, both houses will remain in Democratic hands, with Democrats enjoying a 46-33 margin over Republicans in the Assembly and a 24-15 margin in the Senate. The Senate also has one independent member. There is one vacancy in the Assembly because of the election Tuesday of Democrat Curtis R. Tucker of Inglewood, who died after winning his party’s nomination in June. A special election will be held to fill Tucker’s seat.
While Republicans held their own in the Senate, they failed to gain any seats when incumbent Democrat Cecil N. Green of Norwalk narrowly beat back a well-financed challenge from Republican Don Knabe, an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana.
Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), delighted that Democrats held onto Green’s seat, said he believed that it “is just insurmountable” for Republicans to take control of the Senate in 1990 when the majority party will be in charge of the reapportionment process.
Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, who earlier had said that the Assembly represented the GOP’s best change of taking control, said he now feels that it would be “a monumental task” to gain control of the Senate in time for reapportionment.
The GOP losses in the Assembly, he added, “strengthens our commitment for a reapportionment in 1990, either by negotiation or through the courts, if we do not have control of one house or the governorship. Otherwise we are going to go through a decade of the 1990s losing races.”
Maddy blamed the GOP losses of Knabe, Zeltner and Grisham, all of whom come from the same southeast Los Angeles County area, on the “extreme effectiveness” of the Democrat-fashioned reapportionment of the mid-1980s and on a surge of momentum staged by Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the last few days of the presidential campaign in California.
“The Dukakis surge in the last two weeks reinforced the enthusiasm of the Democrats to get their voters to the polls,” Maddy said.
An important factor in Lempert’s win over Duplissea in San Mateo County may have been the challenger’s theme in radio commercials that “the California Legislature used to be a model for the nation, but now it has a reputation for corruption.”
Brown took note of this pervasive image when he pledged to adopt a series of house reforms, including establishing an Assembly Ethics Committee.
The Legislature already has an ethics committee run jointly by the Senate and Assembly but it has not met for three years.
Brown said he also intends to embrace other suggestions by a committee he established earlier this year, including giving more power to the Assembly Rules Committee to veto decisions of the Speaker, and curbing the Speaker’s power to discipline dissident members.
Dissident Condit said that at first glance the reforms appear to “consolidate the power of the Speaker. . . . They look more cosmetic than comprehensive.” Contributing to this story were staff writers Carl Ingram, Mark Gladstone, Dan Weintraub and Paul Jacobs.