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Power Shift Aside, Steve Peace Isn’t Conceding Defeat

Times Staff Writer

I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.

--Groucho Marx

Assemblyman Steve Peace, on the verge of being readmitted to the club that is the Assembly Democratic Caucus, isn’t sure he wants to be a member.

For nearly a year, Peace, a Chula Vista Democrat, helped lead a rebellion against Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). With five swing votes in the closely divided lower house, Peace and his four allies held the balance of power between 36 Republicans and the 39 Democrats loyal to Brown.

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Together with the Republicans, the so-called “Gang of Five” breathed new life into several bills that had been rejected by Assembly committees. They passed measures to beef up the death penalty and crack down on pornography. Another bill they rescued from certain defeat gave police new powers to use electronic eavesdropping in pursuit of drug traffickers.

Brilliant or Spoiled and Petulant?

But, in the November elections, Brown gained three previously Republican seats, and he seems assured of at least 42 faithful followers, even without support from the dissidents. Having written no successful legislation under his own name after being frozen out by Brown in 1988, Peace now runs the risk, if he continues his fight, of serving two more years with little to show for his effort.

“Big deal,” Peace replies when confronted with that scenario. “Anything really important to people, this Legislature doesn’t do. To be an ‘effective’ member of the Legislature is to be just another clown. I’m not interested in playing that game.”

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For Peace, the past 18 months have been a political roller-coaster ride. He has gone from the depths of considering quitting the Assembly in frustration to the heights of controlling its agenda, at least on some issues. And he has sunk back down to the humiliation of having his name placed in nomination for the speakership--against his will--only to see just 13 votes cast for him in the 80-member Assembly.

Peace has been called “brilliant,” “enigmatic” and “a spoiled, petulant child” by colleagues who acknowledge that they have yet to figure him out. Some believe the plot he helped hatch was an honest attempt to force the Assembly to better reflect the will of mainstream Californians. Others insist it was no more than a petty play for power.

“The problem they (Peace and his allies) have is that they never really had any moral standing,” said one Assembly Democrat who is close to Brown. “Revolutions can only sustain if they have moral standing. If they don’t, and they lose the math as well, then they are really out in the cold. That’s just a raw problem they are going to have to deal with.”

Now that the five dissidents no longer have the numbers to form a majority coalition with the GOP, top Democrats, from Brown on down, expect them to return to the fold. After the election, Brown said he was not “extending an olive branch” to the rebels but was hoping they would fall in line.

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Gang Still at It

“I would hope that they have completed their task of attempting to oust me,” Brown told reporters. “I would hope they would be as cooperative as I anticipate all other members will be.”

They weren’t. On Dec. 5, when the lawmakers were sworn into office for the new session, the Gang of Five was still at it. They tried to team with Republicans to form a solid front behind Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Alhambra) as an alternative to Brown. They hoped to muster 38 votes for Calderon and then entice at least three Latinos to desert Brown and make Calderon the first Latino speaker.

The ploy failed when four Republicans refused to go along. Then, last week, the dissidents met with Brown in an effort to reach common ground. But Peace insists that these developments do not mean defeat for the rebels.

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He contends that the Assembly, and Brown, would not even be talking about internal reform if it were not for the dissidents. They have pushed for a more balanced committee alignment so that bills--particularly criminal-justice measures--favored by a majority of the members do not get bottled up in policy committees.

Peace and company also want Brown to guarantee committee tenure so that members cannot be removed as punishment for a “bad vote” or taken off a committee to change the panel’s composition in anticipation of a close vote. Both ideas are now being considered by the Assembly leadership.

Peace claims that the leadership has also come around on the insurance issue. The Gang of Five’s initial split with Brown came when Peace and Calderon unsuccessfully pushed a “no-fault” insurance plan in the summer of 1987. Now the chairman of the Assembly Finance and Insurance Committee, a Brown ally, is talking up a similar plan.

An Ironic Legacy

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Yet Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) maintains that the dissidents’ only legacy is a stronger Democratic caucus more united behind Brown.

“I think they proved to the other Democrats in the caucus that we had to go out and make sure we had 41 working votes,” Roos said. “I think they propelled us into working as hard and as diligently and as effectively in local campaigns as we ever had before. That’s their ironic legacy.”

But to win those elections, Peace counters, Democrats, especially those in tight races, had to all but disavow the Assembly leadership.

“All the Democrats were out there pointing to their strong records on criminal justice issues and professing an interest in reforming the Legislature and getting back to business,” Peace said. “You had a whole bunch of incumbents running against themselves.”

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Peace said he has collected copies of virtually all the literature Democrats mailed to voters in the fall campaigns. And, in typical guerrilla fashion, he hinted broadly that the rebels will use that information to harass their fellow party members.

“We intend to ensure that members of the house vote the way they told their constituents they were going to vote,” Peace said.

‘It’s Like a Magnet’

As in the speakership battle, the hope in such a strategy has to be that the 33 Republicans and the five rebel Democrats can unite behind certain issues, then dangle the chance of legislative success in front of conservative Democrats to obtain the three extra votes needed to form a majority.

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“If we can put up 38 votes, it’s like a magnet,” said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson, a conservative Republican from Newport Beach who is one of the rebel faction’s biggest admirers. “It pulls some votes who wouldn’t otherwise come over. They realize that this is an issue that their constituents know about or are concerned about. It becomes tougher to resist.”

Although not impossible, this approach represents a much tougher task than putting together the simple 36-plus-5 coalition that existed throughout 1988. Perhaps for that reason, Peace is not closing the door to the idea that he might rejoin the Democratic Caucus as an active member if he detects “a genuine desire” to move the Assembly toward dealing with policy.

“We haven’t said we have to have things our way,” he said. “We just don’t want them to be stacked the other way.”

Yet Peace suggests that a wide gap still divides him from the party leadership. “Things are not looking very good,” he said.

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Still, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), another Brown lieutenant, said the door is open for Peace and the others--individually or as a group--to rejoin their fellow party members.

“It’s up to Steve,” Katz said. “He has the intelligence and the capability to be a very resourceful member and someone who makes a significant contribution. It’s a question of where he chooses to put his talent. Last year, he put it more into being a grenade launcher. It’s up to him whether he puts it to constructive use and problem solving.”


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