The Capitol's latest mystery isn't a "whodunit" but a "did-he-say-it."
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is hopping mad, and he's turning up the heat on those who allege he suggested that the League of Women Voters should "stay in the kitchen where it belongs."
The angry San Francisco Democrat has accused a reporter of calling him a liar and publicly threatened to fire an aide who inadvertently helped fan the flames.
The object of Brown's ire was a second-hand report in a political newsletter alleging that he made the "kitchen" comment in March at a conference of 300 women in Ontario. Brown supposedly uttered the sexist slur because he was peeved at the League of Women Voters for backing Proposition 119, which would take the power to draw political district lines away from the Legislature.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, the story grew as it was repeated by political columnists and newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, until Brown sought Tuesday to bury the matter. Denying that he ever made the comment, Brown delivered a tongue-lashing to the reporter who started it all and to the press in general.
"It's one of the real tragedies of your business that sometimes you chase a story without asking anybody, including the person who allegedly said it, whether or not they said anything of that nature," Brown told reporters. "Many times for your own purposes, you'll print, 'When asked if they said it, they denied it.' "
When Bud Lembke, publisher of the newsletter Political Pulse, told Brown he was the one who first reported the comment, the Speaker turned on him.
"You're calling me a liar," Brown said. "You made a mistake and you refuse to acknowledge your mistake if you wrote that stupid column."
Lembke reminded Brown that his own press aide, Charles Dalldorf, had confirmed the account. In his April 13 newsletter, Lembke quoted Dalldorf as saying that Brown meant that the league's members "should stay in the kitchen because, basically, they have the luxury since they are generally all white and well-to-do."
Brown, referring to Dalldorf's use of the word "kitchen," said: "He will get fired if in fact he used that term with you."
The Speaker summoned his aide to the press conference and afterward, in front of his boss and a throng of reporters, Dalldorf confessed that Lembke had quoted him accurately. But Dalldorf said he had "postulated" what Brown might have meant without speaking to the lawmaker directly. Dalldorf remained on the staff Wednesday.
In a May 11 letter to the Sacramento Bee, Brown admitted using the word kitchen but said his quote had been mangled: "Where was the league, I asked, when the Proposition 119 endorsement was under consideration? Was it in the kitchen or elsewhere?"
Several newspaper reporters covered the event, but none mentioned the comment in their stories. They since have said that they don't remember it. Democratic Assemblyman Gerald Eaves of Rialto, who sponsored the conference, confirmed Brown's account.
But Sandy Hester of Claremont, who also was there, insists that Brown made the remark. Hester is a lifelong Democrat, a former party official and the 1988 Democratic nominee in the 25th Senate district.
"If Brown doesn't want things repeated, he shouldn't say them," Hester said Wednesday.