The California political Establishment was in panting pursuit last week of an answer to the hottest-yet version of a perennial question: "What's Willie up to?"
What's this? Running for governor? Assembly Speaker Willie Brown? Really? Incredible. No way would he do that. But then. . . .
As usual, no one had the answer except for Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) himself, the peripatetic master of intrigue and manipulation whose political plots always seem to be deep and enigmatic. And Brown was being his usual enigmatic self about it.
The latest Willie Brown guessing game was triggered when Alice Huffman, political director of the California Teachers Assn. and a Brown ally, launched a campaign to draft the Speaker as a candidate for governor or for other statewide office in 1994.
The boomlet went aloft without Brown's knowledge or consent, she insisted, as did other friends of the Speaker.
Yeah, sure, Willie-watchers responded. No friend of Willie Brown starts anything like that without his permission, they reasoned. Taking the next step, some speculated that Brown engineered the whole thing himself.
Not so, his office insisted. But Brown responded to a general question about running for governor in 1994 by saying: "If there was a draft that came along and sufficiently had the security of my being able to win as I have won the speakership, I'd have to consider it."
That is a tough test because Brown has had the speakership virtually wired for the last dozen years, longer than any other Assembly leader. No one could have such assurance of either winning the Democratic nomination for governor or defeating Gov. Pete Wilson, the presumed Republican candidate in the 1994 election.
Although Brown has long been recognized as the state's second-most-powerful politician--next to the governor--there never has been serious talk about his running for statewide elected office.
So what is Willie up to? Is there any political advantage to be skimmed from this bubbling political pot?
A survey of California political insiders and experienced Willie-watchers--most of whom would not be quoted on the record--produced these potential motives:
* Brown wants to play kingmaker--or at least be a force--in the selection of the Democratic candidate for governor. At this point, more than 14 months in advance of the primary, the contest seems to be locked into a battle between state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and Treasurer Kathleen Brown with little input or involvement from the Speaker. If a Democrat is elected governor, Brown would prefer one in debt to him.
* The term limits initiative will force Brown from his Assembly seat and speakership by 1996. Brown, 58, is keen on leaving a legacy of an achiever, not just a manipulator who is more interested in the game of government and politics than the product. Believers in this theory cite two other recent moves by Brown that seemed designed to craft his niche as a statesman--his sponsorship of the recent state economic summit and his work as a negotiator in the talks to prevent a strike by Los Angeles city schoolteachers.
* By keeping the pot stirred, Brown enhances his political clout as he prepares to do battle with Wilson again over a new state budget.
* Willie is just being Willie, creating political mischief.
* Some or all of the above.
One scenario is that Brown wants to dampen the perception that Kathleen Brown, the daughter of former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown and sister of former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, is unbeatable for the Democratic nomination for governor. Willie Brown and Kathleen Brown are not exactly close political friends.
One Democratic insider sympathetic to Kathleen Brown believes that Willie Brown wants to keep major Democrats from jumping on her bandwagon this early so the Speaker can serve as a sort of powerbroker in the governor's race.
"He has decided that this thing was getting sealed too quickly," the Democrat said.
According to this reasoning, Brown is eager for the Legislature to reform the state workers' compensation system and may need Garamendi's help to do that. This would help clear Brown of the rap that he is anti-business and that his closeness to trial lawyers has been the major impediment to workers' comp reform. Workers' compensation is one of the major examples of gridlock in Sacramento.
Another theory is that Brown is seeking to enhance his prospects of being an influential peacemaker among the Democratic contenders for governor. As a supporter of former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein for governor in 1990, Brown believes that Feinstein's tough primary fight with fellow Democrat John K. Van de Kamp contributed to her defeat by Wilson.
In a meeting with Times editors in 1991, as a variety of Democrats jockeyed for position in the 1992 Senate races, Brown said: "I think the best shot we have at winning elections as Democrats in this state is to have as clean a primary as possible. . . . We would be better off if we didn't dump our resources in the primary, that we wouldn't have our candidates taking strange positions in the primary that they can't back away from in the general."
If Brown performed such a peacemaker's role in 1994, the Democratic nominee, if elected governor, might be obligated to Brown during the final two years of his Assembly leadership.
Republicans have held the governorship in all but two of Brown's years as Speaker. The one Democrat, Jerry Brown in 1981 and 1982, was not much more interested than the Republicans in writing Speaker Brown's legislative agenda into law.
Another Sacramento insider said last week he understands that Brown told Huffman he would not prevent her from launching the draft, but that he would not sanction it or associate himself with it. At the minimum, however, the boomlet might benefit Brown by keeping him in the public eye, this source said.
"It makes him a serious player," the source added, enhancing prospects for the Brown legacy and possibly a public role in some other forum after he leaves the Legislature.
Would Brown be a strong statewide candidate?
Most California political figures are dismissive of Brown's prospects as a serious candidate for high statewide office. For one thing, Brown has consistently high negative ratings in statewide opinion polls, caused in part by the perception of him as the quintessential partisan wheeler-dealer and in part because he is a lightning rod for public antipathy toward the Legislature as a whole.
Yet Brown is a formidable fund-raiser and some say he could be a strong candidate for governor, particularly in the aftermath of the economic summit and the teachers strike talks.
"There's been a leadership void in the state and Willie Brown has basically stepped into it on the economic issues," said Duane Garrett, a politically well-connected San Francisco Democrat. "While he is a well-known figure who's been around for a long time, this highly public, prolonged visibility has gotten very favorable comment. It's that sense of success that may be fueling this effort."
Brown's job performance rating in a Feb. 1-8 survey by the Field Poll was considerably better than Wilson's. Forty-four percent of the respondents rated Wilson's job record as poor or very poor to only 29% for Brown. Brown got a 30% good/excellent score to Wilson's 25%.
Political experts caution that opinion poll results this far in advance have little bearing on subsequent election results.