Legislators Are Finding New Uses for Summits : Politics: Lawmakers treat gatherings as high-profile forums. Critics say they reflect Capitol gridlock, but some observers say they bring issues to constituents.


Summits once were reserved for foreign policy, a way for allies to map strategy or superpowers to size up one another.

The term conjures up images of a frail Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrapped in a blanket, chatting with Josef Stalin at Yalta. Richard Nixon with Chinese leaders. Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.

Now a different sort of summit has come into vogue in California.

Instead of meetings behind closed doors, they are high-tech teach-ins broadcast on cable TV with participants promoting their wish lists on how to fix particular problems facing the state.


“If this summit did nothing else,” Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said after the California education summit he staged last week, “it raised the visibility of the education issue.”

A week earlier, crime-fighting took center stage at Gov. Pete Wilson’s summit. A year ago, Brown launched the latest wave of California summits by organizing an economic summit modeled after a highly publicized colloquium put together by President Clinton.

Politicians once formed blue-ribbon panels, task forces or commissions to study problems and issue reports. But in the 1990s, summits are all the rage.

Opinion is split on whether summits will become a permanent fixture in state government. Some see the gatherings as merely attention grabbing dog and pony shows. Others see them as a genuine way for politicians to reinvent government.

Sal Russo, a longtime Republican campaign consultant and former legislative aide, says that in the 1960s state legislators did not need a summit to pinpoint high priority issues because they tried to fashion solutions in a bipartisan spirit.

In his view, summits are “reflective of the deterioration of the legislative process” in the last 30 years. Still, he said, summits can help provide a focus “that used to be natural in the legislative process.”


Kevin Starr, author of a series of books titled “Americans and the California Dream,” said gridlock dominates the state legislative process, citing the influence of special interests, politicians’ reliance on polls and the skittishness of legislators who believe voters will toss them out of office if they disagree on just a single issue.

“So, in effect, these summits are a way to get a little more freedom of speech into the process,” Starr said. “The town hall or Chautauqua technique is used to bypass a Legislature that is no longer able to debate.”

Starr, professor of urban and regional planning at USC, praised summits as a tool to bring issues to the state’s population centers. Two have been held in Los Angeles and last week’s convocation was in San Francisco.

“It’s a way to take the debate to where the power is,” Starr said. “You cannot sit up in Sacramento and make policy (for) Greater Los Angeles.

California’s current adoration of summits seems unique in the nation. The National Conference of State Legislatures is unaware of any other state that has been convening such gatherings.

However, Brown’s education summit was not the first to deal with schools.

In 1989, President George Bush summoned all 50 governors to meet for a two-day conference on public education. It was only the third time in history a U.S. president had called a summit conference of governors.


Also, in 1989, then-Gov. George Deukmejian invited 27 leaders of business, labor, government and the Legislature to a transportation summit meeting.

The latest round of California summits are much bigger extravaganzas than similar gatherings in the past, complete with telephone hot lines and interactive TV participants.

Taking a cue from Clinton’s 1993 economic summit, Brown last year emceed his own highly publicized economic gathering in Los Angeles. The summit was credited with providing renewed impetus for new laws to restructure the state workers’ compensation system and cut business taxes, both of which were hailed as key 1993 achievements by the Legislature.

It is too early to tell what new laws will be prompted by Gov. Wilson’s recent Hollywood summit on how to fight crime. The sessions were dominated by Wilson’s law and order agenda, including an emphasis on building more prisons.

One interesting sidelight of the latest summits has been the almost gushing interplay between Wilson and Brown. Each seems to recognize that he needs the other to elevate the importance of the events.

At moments, the education gathering seemed to be more like the Willie and Pete show as the Speaker and governor, typically rivals, traded compliments.


At least some of Brown’s staff members at the education summit hoped he will take a rest, passing out T-shirts emblazoned with “I survived the Education Summit.”

That view was shared by Phil Perry, press secretary to Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte. Perry, having gone through three summits, asked reporters how many orders he could expect for the following bumper sticker: “Just Say No . . . to Any More Summits.”