Sowing Term Limits, Reaping Speaker’s Job


While Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court debate term limits in the abstract, California will begin seeing their actual result starting Monday in the state Assembly. And the first thing they’ll probably see is a new Speaker--the first from Southern California in 20 years.

Assemblyman Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, the present Republican leader, was elected to the Legislature in 1990, the same year voters narrowly approved legislative term limits. Assembly members were limited to three two-year terms and the thinking then was that the full impact on the Capitol would not be felt until after 1996, when all the entrenched incumbents and old guard leaders were forced to leave.

Because Brulte is bright and affable--and a pragmatist rather than a firebrand--he was elected GOP leader two years ago, succeeding a series of rather unstable caucus leaderships. Under him, Assembly Republicans became a cohesive unit, often working not only with the GOP governor but with the Democratic leadership of Speaker Willie Brown.


But never, except in his wildest fantasies, did Brulte envision becoming Speaker--the second most powerful job in state government. He figured, as did most insiders, that term limits would force him out of the house before Republicans could take control, perhaps in 1996 or 1998.

The mere prospect of term limits, however, shook up the Assembly more than its advocates ever imagined. Many members didn’t wait for the 1996 boot out the door; they left on their own volition to seek another office or other work.


Consequently, when the new Legislature is sworn in Monday, only 24% of the Assembly members--19--will be holdovers elected prior to 1990. And one of them, a Republican, will leave shortly after the new Speaker is chosen to take a Senate seat.

The Senate has undergone much less change. There, members were given slightly longer tenure, two four-year terms. Democrats still retain a one-vote majority.

But in the Assembly, the big turnover, combined with a GOP voter trend, has ended 24 years of Democratic control and essentially assured the termination of Speaker Brown’s record 14-year reign. Of the 61 new Assembly members elected beginning in 1990, roughly 3 in 5 have been Republican. And of the 28 rookies elected last month, 18 are Republicans.

Democrats went into the 1994 elections outnumbering Republicans by 14 seats. Brulte counted on gaining maybe four seats. To virtually everyone’s surprise, he netted eight, giving the GOP the 41 seats necessary to elect a Speaker. Credit the national Republican sweep, Gov. Pete Wilson’s strong race and Brulte’s own adroit placement of campaign funds. But the key to Republican takeover was term limits.


Four Assembly Democrats who abandoned their seats to run for another office were replaced by Republicans. Only one Republican seat went to a Democrat in such fashion. Thus, the GOP netted three seats from term limit musical chairs.

As with Congress, the Assembly will be getting a transfusion of new blood and new leadership.


Brulte, in many ways, is a 180-degree opposite of Brown. He is from middle-class roots, represents suburbia, is white, relatively young (38) and keeps a low profile for a man who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 340 pounds. Brown is a product of segregated rural Texas, is black, represents San Francisco’s inner city, is the consummate career assemblyman (30 years), is 60 and flamboyant.

But both are instinctive politicians with street smarts. Causes are far less important than conquest.

It’s a mark of Brown’s brilliance and cunning that few yet are willing to declare Brulte the next Speaker. People have become used to Brown’s magic. But this time is different: Never before has Brown gone up against a GOP that had 41 votes.

The most talked-about scenario is that some Republican--most likely maverick Paul Horcher of Diamond Bar--will refuse to vote for Brulte and allow Brown to slide back into power. But in truth, a more likely scenario is that some Democrats--with their eyes on committee chairmanships--will abandon Brown and side with the winner, Brulte.


It’s not politically plausible that in this most triumphant Republican year in decades a GOP legislator from a conservative district would help Willie Brown hold onto his speakership. “Retribution would be swift and sure in terms of a recall,” Wilson recently told me, indicating he also would be apt to veto the defector’s bills.

So Brulte is destined to be Speaker. And in two years when he’s just getting the hang of it, he’ll be booted out by term limits--a concept Brulte had advocated in the abstract.