NEWS ANALYSIS : In Sacramento, It’s ‘Not Revolution, It’s Turmoil’
Every Capitol harbors a collection of small, unofficial rituals that mark the passage of the working day. For 14 years here, Willie Brown, the Speaker of the Assembly, has concluded the day’s session by wandering to the rear of the Assembly’s great room, where he knows, with utter certainty, that he will be surrounded by a covey of journalists and asked to deliver a political tutorial on the day’s events.
The ritualized approach by Brown is, in itself, a marvel to behold. He never walks headlong into the crowd, demanding the attention of the journalists. Nor does he arrive in a way that would leave him waiting for the reporters to crowd around. The Speaker never waits. Instead, he approaches almost indirectly, chatting along the way with members of the Assembly, an unspoken signal for the reporters to begin gathering. At the right moment, when he crosses some invisible line, Brown and the journalists meet in a sort of balletic motion, the Speaker bantering, joking, explaining, while the journalists banter back, occasionally laughing, knowing they are hearing a sculpted version of the state’s affairs but enjoying it anyway.
One day this past week, the ritual began as always. And then a small event occurred that suggests the amount of change coming to Sacramento, and the pain it is producing. A reporter began to ask a question with the usual “Mr. Speaker . . .” and then he stopped.
“I guess I shouldn’t call you that,” he said, and then asked, “What should we call you?”
The question was intended, at least partially, as a joke. And not the kindest joke. Because, though Brown still occupies the offices of the Speaker and plays the role of Speaker, he is no longer the official Speaker of the California Assembly.
No one has been Speaker for the last month, Sacramento having produced another of its degrading bouts of paralysis. And all over town, members of the political hard core have mocked the situation, speculating on how Brown should be addressed now that he can no longer lay clear claim to the title that has become so enmeshed with his personality.
Brown listened to the question and asked one back. “Why is it,” he asked, “when a general retires, he still gets called ‘General,’ and when Jerry Ford left office he still got called ‘Mr. President,’ and even Jerry Brown still gets called ‘Governor,’ but no one wants to call Willie Brown ‘Mr. Speaker’ even for one extra minute?”
Brown managed to keep smiling through all this, but the pain was evident. And because no good answer could be offered to his question, it was left dangling; and the ritual, for that day, lost its jaunty momentum. Brown moved on.
Like it or not, painful or not, the political world that created Willie Brown is passing, and Brown with it. Sacramento, in fact, finds itself facing a revolution much like its big brother capital, Washington. All over the state Capitol, the old dinosaurs drag their hides down the hallways, thinking about the end. Everywhere here, new faces appear, brought by last fall’s election. A new day has come.
But something is wrong. Unlike Washington’s, Sacramento’s revolution has not produced a band of happy warriors come to wipe the slate clean. Nor has it produced the revival of political spirit that seems to inspire the national Capitol. Where the House of Representatives in Washington, led by new Speaker Newt Gingrich, conducted a marathon of bill passing on its first day, the Assembly here has yet to conduct any business because it cannot select a leader.
Last week, Gov. Pete Wilson’s attempt to emulate the Gingrich approach in his State of the State address, promising a middle-class tax cut and time limits on welfare, produced something less than the hoped-for response. During the evening address, the rain rattled the windows, the governor droned on in his nasal, Boy Scout voice, and most of the assembled legislators, even the Republicans, largely sat on their hands.
Perhaps the governor’s proposals had been made too many times before. Perhaps the Republicans feared, as did the Democrats, that the speech actually represented the beginning of Wilson’s campaign for the presidency and a turning away from California.
In any event, Sacramento finds itself mired down and dug in. “I think we are looking towards a period that will be ugly, sloppy, and painful,” said Phillip Isenberg, a 12-year Assembly Democrat and one of Brown’s oldest friends in the Legislature. “In Washington, the Republicans swept into town with an agenda. They brought ideas with them, whether you like those ideas or not. In Sacramento, we didn’t get that. Here, the Republicans have no agenda. They simply want to take over like Newt did in Washington.”
Isenberg paused. “And that’s not to say the Democrats have an agenda. They don’t. The Democrats haven’t had a new idea in years. Nobody does. What we’ve got in Sacramento is not really revolution. It’s turmoil.”
In part, the difference in the two Capitols can be explained by the failure of the Republicans here to capture a decisive majority. The one-vote margin they did manage in the Assembly got dithered away, in classic Sacramento fashion, when one of their members decided to play Judas, bolted ranks and produced a deadlock.
But a larger force also has taken a grip on Sacramento, one that has yet to touch Washington, and one that explains a larger part of the difference. That force is term limits, and this season it has worked in concert with the paralyzed Assembly to create a Capitol swathed in chaos.
In the Assembly, more than half the members, Democrats and Republicans, have disappeared since 1992. Two-thirds now have two years experience or less as legislators. Translated, that means a goodly number of legislators do not yet know where to find the bathroom. Much the same thing, albeit at a slower rate, is happening in the Senate.
Most intriguing of all, term limits appear to be introducing an era of upheaval in an unexpected fashion. Not only does the regular turnover push out half the Senate every four years and one-third of the Assembly every two years, an additional agent of chaos has appeared: the special elections that flow from term limits and create, in effect, a never-ending election season.
“We are looking at the future,” said Richard Katz, a veteran Democrat from the San Fernando Valley. “With term limits, a new assemblyman has six years up here. After four years he will start looking around for the next gig. When he sees a chance, he will bail out and run for another office, meaning there will be a special election for his old seat. We will see these special elections all the time. And they, in turn, will produce new members that can change the makeup of the Senate or the Assembly. A majority can turn into a minority, or vice versa. I expect to see a churning action that goes on and on.”
Consider this evidence: Right now the Assembly faces half a dozen or more special elections over the coming year. The Republicans plan to attempt a recall of Paul Horcher, the Republican from Diamond Bar who betrayed them. They have also threatened four more recalls. In addition, two Assembly members are expected to run for a new opening in the state Senate created by the departure of Republican Marian Bergeson, and if one of them wins, that will trigger an Assembly election. Finally, if one or two Orange County supervisors get recalled because of their financial debacle, more Assembly members almost certainly will depart to try and capture those jobs. Meaning yet more Assembly elections.
And so it goes. Some have predicted that the special elections this year will increase the Republican membership and give them a clear majority. Others believe that, depending on the timing, the Republicans could lose two or three members briefly, allowing the Democrats to seize the moment. In truth, no one knows.
“I would not be surprised to see an Assembly where the majority is one or two or three votes perpetually,” Isenberg said. “And I would not be surprised to see these thin majorities shift back and forth between parties as the special elections produce new members. How do you govern with that situation? No one has a clue.”
This is not to say that everyone in the Capitol regards term limits as some rough beast come to devour Sacramento. Among the freshman legislators you can get some touching stories about their own experience and how they believe the mess can be made to work. For example, there’s Republican Brooks Firestone, the scion of the rubber family who has spent most of his life making a success of his Santa Barbara County winery. In office for all of a month, he likes to tell the story of the disappearing square footage in his suite in the Capitol, how it is a thing that happened under the old system and how it ticks him off.
“I got this great office that I inherited from my predecessor, Jack O’Connell, who was the Speaker pro tem and a good friend of Brown’s,” Firestone said. “So here I sit with a big picture window and a wet bar in my office. And off to the side there were three other rooms in the suite. Well, it just so happened that those three rooms shared a wall with the caucus room for the minority party. For years the Republicans have used it, and they suffered with it because the room is pretty small. But now, of course, it may be the Democrats who get stuck with it.
“So over the holidays, without telling me, Speaker Brown decides to make the room much larger. How does he do that? By knocking down the wall and taking three rooms from my office. I happen to come in on New Year’s Day and here’s a dozen men sawing and cutting and hacking up my office. All of them being paid triple time because, you know, it was a holiday. And no one even gave me the courtesy of a warning, much less let me object to losing three rooms.
“It’s a small thing but, to me, that’s what’s wrong with the old system. Some people have all the power, and the rest have very little. People say that term limits means there will never be another Willie Brown, and I say that California should rejoice over that. Because Willie Brown did more than just take your office when he wanted it. He inhibited debate here. If you had an idea that Willie Brown didn’t like, it never got a fair hearing. He made sure of that.”
In the era of term limits, without a Willie Brown, legislators will be forced to share power, Firestone said. And he predicts it could work out for the best. Coalitions will form around ideas, not parties. Debate will become genuine, not the plaything of party politics.
Mike Sweeney, a Democratic freshman from Hayward, agrees with that. “The trick is to find a way to share power that creates stability. The old way is gone. We must find a new way.”
Ironically, all of that circles back to Brown, because it is he, more than anyone else, who is trying to create a power-sharing arrangement. Clearly, this would produce some benefits for Brown. A little power is better than none at all. But it may also constitute his last legacy to the Assembly.
For the past 14 years, Brown has held forth from the official Speaker’s suite, an ensemble that sprawls over two floors of the old, Victorian Capitol building, a place so elegant it gives meaning to the words “the trappings of power.” Nineteenth-Century oil paintings of California landscapes hang from the walls, the ceilings rise to 20 feet or so, and the huge, mahogany windows look out over the gloom of a rainy Capitol garden. It all resembles the headquarters of a prosperous tropical republic. But, in fact, it’s Brown’s office.
He has now offered to give it up, his cohorts say, in exchange for the right deal. He will let the Republicans move in. He will give up the title, the patronage to several hundred jobs, the chauffeured limousine, the whole thing. As one Brown friend put it: “We know that Willie must give up the speakership. We are now negotiating the terms of surrender.”
What Brown wants, mainly, is a power-sharing deal that will stay in force until the next election, a deal that will give them time to work out the system of the future. Then he turns over the keys.
Brown’s main adversary, Assemblyman Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, thus far has declined to take this offer, believing that the upcoming special elections will soon produce an absolute victory for the Republicans. Before coming to the Assembly, Brulte, a man of sumo-wrestler proportions, had spent most of his career as a campaign advance man and has great faith in his political work.
Another Republican, Bernie Richter of Chico, would jump at the chance to accept Brown’s deal if only Richter could get his fellow party members to agree with him and appoint him Speaker. But they won’t, at least thus far.
And so, for now, Sacramento remains stuck. It faces the onslaught of the Republicans and the onslaught of term limits all at once. Sacramento is trying to pull off a kind of change that Washington has not yet had to confront and it doesn’t know how, not yet.
In the meantime, it tends to look foolish. The Assembly Republicans sneak across the street and hide from Brown in a hotel. Brown himself sometimes seems confused, offering different versions of his own plans from day to day. Everyone knows that Brown and other dinosaurs are going extinct, but without them the Capitol may turn into a collection of prosperous former dentists and building contractors, righteous amateurs who may or may not be able to pull off the business of governing.
Tom Hayden, the Democratic state senator from Los Angeles, recalled that a new women’s caucus began meeting after the first term-limit elections were held. “They were going to make this big expression of independence,” he said. “They turned out asking for a women’s bathroom.” In the end, Hayden said, “this place changes you more than you change it.”
So, in a sense, Sacramento remains caught in its mystery. Pinched between the old system of doing things and the new, Sacramento will have to find its own way.
“I wish I knew where we were headed,” Isenberg said. “Thirty years from now, we’ll know. But not now. I read everything I can to try and figure it out, and I’m not stupid. I just can’t do it. I can’t see what the future is going to look like around here. It irritates the hell out of me.”