In the California Assembly, nothing gets the Machiavellian juices flowing in the old pols quite like a good speakership fight.
Deals are hatched and die in minutes. Trial balloons are floated, fall, then rise again. Spin goes on constantly. Insiders reveal the latest threats, truces, conspiracies.
Willie Brown, master at all of the above, is late for a meeting with Senate leaders, which, of course, raises speculation that he is cooking up some new plan to retake the house.
"I'm not going to B.S. you," Brown says as he heads into the meeting. "I'm not going to tell you I'm willing to go quietly into the sunset. I may have to go. But I'm certainly going screaming."
Not floods, not bankruptcy, not even the excitement of the governor's new phone book-sized budget can divert the politicians from this unusual political business. The fight could end as early as today. Then again, in some fashion the fight for control could spill over into the entire two years this Assembly sits.
Republicans won a majority of 41 seats on Election Day and by all rights should have elected a Speaker for the first time since 1969. But from their Election Day victory, they managed to snatch defeat.
Now, with the fight droning on, Assembly GOP leaders appear stuck. They insist that they have a mandate, that voters gave them hundreds of thousands more votes than they gave Democrats, that Republican Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga is the rightful Speaker.
But when the Assembly returns today, the Republicans will be no closer to electing Brulte than they were five weeks ago when Assemblyman Paul Horcher renounced the Republican Party and voted for Brown as Speaker, throwing the house into a 40-40 deadlock and much disarray and intrigue.
On its face, the dispute is fairly simple, although nothing in politics should be taken at face value. Republicans say they are willing to share power until they can recall Horcher and obtain a 41st seat. Then, they would elect a Speaker and change committee assignments more to their liking.
Democrats say they don't see much reason to sign onto such a deal. They say they want a power-sharing accord that would give them a fair number of good committee assignments and would let them keep the positions for the full two years even if Republicans get a 41st vote.
"If we agree we should have a two-year deal that guarantees Republicans never control policy," Brulte said, "that would be selling out everything we stand for. It would be an incredible double-cross of the millions of Californians who voted to elect Republicans on Election Day."
Brulte is the architect of the GOP's 1994 election victories in the Assembly. But while he is proving to be less adept at taking control of the lower house than he was at winning elections, he can spot a slick strategy when he sees it.
"I'd be doing what they're doing," Brulte said. "They lost on Election Day. They're saying that for two years, Republicans should agree that Democrats didn't lose on Election Day. Republicans are not willing to do that."
Well, maybe not all Republicans.
Republican Assemblyman Bernie Richter, a 63-year-old video and liquor store owner from Chico, is so disenchanted with the impasse that he has been meeting with Democrats, trying to line up Republican votes and has emerged as a serious candidate for Speaker.
Brulte, who is not pleased with Richter's maneuvers, assumes that the Democrats are using Richter for one of the oldest plays in the game, divide and conquer.
"I don't think I've ever heard any words, direct words," Richter said of Brulte's reaction. "Looks, maybe. But not words."
Brown himself called the Richter speakership serious--even though Richter is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish affirmative action, an idea that Brown vehemently opposes. In a speakership fight, however, ideology often is a mere side issue.
Richter is a conservative, a maverick, and something of a Mr. Smith. His would be a far different speakership than was that of the urbane and sophisticated Brown. Brown attends the Academy Awards and the Kentucky Derby, and frequents California's finest eateries. Richter has a sign posted on his door saying he accepts no gifts from lobbyists.
"The assemblyman views the public's decision to entrust this office to him for two years as the greatest gift," the sign says.
Richter assures Democrats that if he becomes Speaker, he will not get involved in an initiative pushing an end to affirmative action in 1996. But he will not drop his effort to put the idea to a floor vote.
"They can't expect me to drop the things I do in this house and abandon my core beliefs," Richter said.
Of course, details of a Brown-to-Richter transition have yet to be worked out, like who gets the Speaker's gilded Gold Rush-era office with its fine carved woodwork and fireplace. It's the best quarters in a building where trappings can be more important than realities.
"I wouldn't anticipate that (Brown) would keep his office," Richter said. "I wouldn't think he would think he was going to keep his office. But I wouldn't (care) whether I'm in that office. But I would think he would give up the office."
Brown deadpans, "I have a long-term lease."
The Willie Brown speakership may be over, but Brown runs the place, as he has for the past 14 years. In a building heavy on symbols, it's Brown who bangs the gavel at the start and end of each day. At the governor's State of the State speech last week, Brown presided. Brulte was seated off to the side.
Then there was Brown's appearance on TV's "Cross Fire," arguing with Pat Buchanan and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach)--and pummeling them big time. When Rohrabacher stumbled over how to address Brown, Brown offered help: "Let's just say I'm in charge."
Brown may be orchestrating the events, but he sends emissaries and lieutenants to work on the fine points, noting that Republicans "go into intellectual gridlock when I appear."
"In order to give them the freedom of being able to speak in complete sentences, I have absented myself from the negotiations," Brown said.
Through most of the fight, Republicans have been nowhere to be found on the Capitol grounds, giving the impression that they fear Brown will use his legerdemain to "steal" the speakership. Republicans weren't even holding their private strategy meetings in the Capitol until the middle of last week. They were across the street in the Hyatt Hotel, where they got a $50-a-day deal for a meeting room.
"It was a tragedy that we were across the street for a week," Richter said. "I almost cried. We were elected to serve in the greatest state in the United States and we were hiding over there in the hotel. Good God."
Monday morning quarterbacks say the current situation has more to do with Brulte's fumbles and Brown's skills at manipulating Assembly arcana.
One Brulte flub was that he promised committee assignments to Republicans, and he "wasn't left with anything he could approach Democrats with," said Democrat Assemblyman Louis Caldera of Los Angeles.
"Willie never would have done that," Caldera said.
Caldera is one of the moderates who might have been willing to vote for Brulte, if Brulte had managed to get all 41 Republican votes and needed Democrats to solidify his hold on the speakership.
"You have your opportunity to strike and then it disappears and it doesn't come back," Caldera said. "At this point, that opportunity (to deal with Democrats) is lost to him. The longer that this goes on, the less likely he can prevail."
Democrats say another GOP mistake came when Brulte threatened to recall half a dozen Democrats from swing districts who had voted for Brown as Speaker in December.
Brulte insists that he is not involved in the Democrat recalls. But just the threat is the stuff of long-lasting grudges--and the targets, all of whom are moderates who once might have helped Brulte cement control of the Assembly, now have no interest in giving Brulte anything.
Again, Richter was a dissenting voice among Republicans on the recall brainstorm.
"I was the only one who begged that they not do it," Richter said. "You don't hold an election in a democratic constitutional system, and then turn around and try to reverse the election results. That undermines the basic sacrosanctity of the electoral process."
While Brulte may not be involved in the recalls of Democrats, Orange County lawyer Mike Schroeder, who is close to Brulte and is in line to be chairman of the California Republican Party, has formed the Committee to Replace Willie Brown.
The stated purpose: "Support the recall of state legislators who promised their districts that they would not support Willie Brown as Speaker of the California Assembly and broke their promise."
Asked whether he is seriously targeting Horcher as well as Democrats, he said, "Yeah! Oh, yeah!" He named three Assembly Democrats: Mike Machado of Stockton, Susan Davis of San Diego and Dede Alpert of Coronado, all of whom cast party-line votes for Brown as Speaker in December.
"If they hadn't distanced themselves from Brown in their campaigns, they would not have won," Schroeder said.
Pete Wilson, meanwhile, entered the fray, calling for a special session Thursday to deal with flood issues. Until the Assembly organizes itself, it cannot consider any bills, not even emergency flood assistance. Wilson's request may force the Assembly to reach some sort of truce.
But just how much influence Wilson has over Assembly Democrats remains to be seen. He irritated Brown by sending a mailer that arrived last week in the mailboxes of 50,000 Republicans in Horcher's San Gabriel Valley district, calling for the recall of the wayward Republican.
Brown denounced Wilson's move as "a tragic error" and called it "unprecedented" for a governor to get involved in the organization of the Assembly--especially given that Brown's political future is at stake and that Wilson will need Brown's help in most legislative endeavors. Led by Brown, Assembly Democrats are trying to protect their new best friend, holding a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser for Horcher on Jan. 31 and arguing that Horcher deserves a committee chairmanship.
Then there is Richard Mountjoy, the "Assemblator" from Arcadia.
Mountjoy won the dual title by capturing his old Assembly seat Nov. 8, plus a special state Senate election to replace imprisoned ex-Sen. Frank Hill. Mountjoy wants to remain an assemblyman long enough to elect Brulte and defeat Brown as Speaker, then move on to be a senator.
One of Brown's Senate allies, Sen. Richard Polanco of Los Angeles, introduced a measure Friday that would force Mountjoy to take his Senate seat or have it declared vacant.
If that doesn't move Mountjoy and no compromise is reached soon, Brown said he will pressure Assembly Democrats to force Mountjoy to either leave the Assembly or relinquish his Senate seat.
"The house has to be organized, and I'm going to insist upon that, and that means Mountjoy has to go," Brown said. Exactly when he will play that card is not known: "I'll come to that conclusion. You know me. It will be instant and swift."