Brown Regains Speaker Role, Shares Power
Democratic Assemblyman Willie Brown regained the speakership Tuesday in a rancorous session teeming with power plays and threats of revenge, then set out to cement his tenuous hold on the post by pledging to give half the spoils of the lower house to Republicans.
The Brown-led Democrats approved operating rules they say guarantee Assembly Republicans half the committee assignments, half the staff and half the Assembly’s $73-million budget in the evenly divided house. Given the equal division and other rule changes, the new speakership will be far less powerful than the post Brown has occupied for 14 years.
But even as Brown assumed power and called for bipartisan harmony, seething Republicans and Democrats leveled charges and countercharges, raising doubts about whether the next two years will see much beyond infighting, turmoil and bitterness in California’s lower house.
Hard-line Republicans took to calling Brown’s speakership “the Willie Brown junta,” and vowed to counterattack by seeking the recall of as many as five Democratic Assembly members.
“It was a great lesson in Dictatorship 101,” said Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana).
Assemblyman James Rogan (R-Glendale) said Democrats “have blood on their hands.” He charged that the 39 Assembly Democrats and independent Assemblyman Paul Horcher of Diamond Bar--another recall target--who voted for Brown suffered from “an integrity malfunction.”
“It’s an awful way to start a two-year session, and I don’t know how we get beyond it,” said Rogan, who hours earlier was engaged in what he thought were fruitful talks with Democrats aimed at a power-sharing arrangement--sans Willie Brown.
Republican anger was focused on Brown’s astonishing display of power in which he persuaded Assembly Democrats and Horcher to oust Republican Richard Mountjoy of Arcadia from the Assembly--the first time the lower house has voted out a member since 1903. Mountjoy was elected to both the Assembly and the state Senate in November.
With Mountjoy disqualified from voting, Brown was able to become Speaker for a record 15th year with 40 votes, to 39 for GOP Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. As Speaker, Brown will be paid $86,400 a year plus $101 in tax-free daily expense money.
With Brown presiding, the session began Monday night and ended shortly before 2 a.m. Tuesday. As Brown repeatedly made parliamentary rulings in his own favor, Republicans’ fury grew, and they hurled some of the most bitter denunciations of Democrats heard in years.
“Anger was driving a great deal of what happened. You could cut it like a loaf of bread. You could almost pick it up,” said Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico).
The conservative Richter felt the wrath of Republican elders when he offered himself as a compromise candidate for Speaker willing to work with Democrats.
Richter had lined up Democratic votes, and appeared to be on the verge of becoming Speaker on Monday night. But he said his few Republican votes evaporated when GOP members lashed out at him in private caucuses.
“I had people yelling at me, true enough,” Richter said, noting that his potential supporters witnessed the verbal pummeling. “It was certainly a very clear message that if you dare disagree, there is a price you’re going to pay.”
Richter refused to accept the speakership solely with Democratic support, and withdrew his candidacy. Once the Richter candidacy stalled, Brown orchestrated the drastic step of stripping Mountjoy of his seat in the Assembly--thus opening his path back to the speakership.
Brown seized the leadership even though Republicans emerged from the Nov. 8 election with 41 seats to the Democrats’ 39. Horcher’s defection from the GOP and support for Brown created the 40-40 leadership deadlock. With Mountjoy gone, the Republican roster went down to 39.
Justifying his election, Brown said the Assembly needed leadership so committee assignments could be made and lawmakers could go about the business of considering and approving bills.
“This house is too valuable a tool, too valuable an entity, too valuable a property to be left to the mere partisan activities of politicians,” Brown said.
Mountjoy was sworn in as a senator Tuesday. He won the seat in a special election to fill a vacancy created when state Sen. Frank Hill was sent to prison on a federal corruption conviction. Mountjoy was also reelected in his Assembly district.
Even as he took the Senate oath, Mountjoy said he would sue over Brown’s move to strip him of his Assembly seat. Asked what he might seek in his lawsuit, Mountjoy shrugged and said he would find a lawyer who would find an issue.
Republicans claim that Mountjoy’s ouster is illegal, and cite an opinion by GOP Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren saying that 54 votes are needed to remove a sitting member. But as presiding officer, Brown made the ruling that 40 votes, a majority of those present, sufficed.
Mountjoy hails from a safe Republican district and probably will be replaced by a Republican loyalist in coming months, restoring a 40-40 deadlock. Brown contends that a Speaker can only be ousted by 41 votes, and other special elections in the coming two years suggest that neither party will hold a 41-seat majority for long.
In winning back the speakership, Brown agreed to rules that, when fully implemented, will destroy much of the power of the post that long was called the second most powerful in the state, next to governor. Under the new rules, a Rules Committee of Democrats and Republicans will assume much of the Speaker’s power.
Brown was conciliatory after his election, telling the full Assembly that the new rules will allow “every member to fully participate.”
Under the rules, Republicans will chair 13 committees, which deal with everything from the budget and education to transportation, farming and crime. Democrats would chair the other 13 committees.
Committee membership will be split evenly, so Assembly members will have to garner support from opposing party members to move their bills from the committees to floor votes. The rules are designed to remain in place for the two years of the session. However, Republicans continue to hold out hope that they will attain the 41 votes needed to elect a new Speaker.
“It is not the desire of the Republican caucus to tie up this house,” Brulte said. “It is our desire to do the public’s business and pursue the reform agenda that we think the voters approved on Nov. 8. We will live under these rules.”
On the Assembly floor Monday night, Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) named five Democrats who would be targets of recalls. Far from cowing the Democrats, Johnson’s threat seemed to inflame them.
Before Johnson leveled the threat, several Democrats appeared to be wavering on the question of ousting Mountjoy. After the threat, the Democrats’ resolve on Mountjoy hardened.
Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles) said the recalls of Democrats amount to a “total declaration of war,” adding: “Usually when elections are over, they’re over. This time, the elections are over and the Republicans won’t accept the results.”
Brown took the oath of office from Chief Clerk E. Dodson Wilson, who appears to have recovered from a mysterious illness that struck him last month.
Wilson is the Brown-appointee who enraged Brown by ruling against him on the key question of Mountjoy’s qualifications to vote in the speakership race when the new Legislature first convened Dec. 5. After that contentious session, Wilson said he became ill and could not return to preside over what was a leaderless house.
With Wilson gone, Brown, the longest-serving member, assumed the dais as presiding officer, a status he held for several floor sessions in which bills were heard and house rules were discussed.
At any one of those sessions, Brown could have moved against Mountjoy. But as teams of Republicans and Democrats met behind closed doors to fashion a “power-sharing” arrangement, Republicans became convinced that Brown lacked the votes to oust Mountjoy.
Explaining Tuesday why his opponents were proved wrong, Brown said: “The Republicans blew it at every step of the way. They made mistake after mistake after mistake.”