Assessment of Brown's Speakership Is a Mixed Bag : Legislature: Critics say his desire to stay in power has polarized Assembly. Admirers praise his political savvy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Willie Brown wanted to be Speaker for Life, and who wouldn't.

He was, he said, the Ayatollah of the Assembly. Others called him a piece of living art, a tribute to his fancy suits and hot cars. He dined at the finest restaurants, got tickets to the Academy Awards and went to the Kentucky Derby, sometimes courtesy of a tobacco company. If he wasn't a millionaire before, he became rich during his years as Speaker by working on the side as a lawyer for developers and corporate interests.

The Capitol never saw such a flamboyant, witty, intelligent, dapper, Machiavellian, egotistical, powerful, enigmatic boss, and probably never will again. But now that he is gone after 14 1/2 years as Speaker, the Assembly he built is in tatters. Its lifeblood is campaign money, not policy. Its debate is reduced to name-calling and insults, and it achieves little consensus.

Monday, after Brown orchestrated the election of his successor, Republican Doris Allen, GOP verbal bomb thrower Larry Bowler declared, "This is war!" But the war has been raging for years, and getting worse--and the bitter partisanship happened on Brown's watch.

So did legislative term limits, which passed with proponents portraying him as the personification of the evils of unlimited tenure for politicians. Even issues Brown fought hardest for--civil rights, affirmative action--are under serious attack, and the Assembly Democrats he protected are in the minority for the first time in 25 years, in danger of slipping further.

"It is going full cycle, from the epitome under [former Speaker] Jesse Unruh, who built the institution, to what it is now--its ability to lead has been removed. How it keeps its relevance is hard to imagine," a former Democratic lawmaker said.

Peeling the Onion

Brown's political obituary is not yet ready. There's a race for mayor of San Francisco in the offing. But with his speakership over, friends, admirers, rivals and Brown himself are assessing the legacy of the man who was Speaker longer than anyone.

Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento), a friend for more than 30 years, called him "the most capable and the smartest politician that we've seen in California." Republican Assemblyman Jim Brulte's assessment: "Willie Brown is amoral. He is a brilliant Speaker, but he defines victory as him staying Speaker."

"Productive, fun, interesting, challenging and above all else inspirational for racial minorities and women to run for public office," Brown said of how he wants his tenure remembered.

Brown was the Legislature's most powerful African American politician of the past 15 years, but he also transcended race, said Assemblyman Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles). "The burden on the rest of us is to show that he is not an aberration."

Brown, however, is nothing if not aberrant.

As Speaker of the California Assembly, he was one of the most visible representatives of the party of the working man. But in his leather pants or Italian suits and pinky ring, it was Brown--married to the same woman since 1958 but separated--who turned heads when he breezed into restaurants, often with a different woman. Tuxes and formals were expected at his fund-raisers, and corporate interests paid $1,000 a plate to keep Democrats in power.

When Steve Merksamer became chief of staff to Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, he concluded that understanding Brown was like peeling an onion: "You never get to the bottom."

"Willie grew up in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the smartest guy around, treated like [garbage] because of his race," Merksamer said. "I think he learned to put on different faces in different environments."

Without Brown's advocacy in 1986, Deukmejian probably would not have signed legislation forcing California to divest itself of holdings in companies that did business with South Africa. Big business was against it. But Deukmejian also knew from his Armenian heritage the hard lessons of oppression.

"California divesting helped contribute to the demise of apartheid," Merksamer said.

Even on this issue, there was ambiguity, layers of the onion. In 1988, with the white government controlling South Africa, Brown counted among his private law clients BAT Industries, a British tobacco and insurance firm that had extensive South African ties. Brown took BAT as a client when it was fighting for control of Farmers Insurance, and takeover opponents were citing BAT's South African holdings.

Rising to the Top

Ever since he arrived in San Francisco in 1951, Brown has been a reflection of California. What he achieved here probably could not have happened in another state. With his drive, intellect and talent, Brown found this state golden. In his hometown, Mineola, Tex., Brown went to Mineola Colored High School. In San Francisco, he was educated at the state university and Hastings Law School, part of the University of California. As Speaker, he was a UC regent and a trustee of both systems.

He became a major cog in the San Francisco-based Democratic machine built by the late Rep. Phil Burton, and arrived in Sacramento in 1965 as a firebrand. Upon arriving, he abstained on a vote to reelect Unruh Speaker, prompting an angry Unruh to banish him, but later became a protege.

He pushed for civil rights, farm workers rights, gay rights, and the liberal label stuck. But he long since became more at home in corporate California than on its streets, as shown by his political benefactors. In the 1990s, Brown's largest corporate donor has been the oil giant, Atlantic Richfield--$165,000.

Brown won the speakership he had long coveted on Dec. 1, 1980, with backing from 28 Republicans and 23 Democrats. But the coalition that elected him disintegrated, and in time, the Assembly, like the rest of California, became polarized, unable to answer questions raised by the huge population boom or the economic upheaval of recent years. Instead, the focus turned to quick fixes and slogans.

"I'll always say it was a wasted opportunity," said Arnoldo Torres, a lobbyist for health issues. "What I expected him to do was talk about things that mattered. He didn't present a vision. . . . Issues flashed like they were on a ticker tape. He became part of the ticker tape."

It wasn't all that long ago, 25 years, that California's Legislature was declared the best in the nation. Few people believe that the place works well any longer. The exact start and cause of the Legislature's decline is hard to pinpoint. But perhaps it had to do with money.

During Brown's speakership, one Democrat and two Republican Assembly members were convicted of corruption, as were two Democratic Assembly aides, and a Brown appointee to the Coastal Commission. The Democratic lawmaker's conviction later was overturned on appeal. Details vary, but the root was the same--money combined with the desire for more power.

Brown probably was the ultimate target of the federal investigations, but agents proved no wrongdoing on his part. Defense attorney Donald Heller, who represented convicted lobbyist Clay Jackson in one corruption case, counts himself as Brown's friend, but is highly critical of the fund-raising system that kept him in power.

"The atmosphere of fund raising was and still is an escalator gone out of control," Heller said. "The one thing that disappoints me about Willie, and everyone else of substance there, is that they didn't do campaign reform. It got way out of control."

Brown raised $6.2 million in 1993 and 1994 for Assembly Democrats, twice what he raised in his first two years as Speaker in 1981 and 1982. His most loyal supporters were trial lawyers, schoolteachers unions and other organized labor.

But to keep Democrats in control of the Assembly, Brown tapped all interests: timber, oil, farming, insurance, development, banking. Tobacco gave him more than $600,000 since he became Speaker, more than any other elected official in the nation, according to researchers at UC San Francisco.

Now that Brown is out as Speaker, and the Democrats have lost majority control of the Assembly, Democrats will be unable to count on big donations from big business, political experts say. Republicans will get much of that money.

"The Democrats made a strategic error over the past decade: total reliance on Willie," Brulte said. "That served Willie's purpose. It made him indispensable to the Democrats. But it guaranteed that when Willie was gone, there would be a huge hole."

As he worked hard raising money, Brown did little to build a personal legislative legacy--although there are significant and largely overlooked bills he pushed, often using other Democrats as authors. In 1992, he carried a sweeping anti-discrimination bill, which Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed. But Wilson signed eight bills by other Democrats that year that toughened sexual discrimination laws and protections for disabled people, people with AIDS and others. Most of those measures had been part of Brown's more sweeping bill.

As long as Brown was Speaker, liberals put their stamp on the annual budget, and controlled the education and judiciary committees, where they protected public school unions and lawyers. For example, Brown lieutenant Assemblywoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) sat on the Agriculture Committee and demanded that the Department of Food and Agriculture open a trade office in Africa.

And Merksamer said no one was better at forging budget deals than Brown. "But for his cooperation, his ability to put politics aside, I don't believe we would have been able to achieve what was achieved," Merksamer said.

Several times, Brown promised to change his tack so that his legislative legacy would be more than what, in 1984, he called a "footnote." He also vowed to improve the Assembly's image. He did create an ethics committee, and pushed for a ban on lawmakers receiving honorariums and gifts from lobbyists--but then backed off when it became apparent that he would not be able to accept tickets to the Academy Awards.

Most such freebies were banned as a result of Proposition 112 in 1990, a measure that stemmed partly from work he and other legislators did. However, one of its most lasting impacts was a little noticed provision creating a commission to set lawmakers' salaries. Last year, the commission gave legislators a 37% pay increase to $72,000, and pushed the Speaker's pay to $86,400.

In 1993, with California in the worst recession since the 1930s, Brown again tried to create a legislative legacy, holding an economic summit in Los Angeles, turning largely to business lobbyists and entrepreneurs for ideas to help the state out of the recession.

When he returned to the Capitol, Brown pushed for approval of a series of pro-business bills giving tax breaks and reducing government regulation. He also endorsed an overhaul of the troubled workers compensation system--one that liberals believe was less favorable to workers than a similar measure he had personally killed the year before.

"Those are extraordinarily achievements," Brown said of his legislation, including the business bills, his fights for public school funding and South Africa divestiture. "In the hands of anybody else, they would have been considered great policy initiatives."

There was, however, little evidence of a long-range plan for the state before or after that summit. Instead, California's prison system expanded by two new institutions a year during much of his tenure, only one new state university was added, public schools deteriorated, and health care became less affordable to greater numbers of Californians.

"We could have done a lot more policy," said Assemblyman Bob Campbell (D-Martinez). Perhaps, if Democrats figured out how to lower class size, or plan for the decline of defense spending, voters would not be so angry, and "we wouldn't have to concern ourselves with raising $5 million to $6 million for campaigns," Campbell said. "We could have run on our record."

Consummate Deal-Maker

Under Brown, the consummate inside player and deal-maker, the house that is supposed to be most in touch with people often appeared to be relevant only to Californians with paid lobbyists in the Capitol.

Tony Quinn, a Republican who in 1969 and 1970 worked for the last GOP Speaker, Bob Monagan, called today's Legislature little more than "an arbiter of special interests," and pointed to the "Napkin Deal" as an example.

The deal was struck late one night at the end of the session in 1987, when lobbyists for major interests--lawyers, doctors, manufacturers, insurance companies, tobacco firms--met at the Sacramento watering hole, Frank Fat's. Details of the deal were written on one of Fat's linen napkins, and Brown and Bill Lockyer, now Senate president pro tem, were the legislative arbiters.

The new deal, called the Civil Liability Reform Act, made it harder for people to sue manufacturers for unsafe products, gave immunity to cigarette companies from lawsuits, made it more difficult for accident victims to get large punitive damages awards, and protected lawyer fees. Consumers were not at the table.

"All the Legislature did," said Quinn, "was rubber-stamp the decision the lobbyists made."

As Speaker, Brown's constituency was not so much his home district in San Francisco, or the state of California. Instead, it was the Assembly Democrats first, then the Republicans. In 1988, when state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) was in the Assembly and her daughter was facing loss of her driver's license and jail for receiving 28 tickets in the 1980s, Brown called the judge minutes before he was to sentence the young woman. The judge gave the daughter a suspended sentence, though he said Brown's call did not influence the decision.

Still, chits were held, callable as needed.

In 1988, Brown faced the most serious challenge to his speakership. Five moderate Democrats, the Gang of Five, tried to form an alliance with Republicans to oust Brown. GOP votes never materialized.

"He learned from Unruh, but, really, he is a descendant of Machiavelli," said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). "In time, maintenance of power becomes the primary issue and the issues that may have led them into politics are secondary."

Under Brown, it was the Speaker who determined who got what office or prime parking space. In 1992, Brown even selected seating arrangements on the Assembly floor, placing GOP freshmen with freshmen seatmates, while Democratic freshmen sat with senior members. More significantly, he appointed Republican Paul Horcher vice chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, over Republican objections. When the GOP clique ostracized Horcher, Brown was there to embrace him.

On Dec. 5 of last year, when the new Legislature arrived with 41 Republicans and 39 Democrats to elect its new leader, Horcher shouted Brown's name as his choice for Speaker. That pushed the Assembly into a 40-40 tie.

Then, there was Doris Allen. Allen is a Republican, but Brown's allies spent $100,000 to help her win a 1992 Assembly race in a redistricted seat against GOP incumbents. This year, when Allen ran for the state Senate against Ross Johnson (R-Placentia), GOP support went to Johnson.

Once more, Willie Brown was waiting. Brown knew his time as Speaker was ending. But he would go on his own terms. After Allen and 38 Democrats voted for Allen, and 38 Republicans voted for Brulte, it came to Brown to cast the final vote. He paused, for dramatic effect. Brown alone was selecting his replacement.

"Doris Allen," he said.

* WAR ON NEW SPEAKER: Doris Allen faces a recall bid and a test of loyalty to GOP. A3

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Political Life

Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) was Speaker of the Assembly a record 14 1/2 years; now he is running for mayor of San Francisco. One of the most colorful and controversial figures in California political history, Brown was generally considered second only to the governor in political power. Here is Brown's political career at a glance.

WILLIE BROWN

* BORN: March 20, 1934, in Mineola, Tex. As a youth, shines shoes for dimes and quarters that customers throw into spittoons when he is finished.

* EDUCATION: Bachelor of arts degree in political science from San Francisco State University in 1955; law doctorate from Hastings College of Law, University of California, in 1958.

* OCCUPATION: Attorney.

* FAMILY: Separated; three grown children and one grandchild.

POLITICAL CHRONOLOGY

1964: First elected to Assembly.

1965: Selected Legislature's most effective freshman lawmaker.

1969: Begins climb to leadership position with selection as Assembly minority whip.

1971: Appointed chairman of Ways and Means Committee, the youngest person and only African American ever to hold that post.

1972: Steps onto national stage with a fiery nomination speech for George McGovern at Democratic National Convention.

1974: Fails in his first run at Assembly Speaker.

1975: Authors law legalizing all forms of sex acts between consenting adults.

1980: Elected Assembly Speaker, first African American to hold the post, by forming a coalition of Republicans and Democrats.

1980-94: Expands fund-raising apparatus initiated by ex-Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, raises millions of dollars for Democratic Assembly campaigns from special interests.

1985: Authors law requiring use of automobile seat belts.

1986: Authors law requiring high school students to maintain a C average to participate in extracurricular activities.

1988: Survives first serious threat as five rebel Democrats--the "Gang of Five"--join with Republicans to try to oust him. Named national chairman of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.

1992: Becomes part owner of an Oakland radio station.

1993: Mediates labor dispute at L.A. Unified School District, preventing a strike.

1994: Foils Republican attempt to oust him as Speaker when GOP Assemblyman Paul Horcher of Diamond Bar bolts and votes for Brown.

1995: Reelected Speaker. Engineers selection of his successor, Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress).

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
50°