Republican or Puppet? That Is the Question

We'll probably learn a lot more today about new Assembly Speaker Doris Allen. We'll begin to learn whether she really is a Republican or, as many of her GOP colleagues charge, a Willie Brown puppet.

We'll be able to better guess whether she'll go down in history not only as California's first woman Speaker, but as the shortest tenured house leader of the modern era. Will we have time to get used to this very strange word combination: Assembly Speaker Doris Allen ?

Will the Republicans' neglected agenda begin to move through the Assembly or will there be gridlock, which, of course, is the Democrats' strategy?

How will she handle herself under pressure at the Assembly rostrum? Will she even try? On Monday, after being sworn in as Speaker, she handed the gavel back to Brown to preside. Angry, humiliated Republicans saw this gesture as an omen.

Their fury is understandable. She may well be the first American--indeed, the first person anywhere--ever elected to lead a legislative body without being supported by a single other member of her party. All of Allen's votes, except her own, came from the enemy camp.

The Democrats' quid pro quo was a rules change that maintains gridlock on the money committees--Budget and Appropriations--regardless of any future GOP majority. Thus, it also maintains their ability to draw campaign juice from special interests.

For Democrats, money was what this largely was about--taxpayers' money to fund government programs and, more important politically, special interest money to finance their election campaigns. For Allen, it was about revenge against GOP colleagues who, she says, have dumped on her for many years.

Today on the Assembly floor, Republicans plan to pressure-test Allen. She'll be forced on vote after vote--ruling after ruling--to choose between her party and her benefactor Brown.

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Republicans, through parliamentary maneuvers, will try to break the Democratic logjam on their legislative agenda, including Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed 15% income tax cut. They'll attempt to resurrect bills to end affirmative action programs in state government. They'll challenge the trial lawyers lobby--a cash cow for Democratic campaigns--by pushing for limits on civil lawsuits. They'll take aim at the despised new Assembly rules.

Watching Allen's every move will be recallers from her Cypress-based Assembly district. A successful recall seems far-fetched at this point. But some Assembly Republicans are vowing guerrilla warfare to oust her as Speaker, and today they will be looking for ammunition.

"Doris Allen says she's a good Republican and [today] we'll see how good a Republican she is," declared Assemblyman Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, the ostensible GOP leader whom she beat out for Speaker. Brulte picked up every GOP vote except Allen's and lost 40-38.

"I'm a good Republican," Allen insisted. "They'll see that. I've never been a puppet of anybody's. I'm not controlled by anyone."

Certainly not by the GOP.

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It takes more than a title to be a leader. And it's difficult to imagine a tougher leadership challenge than faces Speaker Allen. Her new political base is her natural enemy, Democrats.

Allen's dilemma in keeping Democrats appeased was illustrated by Speaker Pro Tem Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino) soon after Monday's vote. Baca's support had been sought by Brulte, but the GOP leader never offered much--not anything like a major committee chairmanship--so Baca once again followed Brown.

"I'm still very critical for Allen," Baca told me. "She'd better remember it. She'd better watch what she does with me. Or we may have another day in court."

But above all else, Allen must win over a dozen or so Republicans. To do that, she'll need to reward and punish--the game every successful political leader learns and one Brulte seldom has tried, let alone mastered.

The new rules give Allen the tools to play Machiavelli and quickly attract Republican "friends." She has the sole power to appoint Republican committee chairs and members. Under previous rules, the GOP Caucus did that.

"What will sell to the caucus is the realization that this lady is in charge," notes Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico), one of a half-dozen Republicans who already have extended their friendship. "If you try to stonewall her, you wake up and maybe your staff isn't getting paid."

Good idea for the neophyte Speaker.

Allen already has proven her courage and independence. Today she needs to start renewing her party credentials and making Democrats worry about their bargain.

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