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There Are No Term Limits on Revenge

As they said in the Old West, when you ride out to seek revenge, better dig two graves--one for your enemy and one for yourself.

Last June, then-Assemblywoman Doris Allen rode out of her safe little Orange County political niche to seek revenge and on Tuesday she was gunned down.

Recalled. Terminated prematurely.

Allen, 59, who grew up on a cattle ranch and loves to ride horses, was a fairly good representative for her Assembly district during most of the 13 years she spent in Sacramento. She usually mirrored her constituents’ conservatism, although occasionally she’d vote with liberals to help schoolteachers. Before this bizarre year, she had been best known for siding with environmentalists and recreational anglers to ban the use of gill nets by commercial fishermen.

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But all along, Allen had seethed with resentment against what she considered slights by the Orange County Good Ol’ Boys, who never quite accepted her. Some of her complaints probably were justified. The insults finally became unbearable when Republican colleagues last March backed then-Assemblyman Ross Johnson--a carpetbagger from Placentia--for election to a state Senate seat in her district.

Allen coveted that seat, and when Johnson won it, she simmered a while and then rode off seeking revenge. She rode right up to then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, the San Francisco liberal, who had been searching for a Republican rebel to help his minority Democrats cling to power.

Wily Willie--unmatched at exploiting weaknesses, in numbers or in character--cut himself a great deal: He got to share power with Allen; she got to take revenge on Republicans. Brown got to mess with GOP minds; Allen got to deny her party a real GOP Speaker, despite a house majority. Brown got to keep Democratic committee chairs and staff; she got to fire chairs and staffers “disloyal” to her.

It was a wild shootout, with Allen too often shooting off her mouth and wounding herself. “Do I let a group of power-mongering men with short penises tell me what to do?” she asked.

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So long, Doris.

At the end, neither Brown nor any other Democrat tried to protect Allen from the recall. She had no legislative friends. Not even her handpicked successor as Speaker, Republican Brian Setencich of Fresno, would publicly admit supporting her.

As Shakespeare wrote, “Revenge beget revenge.”

That’s the old lesson.

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The new lesson of this sad, silly episode--not just Allen’s recall but also fellow turncoat Paul Horcher’s last May--is that term limits aren’t all they were cracked up to be.

“Term limits are making it harder to retain party loyalty,” observes Charles R. Kesler, a government professor and senior fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute. “Term limits have made the Assembly less deliberative--not more deliberative, as it was supposed to be when all these new ‘citizen legislators’ came up to focus on ‘the common good.’ ”

Kesler can’t help chortling sarcastically as he talks about “citizen legislators” focusing on “the common good.” Almost all the Assembly focus this year was on bitter leadership battles and the 1996 elections.

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“Advocates of term limits predicted we’d get a very different kind of legislator, who would serve for six years--eight in the Senate--and return to civilian life, never to be heard from again. So far, we don’t see that happening. Most new legislators get the political bug and want to run for something else.”

We learned from the Allen and Horcher treacheries, Kesler notes, that when some legislators have no office to run for, they are willing to burn their bridges back home. Like Allen, Assemblyman Horcher had lost a Senate race before betraying the GOP and selling out to Brown. Both were facing Assembly term limits and the end of their legislative careers.

“Term limits creates incentives for politicians to betray their parties and their constituencies,” Kesler says. “They no longer are accountable. It’s an unintended consequence of term limits and has actually made matters worse for the public.

“Neither Allen nor Horcher probably is a bad person. But under term limits, the weaker sides of their character came out.”

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In January, the Assembly will start anew. No Allen. And probably no Brown, because he probably will have been elected San Francisco’s mayor. That will leave 38 Democrats, 40 “real Republicans"--as the party calls them--and Speaker Setencich.

Unlike Allen, Setencich is not vengeful. But we don’t know how astute he is--specifically, whether this 33-year-old former pro basketball player yet realizes he’s not supposed to be scoring points for the other team.


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