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A Time When Arm-Twisting Really Worked

In truth, the good old days weren’t always all that good, of course. To lift our psyches, we savor the good and shelve the bad far back in some memory vault. This is especially true in California’s Capitol, where stalwart deeds are fondly remembered, but not the smelly deals. Judgeships, highways, political money all typically have been bartered in the quest of noble goals.

However, as this Legislature becomes bogged down in yet another senseless, summer stalemate over a state budget, you can’t help but yearn for the good old days when veteran politicians did know how to get things done and usually on time.

My favorite story of how a Legislature and a governor once settled a passionate, partisan dispute probably cannot be found in any civics textbook. It didn’t even involve the common corruptions--cash, pork and spoils. It came down to brawn and bonhomie.

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The year was 1971 and the issue was Medi-Cal reform. As now, the Legislature was controlled by Democrats and the governor was a Republican, Ronald Reagan. The governor and the GOP were insisting that Medi-Cal recipients be required to put up a $2 co-payment for each doctor’s visit. Assembly Democrats vehemently objected. The squabble was holding up other reforms.

“This was a big philosophical debate and we couldn’t resolve the issue,” recalls then-Assemblyman Bill Campbell, who recently retired as president of the California Manufacturers Assn.

One day, the major players all met in Speaker Bob Moretti’s office--Moretti, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Willie Brown, GOP author Campbell and Reagan’s negotiator, Health Department Director Earl Brian.

“We’re saying, ‘How are we going to resolve this?’ ” Campbell remembers. “Finally, Moretti says to Brian, ‘I’ll arm-wrestle you for it.’ And Earl says, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’

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“I say, ‘No, no, I can’t let this happen.’ I knew Bobby was a phenomenal arm wrestler and had great upper body strength. He’s sitting there smiling. Earl’s looking, well, a little flabby.”

Both men were in their 30s.

“They sat down at a table with Willie and me watching,” Campbell continues. “This is your Legislature at work. It was unbelievable. I’m thinking, this is it, we’ve definitely lost co-pay.

“It wasn’t close. Whooommm. Bobby’s arm goes down. He can’t believe it. He says, ‘Two out of three.’ Whooommm. He’s down again. ‘OK, you’ve got co-pay.’

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“We had a lot of fun laughing. Willie goes back to his committee and says, ‘Without objection, AB 949 is amended to include a $2 co-pay.’ And that’s how Ronald Reagan got Medi-Cal reform.

“What I didn’t know about Earl Brian was that as a youngster he was one of the top-ranked tennis players in the nation. He had built up a tremendous right arm.”

Campbell adds: “That wouldn’t happen today. People don’t even talk, let alone arm-wrestle. And there’s no sense of humor. The camaraderie, the esprit de corps, it’s all gone. They just start firing at each other, rolling out the grenades before they’re even in the trenches.”

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“Yeah, those were the days,” notes Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), somewhat wistfully. Burton was an assemblyman in 1971. Since then, he has been to Congress and back and now is the Legislature’s most powerful member.

It used to be said--used to be an old saw--that the most powerful legislator was the Assembly speaker. No more. Not under term limits. It’s hard to lead--to amass and exert power--if you’ve held elective office for only 3 1/2 years. That’s the resume of the present speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles).

“Give him another eight years as speaker and he’ll be right up there,” Burton says, tongue in cheek. Villaraigosa will be booted out of the Assembly by term limits in just 2 1/2 years.

Unlike Villaraigosa, Burton knows the nuances of legislating. He knows who really matters and who doesn’t, when to draw a line and when to be flexible.

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“I can go out and do something without spending three hours in a caucus talking about it,” the Senate leader says, referring to the Assembly’s penchant for holding interminable caucus meetings.

The leadership of Burton and Villaraigosa, and their ability to get along, will determine whether the Legislature soon passes a budget/tax cut or proceeds to again really embarrass itself.

So far, their relationship has been strained. Burton almost didn’t join Villaraigosa at a joint news conference Tuesday. He showed up only after the speaker quit insisting privately on an income tax cut and agreed to Burton’s demand for a temporary trimming of the sales tax. Both oppose Gov. Pete Wilson’s car tax slash.

Grenades are rolling. Fingers are pointing. It’s easy to get nostalgic for a good old arm-wrestle.

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