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In the old days, things got done

It was refreshing to re-inhale whiffs of odorous politics -- to hear old lawmakers wax nostalgic about boozing, carousing and secretly cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Refreshing, because much of today’s poll-driven, spin-dependent, politically opportunistic legislating is offensive to the public’s intelligence and unproductive.

The old style of four decades ago, although it often had a smell and wasn’t pretty, actually produced results for the people: a world-class water project, a very affordable university system and smooth highways. Not to mention on-time, honestly balanced state budgets.

The two eras were bridged and assessed Tuesday during an entertaining forum featuring four formerly powerful policymakers and one current legislative leader:

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Republican Pete Wilson, an assemblyman in the 1960s and governor in the 1990s; Democrat Willie Brown, an assemblyman for nearly 31 years and speaker for a record 14 1/2 ; Democrat John Burton, a legislator or congressman for three decades before becoming state Senate leader until 2004; Republican Jim Brulte, minority leader of the Assembly and later the Senate until 2004; and Democrat Fabian Nunez, the current Assembly speaker.

Most of the entertainment was provided by a Pete, Willie and John show. None of this trio, all in their 70s, ever will run for election again and therefore could afford to speak candidly -- although they never disguised their attitudes much anyway even while holding office.

Their opinions were expressed humorously, but not in jest. They purposely were stimulating laughter, but also sincerely conveying a message: The “good ol’ days” weren’t as bad as depicted by reformers then or now, and the current crop of politicians could benefit by at least emulating their camaraderie. The group also agreed that term limits are too short and that the current Legislature suffers from inexperience.

The forum, sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California, was titled “Restoring Confidence in the Legislative Process.” It drew a packed crowd of roughly 400 to a downtown hotel ballroom. Many were young Capitol staffers who probably couldn’t believe their ears.

“The Legislature was far less partisan than today,” Wilson recalled of the 1960s. “It may have had something to do with the fact that when John and Willie and I were all freshmen assemblymen, there was a great deal more drinking in the Legislature. These guys, the teetotalers, need to lighten up a bit.”

The audience erupted in applause and laughter.

The mild-mannered Wilson wasn’t exactly a boozer, but he did enjoy capping the day with a sip or two of scotch, even when being interviewed by a newspaper columnist.

Burton, who conquered drug and alcohol addiction in the 1980s, explained that it wasn’t the drinking but the consequent camaraderie that mattered. In graphic terms, the liberal told of being led to a strip bar by a conservative Republican and getting to understand the man.

The former legislative leader then reiterated a lament that has been heard around the Capitol for 33 years: When then-gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown sold California voters on his Proposition 9, the Political Reform Act, it ended a lot of fun and bonding. That’s because the act prohibited lobbyists from spending more than $10 per month on a legislator -- “enough for two hamburgers and a coke,” Brown said. Previously, lobbyists had generously picked up legislators’ bar and dinner tabs around the Capitol and sponsored large group luncheons where Democrats and Republicans mingled freely.

Burton pointed to the hypocrisy of it all. While lobbyists today are capped at $10 for each lawmaker, their special interest clients can pump $10,000 or more into accounts that finance legislators’ foreign travel and all the meals they can ever eat. Moreover, rather than lunching with other lawmakers and a few lobbyists, today’s legislators routinely hold $1,000-a-head noon fundraisers attended by lobbyists and their paying clients.

That brought up this point by Brulte: “Prior to term limits, the special interests needed the legislative leaders. Post term limits, the legislative leaders need the special interests.”

Afterward, he explained: Before term limits, legislative leaders were strong enough “to tell them to shove off and live to tell about it.” Under term limits, as lawmakers constantly plot for their next political job and covet campaign cash, weak leaders are more vulnerable to special interest demands.

While supporting term limits in concept, Brulte endorsed Proposition 93 on the Feb. 5 ballot. The measure would reduce lawmakers’ total allowable years from 14 to 12 but permit all to be spent in one house. Currently, they can serve only six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.

Brown long has acknowledged being “the poster boy” for term limits. At the luncheon, he showed some of the flair that riled many California voters -- although not in San Francisco, where he twice was elected mayor.

The former self-dubbed “Ayatollah of the Assembly” criticized open-government laws that, starting in the 1970s, attempted to force policymaking into public view. “Unfortunately,” he said, much of today’s legislating is conducted “where everybody in the world can see.”

He complained -- humorously, but genuinely -- about “requiring open conference committees . . . recorded votes . . . a number of things that inhibit good judgment. The results were this clear and present danger out there [to legislators’ relationships with supporters] and . . . stalemate or gridlock.”

No doubt. Politics used to be more interesting and productive. But openness and accountability aren’t too much for the public to demand. Politicians just need to adapt.

There’s ample opportunity for policymakers to meet privately, even in smoke-filled rooms like the governor’s stogie tent. You’d also think they could figure out a way to hang and bond on their own dime.

The old way wasn’t a perfect model, but the current one isn’t exactly odor-free. And it often doesn’t work.

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george.skelton@latimes


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