‘Ayatollah’ Willie Brown wants a more moderate Legislature

Capitol Journal

When Willie Brown says that Sacramento has become too polarized and California should junk party primaries, it’s the sign of a movement.

Brown is the onetime self-proclaimed “ayatollah of the Assembly” -- the speaker -- and a former San Francisco mayor. The movement is “reform,” although the word is grossly overused and one person’s reform is another’s power play.

But voters are in the mood for some genuine reform that helps to unravel partisan gridlock.

A private poll taken roughly 10 days ago found that 88% of likely voters believe that California has “seriously gotten off on the wrong track.” The most important issues, in the minds of those surveyed, are economic. But the runner-up is a variety of state and local government issues, dominated by budget deficits.

The survey was conducted by a longtime polling outfit, Public Opinion Strategies, on behalf of an initiative campaign to extend independent redistricting to congressional seats. Voters in 2008 took redistricting of legislative seats away from the Legislature, which is notorious for gerrymandering to protect incumbents.

A proposed ballot measure allowing a 14-member citizens commission, rather than the Legislature, to also draw congressional districts is supported by at least 55% of voters, the poll found. The backing increases significantly when voters learn more about the issue.

All manner of incremental reform is crawling along in California.

* Democratic legislative leaders last week adopted two proposed ballot measures developed by a bipartisan good-government group, California Forward. The goal is to improve state budgeting and local finance.

The package includes many goodies long sought by Republicans: allowing one-time windfall revenue to be spent only for a one-time purpose. Establishing performance standards for state programs. Requiring a two-thirds majority vote for any fee that replaces a tax. Forcing a legislator who proposes spending more than $25 million to identify the funding source. Barring the state from raiding local property taxes or redevelopment funds.

But Republican leaders balked at two provisions essential to Democrats. One would lower the Legislature’s vote hurdle for budget passage from two-thirds to a simple majority, as it is in 47 states. The other provision would allow voters to approve a local sales tax increase with a majority vote.

Because it would take a two-thirds vote to place these measures on the ballot, they don’t have great odds. Typically, GOP leaders denounced them as Democratic tax-and-spend.

Regardless, Democrats whispered about maybe peeling off enough Republicans.

They also announced some bipartisan internal changes designed to improve the Legislature, including more prioritizing and fewer bills.

* The campaign for an open primary won a huge victory in court Friday. A judge not only rejected a labor union’s attempt to rewrite Proposition 14’s ballot label and summary in the opposition’s favor, he actually strengthened the language for supporters.

The crucial wording to be seen by all voters will include such positive phrases as “Reforms the primary election process. . . . Allows all voters to choose any candidate. . . . Encourages increased participation. . . .”

The Legislature placed Prop. 14 on the ballot in a late-night trade for the budget-and-tax vote of Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria).

“The sneaky attempt to derail the open primary has failed,” Maldonado asserted. “We’re one step further toward ending the madness, the partisanship, the gridlock and dysfunction of the Capitol.”

The school employees union sued the Legislature. But most lawmakers -- and the political parties -- also oppose an open primary.

The suspicion is that Democratic leaders plotted with the union to secretly rewrite the ballot language through a court-approved “stipulated judgment” without tipping off the Prop. 14 camp. But the leaders adamantly deny it, and the evidence is only circumstantial.

It could have been just some unbridled senior staffers conspiring with the Legislature’s lawyers.

Under Prop. 14, there would be one primary ballot, open to all candidates and voters. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election.

* The campaign for independent congressional redistricting has collected 1.2 million voter signatures -- it needs 734,000 -- and is awaiting certification for the November ballot. Its bankroller has been wealthy Silicon Valley physicist and Republican activist Charles Munger Jr.

Meanwhile, some Democratic politicians are funding a counterattack to return all redistricting to the Legislature. It has just begun collecting signatures. That campaign is headed by Michael Berman, a longtime Democratic strategist and brother of U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of Valley Village.

Brown believes the Legislature should draw political lines.

But becoming mayor of San Francisco turned him into an open-primary advocate. Local races are nonpartisan. And he backs Prop. 14.

“It requires people running for office to appeal to everybody from Day One. No longer there’d be this business of tailoring your message for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Berkeley, or the conservative wing of the Republican Party in Orange County.

“It literally minimizes the fringe element and causes the majority voice to ultimately be heard.”

Brown, once perceived by Republicans as the epitome of partisanship, adds:

“The Legislature has become far too adherent to partisanship on the very conservative side and on the very liberal side.”

Who’d have ever thought? Willie Brown, product of a liberal San Francisco political machine, evolving into a moderate reformer.