California Mover, Shaker May Lose His Bully Pulpit

Willie Brown's prospects dim for retaining power in state Assembly

THE Republican tide that swept America in November has not exactly engulfed its most populous state - Democrats retain an edge in California's congressional delegation, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is still clutching her palm frond-thin victory margin over millionaire Michael Huffington.

But the highest election turnout in 12 years has turned enough Democrats out of the state Assembly to end their 25-year reign and hang the career of one of America's leading black politicians in the balance.

Willie Brown, known for his Ferraris and Italian suits, has been Assembly Speaker longer than anyone in state history - 14 years. He has also used his role as a springboard to national prominence - in such roles as chairman in 1988 of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. But on Monday, the man The Economist magazine calls ``arguably the most powerful elected black politician in American history,'' may have to give up the bully pulpit that got and kept him there.

``Clearly we are seeing the demise of one of the highest-ranking African-American officials in the country,'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. Brown's ouster would further reflect an erosion in the clout of blacks nationwide as a result of 1990 reapportionments - and in California where analysts remind observers that the voting public is still largely white.

``It will be a very long time before another African-American rises to the level of speaker in California,'' Professor Jeffe says.

Mr. Brown needs 41 of 80 Assembly votes to hold the powerful speakership. Democrats retain only 39.

``Conventional wisdom holds that he is not going to scare up the two Republican votes he needs,'' says Rich Zeiger, editor of the California Journal. Mr. Zeiger and several other political analysts add that if anyone can do it, Brown can. ``Don't write his political obituary just yet,'' says Zeiger, ``but have it ready.''

Two scenarios can keep Brown as Speaker for now: A Republican (Paul Horcher) appointed by Brown as vice chair to the powerful Ways and Means Committee is considered a party renegade who owes and just might return the Speaker a favor. And one GOP assemblyman (Richard Mountjoy) is resigning to go to the state Senate, leaving one vote in a vacuum for a few months.

But regardless of how the vote turns out, most say, Brown is irrevocably on the verge of losing his speakership powers.

Term limits passed by citizen's initiative here in 1992 have diluted Brown's ability to reward supporters and punish opponents. And if he cuts a deal to keep himself in the Speaker's chair, he may have to give up appointments, resources, staff, and power to Republicans. Moreover, with such an even partisan split and his own lame-duck status to consider - term limits oust Brown himself in 1996 - his bargaining chips are all but gone.

There are several likely scenarios for Brown, among them that he could resign and go into entertainment law. The most plausible is that he could become minority leader, serving out his final two years in an obstructionist role to Republican agendas. Then he could run for state Senate, serve two years until term limits force pro tem leader Bill Lockyer (D) to leave that office up for grabs in 1998.

Either way, analysts here are tallying the Brown legacy and considering what his absence as Speaker will mean for California.

``If he loses next week, all the key committee chairs will go Republican, just like Congress,'' notes Bud Lembke, editor of the Sacramento-based political newsletter, Political Pulse. Mr. Lembke sees more crime bills moving through committee, environmental rollbacks, and measures to improve the business climate.

As important as the change in leadership will be changes in staff. ``The people will change, loyalty will change, the ideology will change....'' Jeffe says.

Even in a diminished role as minority leader, Brown will be one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, according to Joe Cerrell, a Democratic consultant. But his relinquishment of the Speaker post could allow a bigger role nationally for black Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Ironically, say others, Brown's storied reputation as a wheeling-dealing politician may have weakened the speaker's role itself within the California legislature.

``His legacy will be that he destroyed the institution that [legendary California politician] Jesse Unruh built before him,'' Professor Jeffe notes. ``He did that by dealing away the power of the speakership to keep himself in office.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.