Willie Brown's Legacy Endures
California's Assembly passes speaker's baton from near legendary Democrat to Republican who is reviled by her own party members.
LOS ANGELES — WHEN California Assembly members this week elected their first Republican speaker in 25 years and first-ever woman, they provided an early lesson on the effects of state term limits.
The election signals the demise of flamboyant Speaker Willie Brown, a Democrat, who held the position longer than anyone in history (14-1/2 years). He was well-known for wielding power through favoritism, partisanship, and back-room deals.
But as Doris Allen of Orange County slips into Mr. Brown's big shoes, politics in the nation's largest state may be headed for a period of political instability and legislative gridlock. Ms. Allen's angry GOP colleagues may decide to oust their new Speaker for the deal she struck with Democrats to win her election.
"She is a traitor in the true sense of the word," says Jon Fleischman, head of a conservative group known as the California Republican Assembly. "Allen has aligned herself with every Democrat against every Republican. She is a disgrace to our party."
Allen won the Monday election with the vote of every Democrat in the Assembly (39) and no Republican votes except her own. In exchange, she agreed to give her predecessor the newly created post of "Speaker emeritus," a role with as-yet undecided power.
Rift over rule changes
She also consented to changing Assembly rules to allow most Democrats to keep current committee assignments. In a vague "power sharing" pact, they lead equal numbers of committees and have parity with Republicans on those committees. Republicans are challenging her rule changes as well as mounting formal recall campaigns.
Excitement over her role as the first woman Assembly Speaker has been undermined by the political chicanery, experts say.
"What concerns me is the spin being put on this by Democrats and women's groups that this is a victory for women," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate School in California. "Her election was about nothing but revenge - hers, Willie Brown's, and Democrats'."
Allen's motives in cutting a deal with Democrats have been widely seen as revenge for lack of GOP support afforded her in a March special election for a state senate seat.
For Brown and other Democrats, the move signals a last grasp at power that slipped through their fingers with the successful recall last month of an Assembly member who had voted to keep the Democrats in power.
But more significant than who won or lost in this internecine warfare may be what it presages for a new era of noncareer politicians in California.
"What's really important about this is its signal that the old system of professional legislators in California politics is in its death throes," says Alan Heslop, director of Claremont McKenna College's Rose Institute.
Noting that the legendary amount of power accumulated by Brown was possible only through 15 years of reign, Mr. Heslop says both the personal control wielded by Brown and the potency of the speakership are permanently diminished. Allen, herself a member of the Assembly since 1978, will be forced out of office in 1996, limited by the term-limits initiative that passed five years ago here.
"No one will ever be as powerful as Willie Brown in California state politics again," Heslop says.
Republicans vow to challenge the rules changes adopted by Allen and the Democrats. They have been bolstered by election results Tuesday that filled a vacant Assembly seat with a Republican, giving them a 40 to 39 majority.
"Allen has effectively negotiated away power due the Republicans who now have a majority," says Kim Walsh, spokeswoman for Assemblyman Jim Brulte, the top Republican who was outmaneuvered by Allen for the speakership. "That guarantees the defeat of a whole host of reforms in the wings - tax and tort reform, education, endangered species."
Born in Missouri and raised by a strict father that many credit with her fierce independence, Allen is twice divorced and the mother of two grown children. She served on the Huntington Beach, Calif., school board before winning her first Assembly seat in 1978. Her greatest legislative achievement since then is considered to be a 1990 state ballot measure banning the use of gill nets by commercial fishermen.
Having angered her GOP colleagues, Allen now has her work cut out for her.
"She is well-liked as a moderate Republican but has a modest list of accomplishments," says Larry Berg at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "But she has started out by incurring the wrath of those she needs on her side. It remains to be seen if she has the political acumen to overcome that."
Whatever her skills turn out to be, analysts see a period of instability ahead for a legislative body that was once one of the most respected and influential in the country.
"The legislature has become the most partisan body I've seen in 32 years of watching it," Mr. Berg says. "Now we've got increased partisanship with a nasty game of musical chairs at the helm. It's a mess."
With California's important budget battle ahead, many feel the state is seriously adrift.
"The governor is away running for president, the former speaker - now speaker emeritus - is running for San Francisco mayor. And someone who has no idea about the dynamics of state politics is running the Assembly. This is sheer, eye-opening, astounding chaos," Ms. Jeffe says.