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Chapter Twelve— Mice Milk
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Chapter Twelve—
Mice Milk

According to Mr. Brown, he's going to be the next Speaker of the House, so I'll hand him the gavel now and we won't have to go through the motions of an election.
Carlos Bee
Assembly Speaker Pro Tem
May 1966

As the Legislature reconvened in 1966, Willie Brown was an important but still largely unknown player in California. As a lawmaker, he had met with success in winning approval of moderately ambitious legislation. He had been named "Outstanding Freshman" by the press corps a year earlier. And he was definitely an emerging star in black politics, at least in California. But realistically, Brown was still a long way from political power. He was not even close to becoming an insider, as was made abundantly clear by one fact: he was not invited to join an entrenched Capitol institution, the lunch club.

The clubs operated out of the public eye. Their colorful names, such as "Caboose Club" and "Derby Club," evoked colorful origins. The Caboose Club was composed of legislators who had been old railroaders before they were elected. The Derby was a collection of legislators and lobbyists who wore English bowlers while eating and carousing. Unruh ran his own feast, called the "Tuesday Club," meeting for breakfast on Tuesdays at the same time as the Derby. Another club, more of a drinking clique, was called "Moose Milk" after a concoction served up at all hours at a nearby hotel. Lobbyists were, of course, club members and paid for everything. The clubs were more than just social gatherings; they were important and discreet marketplaces of political power.[1] Lawmakers and lobbyists mingled cutting


deals, telling off-color jokes, and schmoozing well into the afternoon. Legislators were often well pickled by the time they showed up for their late-afternoon committee meetings. The clubs were safe havens where the powerful could trade votes, form friendships, soothe feelings, and promise campaign contributions. The longest-serving state senator in recent times, Democrat Ralph Dills, recalled, "Usually you could find a place to go to have a free meal and a drink—almost any place in town and at almost any time of day. The Senator Hotel was full of such meetings. Sometimes committee meetings were held over there the night before—not too well publicized."[2] The clubs were decidedly male institutions, reflecting the near-total male domination of the Legislature; in fact, a women's restroom was not installed in the Senate until 1976.

The California Derby Club, the only one that survived into the 1990s, was typical of the boozy clubs. Insiders got the joke: the club's initials were the same as those of the liberal and insufferably serious California Democratic Council. The Derby was a bastion of senators and a few select Assembly members. The club was founded and run by Siskiyou County's senator, Randolph Collier.[3] The silver-haired Collier was the senior member of the Senate, having been elected in 1939, when Willie Brown was five years old. Another wheel in the club was the Senate president pro tem, Hugh Burns, who had condemned Willie Brown over the Vietnam telegram incident. The Derby Club was founded on silliness, inspired on a legislative junket to London in the 1950s. On a whim, the California lawmakers purchased derby hats in a London shop, and when they came home they sported their bowlers at lunch. The Derby clubbers thenceforth wore their bowlers at lunch every Tuesday, and they developed a whole series of silly rituals. "We don't usually talk politics. It's mainly just old friends enjoying a visit together," said Senator Alfred Alquist, elected to the Assembly in 1962 and still serving in the Senate three decades later.[4]

The club members ate (and drank) at Posey's Cottage, a shabby meat-and-potatoes joint a block from the Capitol. Once a year, the members donned tuxedos and their derbies and marched intoxicated around the Capitol on their way to a banquet honoring themselves at a downtown restaurant. During one such banquet a drunken Derby member jumped up on the bar at Frank Fat's, which had just reopened after a fire, and urged the boys to burn the place down again. He was restrained. "It's more a tradition than an organization," explained John Foran, who was part of the San Francisco Democratic organization rivaling Brown and the Burton brothers.[5] Foran was invited to join the Derby Club in 1964 as a sophomore assemblyman. Willie Brown and John Burton were never invited to join.

Left out of the established clubs, Willie Brown and John Burton decided to start their own club. At first it did not have a name. They called it simply a "study group," fashioned after the Democratic Study Group in Congress,


which liberals were forging into a power base. The Assembly study group met for breakfast on Wednesday mornings. Its thirteen members had a serious liberal bent; they included freshman Bob Moretti from North Hollywood, liberal Edwin Z'berg, and a handful of powerful committee chairmen, such as Robert Crown, chairman of Ways and Means, George Zenovich, chairman of Finance and Insurance, and Nicholas Petris, chairman of Revenue and Taxation.[6]

Bob Moretti, two years younger than Brown, emerged as the leader of the group. Moretti became close to Willie Brown, and their careers were intertwined until Moretti's death two decades later. Also elected in 1964, Moretti was an Unruh protégé and had a reputation as a tough-talking street fighter. Ideological purity did not interest him. Going for the throat did.[7] Unruh probably did not feel threatened by the study group; Moretti and some of his other cronies who were in the club could keep an eye on things.

Born in Detroit, Moretti was elected to the Assembly from a middle-class, white San Fernando Valley district. Partisan, confrontational, and exceedingly ambitious, Moretti was not in office more than six months before he issued his first press release lambasting the governor of his own party, Pat Brown, for "abdication of state leadership" for his budget proposals.[8] Moretti's friendship with Willie Brown was cemented through their club.

In the spring of 1966, Brown got himself in trouble by bragging too much about his lunch club in an extemporaneous speech to a Saturday convention of the California Federation of Young Democrats.[9] Other, more notable Democrats, including Governor Pat Brown and state controller Alan Cranston, spoke to the convention that Saturday morning. But the young assemblyman upstaged them by asserting that Jesse Unruh was in political trouble in the Assembly because he had to depend on Republican votes to win passage of legislation. Brown suggested that his study group held the balance of power in the Assembly as evidenced by its successful challenge to Unruh over an otherwise routine bill on the state's accounting methods. Taking a swipe at the governor's staff, Brown said his group wanted to grow to thirty members so that it could "program with the governor and offset the band of misfits who apparently are advising him." Though he was saying aloud what many legislators were saying privately about the governor's staff, Brown vastly overstated the importance and cohesiveness of the study group, as events shortly proved.

Brown's remarks received front-page treatment the next day in a story by Richard Rodda in The Sacramento Bee . The headline was explosive: "Demos' Group Challenges Speaker Unruh's Leadership." The story went off like a bomb in the Assembly on Monday morning. Democrats were mortified at Brown's brazenness; Republicans were delighted to embarrass Democrat Brown over the story. Brown's seatmate, Republican Carl Britschgi, stood up and read the Bee news story aloud with emphasis on Brown's use of


the word "misfits" in describing Pat Brown's staff. Democratic majority leader Jerome Waldie tried to have Britschgi ruled out of order, but to no avail. Assemblyman Carlos Bee, who was presiding and still had ambitions of becoming Speaker, let Willie Brown roast. Bee sarcastically told his colleagues, "According to Mr. Brown, he's going to be the next Speaker of the House, so I'll hand him the gavel now and we won't have to go through the motions of an election."[10]

That afternoon Brown received a blistering private letter from Z'berg, who was aghast that Brown had publicly mentioned his name as one of the members of the study group and, in Z'berg's view, misstated the group's purpose. "Everyone emphatically agreed that this was not a group formed for the purpose of challenging Jesse Unruh and that it was merely a group of people who wished to have breakfast together," Z'berg wrote Brown. "I am very much displeased with your categorizing me with any position which you might be advocating without first receiving my permission."[11] To cover himself, Z'berg sent a copy of his letter to Unruh.

Brown had a lot of explaining to do. Despite his obvious political talent, his reputation for boastfulness and overreaching was growing. Brown tried to backtrack with a letter to his colleagues, but he only made things worse by stating that "the main source of leadership in the next session" would be Bob Crown, the current chairman of Ways and Means.[12] Brown then told Jack Welter from the San Francisco Examiner that he meant only that Crown would be the leader if Unruh decided to run for statewide office that year. Brown said his study group was just like Unruh's, glossing over the critical fact that Unruh was the Speaker. "It's just like the Tuesday Club," Brown pleaded. "I never even implied it was anti-Unruh." He did not claim he had been misquoted, but he said that reporters had misinterpreted his remarks. "I don't know of anyone in the group who would vote against Jess."[13] But few, if any, in the Capitol were buying Brown's dodge.

Fortunately for Brown, Unruh was in Hawaii. Brown finally managed to extract himself from his self-made mess by means of his mischievous sense of humor. He and Moretti sent a telegram to Unruh at the Warwick Hotel in Honolulu: "Wish to advise you that speakership vacated on motion of undersigned. Vote 13-0" (the same number of votes as there were members of their club). The two signed their gag telegram: "Speaker Willie Brown" and "Chairman—Ways and Means, Bob Moretti."[14]

After this embarrassment the Wednesday morning study group fell apart. In its place, Brown, Burton, and Moretti formed a lunch club that met on Tuesday, the same day that the insiders' clubs met.[15] As a spoof on the "Moose Milk" drinking club, they named theirs "Mice Milk." It met in the Assembly lounge, and the members brought brown-bag lunches. This time the young liberals were more careful. There was no more chest thumping about taking over the Assembly. Most important, the club forged friendships


that proved crucial in reorganizing the Democrats when they lost control of the Assembly and Unruh finally fell from power. As it turned out, Mice Milk formed the nucleus of the Assembly's future leadership, and it did so quietly and methodically. The joke telegram to Unruh almost had it right: when Mice Milk took over, Brown became chairman of Ways and Means and Moretti became Speaker. Mice Milk had a regular core of members, but its increasing influence could be felt when a legislator who was not a club member showed up. "You could always tell sometimes when a stray came in. He had a bill somewhere he wanted some help on," said John Burton. "It was a good place to sit down and have lunch and bullshit. I mean, that really is a good thing. You talk about anything, or you could talk about a bill coming up. You could talk about last night's movie."[16]

Overshadowing all else in the narrow world of Sacramento in 1966 was a statewide election. Although Pat Brown would be remembered fondly by legislators in later years, his relationship with them in 1966 was at a breaking point. Unruh had patched things up with the governor enough to push through a Democratic legislative agenda, but many Democrats in the Legislature believed that Pat Brown should now retire. Unruh believed he had Pat Brown's word that he would not seek a third term and would let Unruh run for governor. Unruh, in fact, was putting together a gubernatorial campaign.[17]

Despite their divisions there was reason to think that the Democrats could keep the governor's office for another term, and just possibly hang on into the 1970 district reapportionment. To begin with, the potential Republican gubernatorial candidates in 1966 did not appear formidable. Former San Francisco mayor George Christopher was the only seasoned professional seeking the GOP nomination, and he was a plodding campaigner with a checkered past who had failed once before in a statewide race. Another candidate seeking the Republican nomination was a B-movie actor with no political experience, and his most recent job was hosting television's Death Valley Days: Ronald Reagan. He had thrust himself into politics with a speech supporting Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Reagan's sparkle and optimism made him a hugely attractive candidate, and his opponents were consistently prone to underestimate him.

With such a seemingly weak Republican field, Pat Brown decided to run for a third term. He hoped to face Reagan, believing him to be the weaker opponent. Pat Brown, however, lacked spark, and it showed. He was opposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, who repeatedly reminded voters that during the Watts riots the previous summer, Pat Brown had been vacationing in Greece.[18] Although the incumbent governor beat Yorty in the June primary, the image Yorty painted stuck. Pat Brown got his wish: Reagan beat George Christopher. Pat Brown was briefly buoyed at the prospect of facing the movie actor, but in fact his campaign


sank fast. Student unrest at the University of California campus in Berkeley and more riots in the black ghettos contributed to an image of a weary governor who could no longer control events. Reagan preached cracking down on demonstrators and rioters, cutting taxes, and chopping government programs, and he hit a harmonious note with voters.

As the fall political campaigns unfolded, Willie Brown was more involved in the crisis in the black community than with the race for governor. If anything, Pat Brown was fleeing from blacks, and black political leaders were left with little incentive (and no invitation) to help Pat Brown. Traditional black organizations were feeling the strains. The San Francisco branch of the NAACP, which had been Willie Brown's launching pad into politics, was so embroiled with infighting that in 1966 the national leaders of the NAACP made the drastic move of splitting the branch into three branches. The move backfired, so crippling the political effectiveness of the San Francisco NAACP that some black leaders, including Willie Brown, came to the reluctant conclusion that the NAACP had outlived its usefulness. Brown stopped paying his NAACP dues, and by 1967 he was on a list of expired members.[19]

Willie Brown tried to bring peace to the riot-racked ghettos, but his efforts were overwhelmed by events beyond his or anyone's control. Still, he tried.

The breaking point for blacks in San Francisco came in September, when police officers shot and killed a fleeing suspect in the Hunters Point ghetto. John Dearman got another of those telephone calls from his law partner, Willie Brown.[20]

"Let's go," said Brown.

"Where are we going?" Dearman groggily replied.

"We're going out there and seeing what we can do in Hunters Point."

When Brown and Dearman arrived at a community center in the heart of the slum, Mayor Shelley was already there making a speech calling for calm. It was not working. "It became pretty obvious that it was getting too hot, and so they got the mayor out of there. The police were still there surrounding the building, and Willie and I and several other people went into the building," said Dearman. "There were a number of hotheaded young people in the building, and our thing was to calm these people down. And so while we were inside, one of the younger people got a chair, because the door was open, and he threw a chair out the door toward the cops."[21]

The police loudly cocked their guns, but they did not fire. Everyone inside dove to the floor. Brown and Dearman found a stairwell and went down into the basement, crawled through a window, and emerged in a yard surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. "Willie went over the fence and I went over the fence," Dearman recalled. They believed they were safely outside. "Police were all over everywhere, and these kids were horrible. They had turned a police car over. It was burning, and just as we were walking along someone shot out a window on a car. And this is when I realized how


fast Willie was—Willie is plenty swift. When that window shattered, Willie took off."

Chastened and depressed by the failure of their mission, Dearman and Brown made it back to their law office in the Fillmore district. The Hunters Point rioting went on for three days—the worst civil unrest in San Francisco history—and black leaders could do nothing to stop it. "Willie's just always felt that he had to bring peace of some sort. But he's always putting us in dangerous situations. It seems like I'm always with him," said Dearman. The efforts of the young assemblyman and his law partner in the Hunters Point conflagration went unnoticed in public.

Brown went back to the more mundane matters of legislating. He offered up more proposals on regulating auto insurance, which was becoming a favorite issue for him. That fall he proposed that all motorists be required to carry auto insurance, saying that if private companies could not or would not cover everyone, the state should set up its own insurance fund to cover the uninsurable. Brown outlined his ideas for a state Senate committee conducting an interim study in October: "Automobile insurance in California has become virtually a public utility. It is idiotic for anyone to drive on the highways without adequate coverage. There must be a method for everyone who is issued a license plate to be insured."[22] His proposal went nowhere in 1966, but it eventually became the basis for the auto insurance system in California.

Willie Brown faced relatively weak opposition for reelection to a second term in 1966. A private poll commissioned and paid for by Phillip Burton in October suggested that Willie Brown would win 52 percent against 11 percent for his Republican opponent, Julius Kahn, with 34 percent undecided.[23] Brown actually ran slightly ahead of the poll with 55.7 percent of the vote and breezed back to Sacramento for a second term, along with John Burton.[24] But their cohort in antiwar telegram writing, Bill Stanton, was not so lucky and was turned out of office.

The 1966 election was a major turning point in the political history of California. Political life would henceforth be divided into Before and After 1966. Pat Brown was dumped from office, his estimations of his own popularity and that of Ronald Reagan proving woefully wrong. The changes wrought by the 1966 election were deeper than just those of a new governor who had different ideas about the role of government. Unruh's Proposition 1-A was approved by voters, creating a full-time, full-salaried Legislature that would henceforth be more partisan and polarized. Legislators were now paid $16,000 a year.

The election caused a huge turnover in the Legislature, largely the result of the 1965 court-ordered reapportionment. There were thirty-three newcomers in the eighty-member Assembly and twenty-three in the forty-member Senate.[25] Not even the turnover wrought by term limits in 1994 topped


it. Several Assembly members successfully jumped to the Senate, including Democrats Mervyn Dymally and Nicholas Petris and Republican George Deukmejian. The Burton organization made itself felt for the first time in the state Senate, electing George Moscone to a new seat representing San Francisco. The Legislature's complexion changed as well. Dymally was the first black elected to the Senate; an Asian American, Alfred Song, was also elected to the Senate. But there were still no women in the Senate. And black leaders suffered one notable setback at the polls: Byron Rumford lost in his bid for a state Senate seat representing Alameda County by a margin of 801 votes out of 320,727 votes cast.[26]

The Assembly also now had an Asian-American woman, March Fong, but no Latinos. There were now five blacks in the Assembly, including the first black woman, Yvonne Braithwaite. Other black newcomers, all Democrats, were Leon Ralph, Bill Greene, and John Miller. With the elevation of Dymally to the Senate and the exit of Byron Rumford, Willie Brown was now the senior black member of the Assembly. Brown and Dymally now vied to be the most visible black elected official in California.

Other notable members of the Assembly class of 1966 would also have a big impact in California politics in the years ahead: Democrats David Roberti and Kenneth Cory; Republicans Peter Schabarum, Paul Priolo, and John Briggs. San Diego now had four Assembly seats, and one of its newcomers was a young Republican lawyer, Peter B. Wilson, who later went by the more familiar "Pete."

Ronald Reagan was sworn into office as the thirty-third governor of California. In the State Capitol rotunda at fourteen minutes past midnight on January 3, 1967, he raised his right arm and put his left hand on a four-hundred-year-old Bible brought into the state by Father Junípero Serra.[27] In a television address on January 16, the new governor proposed cutting state government across the board by 10 percent and imposing tuition for the first time on University of California students. The Reagan era had arrived.

In the swirl of press conferences and interviews that mark the start of a new legislative session every two years, Willie Brown spelled out his own legislative program for Capitol reporters the same day as Reagan's televised address. Brown termed Reagan's program a "negative approach" and instead offered up bills on the environment, urban housing, and education. "California's problems will not be solved by mindless budget cutting but by constructive action," said Brown.[28] Among his more novel ideas was a one-cent gasoline tax hike to be imposed during the vacationing months of June, July, August, and September. Brown estimated that his tax would generate $35 million, and he proposed spending the money on parks and beaches. That idea, along with several others, stood no chance of passage.

Brown had a problem. He could get the attention of the press, but he did not have any levers to push his program through the Legislature, let alone to obtain a governor's signature. Unruh still did not trust the brash,


unpredictable assemblyman from San Francisco. Not without reason, Unruh mistrusted Willie Brown for his rash statements about his breakfast club and for his rebelliousness in abstaining in the reelection of Unruh in 1965. Unruh probably did not fully forgive Brown for the Vietnam telegram that was not of his making. Most damaging, Unruh caught wind that Brown had attended a not-so-secret meeting of legislators to discuss whether they should support Unruh's reelection as Speaker in 1967. In short, Unruh found Willie Brown too unreliable, too cocky, and unloyal. Brown was going to have to stew.

At the start of the new session, Unruh pointedly did not give Brown a committee chairmanship or even a subcommittee chairmanship. Brown had several reasons to expect something from Unruh. Brown was now in his second term, and the turnover in the Assembly that year had been so great that nearly every Democrat with at least one term was chairing a committee. Moretti was named chairman of the Finance and Insurance Committee, replacing Zenovich, who was now majority leader. Jack Fenton, with whom Brown shared a cramped office their first term, was appointed chairman of the Assembly Elections and Reapportionment Committee. Even a few Republicans from his class were heading committees, such as Craig Biddle, who was the new chairman of the Criminal Procedure Committee. The only other Democratic member of his class without a chairmanship was John Burton.[29]

Brown had another claim that should have counted for something. With the political demise of Byron Rumford, Brown was now the most visible black member of the Legislature. Brown was elected chairman of the Negro caucus, but in late January he could not even get an appointment to talk with Unruh about issues of concern to black legislators. His estrangement from the Speaker was so complete that he had to write him a letter to ask for an appointment, complaining that he was getting the cold shoulder from Unruh's secretary.[30] In Brown's view, it was not just himself who was being snubbed, but by extension all black legislators. Brown did not seem to understand that Unruh's problem was not with black Assembly members, but with Brown.

Compounding his difficulties, the year was not good for Brown and the Burton camp in San Francisco politics. At first, 1967 seemed full of opportunity after the death of San Francisco's long-time state senator Eugene McAteer, who had been planning to run for mayor when he died. His death led to a special election to fill his state Senate seat. John Burton quickly entered the race so that he could join Moscone in the Senate, and it looked as if the Burton camp might own both state Senate seats from San Francisco. But after a tough race, Burton lost to Republican Milton Marks, who abandoned his newly minted judgeship to return to the Legislature.

McAteer's death had another unforeseen result. Attorney Joseph Alioto entered the mayoral race in place of his friend, McAteer. Alioto was a conservative Democrat and a member of the Board of Education who had


never before run for office. Willie Brown detested Alioto from the start, and he let it show. Alioto represented all that Brown hated about San Francisco's established downtown law firms. Brown labeled Alioto's record on the Board of Education "sordid" and said he was no friend of blacks.[31] But Alioto won, beating the Burton-backed candidate, Jack Morrison, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Alioto and Brown never got along.

Brown had problems with other San Francisco politicians, including his old mentor, Terry Francois, who was a member of the Board of Supervisors. Brown's estrangement from Francois burst into the open in 1967. The Western Addition Community Organization, a nebulous grassroots organization in Brown's old neighborhood, voted to recommend the defeat of Francois's election to the Board of Supervisors because of his advocacy of slum clearance. The spokesman for the organization was none other than Willie Brown, who tried to soften the blow by saying that he would personally vote for his old friend but that the Western Addition organizers were within their rights in opposing Francois. But Francois was hardly satisfied with Brown's dodge and blasted his old friend. "If my assessment of human nature is in anywise correct, I believe that participating in this effort to defeat my candidacy will do more harm to Willie politically than it will to me."[32] Despite the ruckus, Francois was elected to a full term on the Board of Supervisors, and Brown was not much harmed by it. But their breach was complete.

There was another, starker reminder that the senior black assemblyman of California held no appreciable power. As Brown plotted an inside power game, the outside pressures from the ghetto crashed through the Assembly doors.[33] On May 2, 1967, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and a band of leather-jacketed, rifle-toting Black Panthers from Oakland visited the state Capitol. Goaded by news photographers, they went, carrying their guns, to the second floor and then walked through the Assembly's heavy oak doors into the ornate, gilded chambers. Unruh immediately telephoned Brown and asked him to take over the gavel and preside, hoping that would diffuse the situation. "They'll shoot me just as quickly as they would you," Brown replied to Unruh.[34]

The Panthers were actually there on legislative business. They had come to protest a proposed gun control bill that they maintained was racist because it would disarm the poor and disenfranchised. Lost in the subsequent commotion was the irony that the Black Panthers were aligning themselves with Republicans and rural Democrats in opposing the gun control measure. The Panthers milled around for awhile in the Capitol, harming no one, and then departed. They were arrested at a gas station on their way back to Oakland for disrupting a legislative session.

The Panthers' invasion of the Assembly was a publicity stunt, nothing more, and it gave them a level of national notoriety they had previously lacked. But in Sacramento, in the inner world of Capitol politics, it was


seen as armed insurrection and nothing less. The Panthers were the worst nightmare of white politicians and the Reagan administration. Governor Reagan's security squad was beefed up, and henceforth he was protected as if he were president of the United States, although the Panthers had not come anywhere close to the governor's office.

For black legislators the repercussions were subtle and deep. The Panther invasion was a bitter reminder that black legislators held public office but no power. Without such power, it was hard to justify their faith in the democratic system, hard to justify traveling to Sacramento each week to put up with the tedium of committee hearings and the onslaught of lobbyists seeking to influence them on trivial issues. Legislating had little relation to the crisis in the streets. Outside the Capitol, the Panther invasion drove a public wedge between black politicians and the most extreme black militants in the districts they represented. It was a conflict keenly felt by black legislators in Sacramento, but a conflict for which many of their white colleagues had little appreciation or sympathy. The Panther invasion had one result for Willie Brown: it made him more strident in his rhetoric and more desperate to win a degree of power to justify his continued existence in office.

Meanwhile, John Burton was working his way out of Unruh's disfavor. Unruh appointed Burton to the prestigious Assembly Rules Committee, the housekeeping panel of the Assembly that is normally a tool of the Speaker. Burton joined Republicans on the committee in voting against appropriating funds for a new Assembly Higher Education Committee. Burton's vote had nothing to do with the merits of the proposal; he was attempting to use what little leverage he had to strong-arm Unruh. "He was absolutely livid," Burton recalled. "And I said, 'Hey, you screwed Willie. You screw Willie; you screw me. I ain't voting for your shit until you do something.' Jesse got kind of mad."[35] He also got the message.

Unruh grudgingly appointed Brown chairman of the Legislative Representation Committee, which oversaw the ministerial task of registering lobbyists. A file clerk could do the job, and most legislators considered it a meaningless chairmanship, which of course is why Unruh put him there. The committee did not oversee any legislation. It seemed a post where Brown could do no harm. Other black legislators found it offensive that Willie Brown was named to the worst committee chairmanship Unruh could find. Freshman Bill Greene protested to the newspapers that Unruh "definitely took a racist position" by giving Willie Brown the "do nothing" chairmanship, and state Senator Mervyn Dymally said that the appointment was "an insult to one of the ablest legislators in Sacramento."[36]

But where others saw limits, Brown saw possibilities. Delighted to have a committee chairmanship, any chairmanship, Brown found the levers of power and pulled them. "I didn't get up on the floor and make stupid speeches. I went about my business of systematically making myself felt."[37] Brown soon


discovered that the committee had statutory authority to regulate lobbyists, authority no one had ever used. He did not need to pass legislation out of the committee to the full Assembly. He could do it practically by fiat. Brown threatened Unruh's lifeblood relationship with lobbyists with a series of proposals to clamp down on lobbyists. Just as he had done in NAACP branch politics, Brown played rough and played for keeps. He began by proposing limits on how much lobbyists could spend on legislators. He talked about a cap on business income tax deductions for hiring lobbyists and about forcing lobbyists to file detailed public reports on what they spent on legislators. He even went so far as to propose forcing lobbyists inside the Capitol to wear a brightly colored jersey with a number emblazoned on it, like a race horse.[38] "I did every reform I could think of. I required them to start reporting who they had lunch with, what they spent for lunch, and all that business," said Brown. "Unruh went nuts. Lobbyists were going crazy."[39]

Brown also used his chairmanship as a public pulpit to take on the newly formed Reagan administration, accusing it of conflict of interest in asking a computer firm owned by a Reagan official to study government efficiency. Brown threatened to expand the duties of his committee by investigating conflicts of interest throughout the executive branch, a horrifying idea to the Reagan administration. Brown created an issue out of Reagan's private commissions to study every facet of state government for his new administration.[40] Brown adeptly turned Reagan's public relations ploy into a liability by demanding that Reagan release the names of the 173 businessmen he had appointed to the commissions.

Reagan's press secretary, Lyn Nofziger, at first refused to release the list, saying Brown was creating a "fuss" about nothing and that no newspaper would print all the names anyway. Brown's demands forced Reagan to go on the defensive at a June 27 press conference. Reagan maintained that since the study groups were simply advisory he would not release the names.[41] But a day later, an embarrassed Reagan backed down and released the names. Newspapers printed the list.

In short, Brown made an intentional nuisance of himself with the Democratic Assembly Speaker and the Republican governor by using his committee chairmanship. His public agenda was reform; his private agenda was power. Brown's efforts made it difficult for Unruh and Reagan to reach an understanding on governing the state, putting added pressure on Unruh to do something about Brown.

Unruh could not fire Brown without being called a racist again. "Unruh was at the risk of having his playpen fucked with," said Brown, reflecting with glee on the fight years later. "And he started trying to figure out some way to deal with that."[42] Unruh tried to outmaneuver Brown by stacking the committee against him. Unruh appointed loyalist Democrat Carlos Bee, the Speaker pro tem, and Republican leader Bob Monagan to the committee.


Then for good measure, Unruh appointed himself to the committee. Such a solid bunch could rein in the renegade Willie Brown.

Brown outmaneuvered them. "I began to call a meeting every day, so we were at war," said Brown. Unruh and his cronies could not possibly go to Brown's committee meeting every day. "The press was fascinated with this David taking on Goliath—Willie Brown taking on Jesse Unruh. And I was pretty good at my quotes."[43]

Unaccustomed to be being outmaneuvered, Unruh found a way out that satisfied everyone except the Republicans. Brown ended up the beneficiary of a complicated game of musical chairs in the Assembly. Unruh's way out of his fight with Brown coincided with a larger fight with Republicans.

Rashly, the Republicans made a procedural motion to withdraw an antipornography bill from a committee where it was bottled up by the Democrats. Unruh, however, considered the motion a direct challenge to his position as Speaker, and he converted the fight from a vote on the antipornography bill into a vote of confidence on his leadership. He won the vote. Then he retaliated hard, firing all Republicans from committee chairmanships. As far as Unruh was concerned, if they could not support the committee structure of which they were a part, then they did not deserve to chair any committees. It was a precedent Willie Brown followed to the letter years later when he became Speaker.

In the middle of the political bloodletting, John Burton walked into a meeting with Unruh and some of his "Praetorian Guard," who were discussing whom to appoint where. "I don't quite know how I was in the room, because I was just a low sophomore maybe," Burton recalled. "So anyway, they're sitting around and he's pissed and he's going to dump all these committee guys."[44]

Here is how it sorted out: Unruh began by firing Republican Assemblyman Robert Badham, of Orange County, as the chairman of the Public Utilities Committee. That left a hole. Someone suggested asking Democrat Lester McMillan, an affable legislator who was second in seniority in the Assembly, to take over the Public Utilities Committee. According to Burton, when McMillan was summoned to that meeting and told of the plan, he replied, "Why Jess, I think that's one of the finest ideas you've ever had." McMillan was chairman of the Governmental Efficiency and Economy Committee, so his moving to Public Utilities left another hole. "And then they said, 'What are we going to do with G.E.?' And I said, 'How about Willie?' So that took care of that," said Burton.

Years later, Burton made it sound like a casual decision. But appointing Brown to the slot could not have been taken lightly by Unruh. The move solved Unruh's immediate problem, but it had risks. The Assembly Committee on Governmental Efficiency and Economy, like the names of many legislative committees, was a misnomer. The committee was responsible for all legislation regulating business in California. It was a prized chairmanship


because it could be leveraged for hefty campaign contributions from lobbyists and their corporate clients. Legislators called such assignments "juice committees" because of the money that could be squeezed from them. Willie Brown needed to show what he could do with it and become part of the team. The reformer of lobbyists now showed another side to his political character, one that became increasingly more familiar in the years ahead.

Much of what Brown did in his new assignment was out of the public eye. The press showed no interest in the Committee on Governmental Efficiency and Economy. As a chairman, Brown was allowed to hire more staff. Brown hired the former president of the California Young Democrats, Phillip Isenberg, who had just finished law school. Isenberg worked part-time as Brown's administrative assistant and part-time as a lawyer in the Brown and Dearman law office in San Francisco.[45]

In addition to learning politics, Isenberg got an education in practicing law and in the culture of an urban courthouse, with cops, lawyers, pimps, prostitutes, and drug pushers mingling in the hallways and stairwells. Isenberg recalled a day when he accompanied Brown to the San Francisco courthouse to handle nine cases in one hour: "Willie's just roaring up and down the stairs—typical Willie—never stands still."[46]

Brown's legislative staff prepared a series of form letters addressed to "Dear Friend."[47] The letters were categorized into trade groups—grocers, restaurants, bars, liquor stores. Attached to each letter was a list: "The attached list describes all bills affecting your business considered in this session of the Legislature." The list for taverns held seventeen bills; the list for restaurants and grocers held twenty-five bills. Dozens upon dozens of businesses got Brown's letters in September 1967. The letters were a not-so-subtle reminder that if a business wanted to affect any of those proposed laws, it had better see Willie Brown and deal with his committee. No mention was made about campaign contributions. But the message was between the lines: pony up.

Apparently, Unruh liked Brown's technique rather well. The lists were expanded by the Democratic caucus staff to include letters for barbers, veterinarians, pharmacists, television and radio stations, teachers, physicians, auto dealers, and insurance agents. Hundreds of letters were prepared and mailed to businesses in November 1967.[48]

Willie Brown was winning Unruh's grudging respect. The ultimate recognition from Big Daddy came one day in 1967. As Brown finished making a floor speech about a piece of legislation, Unruh ambled over and told him: "It's a good thing you're not white."

"Why's that?" Brown replied.

"Because if you were, you'd own the place."[49]


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