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Chapter Fifteen— Mr. Chairman
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Chapter Fifteen—
Mr. Chairman

From Willie's point of view, there wasn't any reason for him to negotiate about anything because he was in the catbird seat. He had the Speaker with him.
Leo McCarthy
Assemblyman, 1968–1982

State Senator Randolf Collier was known as the "Silver Fox of the Siskyous," and he was the absolute master of pork-barrel politics in the California Legislature. He represented the sparsely populated North Coast, and over the decades he brought to the First Senatorial District hospitals, highways, and anything else he could nail down in the state budget.

He was born to politics. Collier's father had been attorney general of Alabama, and his grandfather had been governor and chief justice.[1] Both his grandfather and his father had owned slaves. Collier was first elected to the California Senate in 1939, and by the 1970s he stood first in seniority, in an institution where seniority still counted for something.[2] Collier had been legislating longer than any state assemblyman; he was already in the Senate when Willie Brown was five years old. The silver-maned senator was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the counterpart to the Ways and Means Committee in the Assembly. Collier knew every nook and cranny in the state budget, and he knew how to translate that knowledge into raw political power. "He really was king of the hill around here," one of his fellow state senators, Alfred Alquist, remembered.[3]

Collier was one of the legendary old lions of the Capitol. Beginning with his first major highway bill in 1947, he had guided California's freeway-


building program through the Legislature. If California was forever after known as the land of freeways, Collier was the hidden shepherd who created that image, and he was dubbed in Sacramento the "father of the California freeway."[4] Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, who took most of the credit, owed Collier plenty during the freeway-building boom of the early 1960s, and he knew it. "Randy was a great promoter of the freeways. I went along with him," the former governor remembered. "He was the father of the freeway system and he was going to have all the babies he could have."[5] As for anyone who opposed freeway building, Collier "thought they were crazy."

Collier started in politics as a Republican during an era of Republican governors. When Pat Brown was elected governor in 1958 as a Democrat, Collier switched parties and became a Democrat. Collier knew every lobbyist in Sacramento, and he knew them better than the neophyte governor. "The lobbyists, in some cases, were more powerful than the governor," Pat Brown noted. Collier was close to the horse racing industry, and he sat on the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which presided over gambling and liquor legislation. In fact, all of Collier's assignments were "juice committees." He also sat on the Senate Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee, which had jurisdiction over banks, savings and loans, and insurance companies. On the side, he owned title companies, and it was said that no piece of real estate could change hands on the North Coast without Randy Collier making a buck. Collier was an insider's insider; he was the founder of the Derby Club, the longest-running legislative coterie for schmoozing and drinking. He was, as Alquist said, the king.

During business hours, Collier ran his committee with a heavy fist. Collier refused to recognize motions he did not like, he passed or killed bills on voice votes, and if the mood struck him, he refused requests for roll-call votes. He started committee hearings promptly at 9 A.M., and as soon as a quorum of seven out of thirteen senators was in the room, he started taking votes on bills in whatever order he deemed appropriate. The tactic allowed him to kill bills with just one vote—his own—since seven votes were needed for passage and there were not enough senators in the room to muster a majority against him. "I do a lot of political things by instinct, and when you're around politics a long time, you do things that way," he once remarked.[6] Collier detested environmentalists, and he straddled the fence on issues of importance to blacks like open housing.[7] He was anathema to liberals. "He was a bilious old drunk, and a mean-spirited son of a bitch," said one. "Everybody thought that Randy, who was the quintessential redneck asshole, would have Willie Brown for breakfast."[8]

At first Brown's staff fretted about how their new chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee would get along with Senator Collier. But an astonishing relationship developed between Willie Brown and Randy Collier. Soon after he was appointed chairman of the Assembly's fiscal committee, Brown went to pay his respects to the old Senate warhorse in


his Capitol office, and he brought along his top assistant, Phillip Isenberg.[9] They were soon ushered into Collier's expansive suite and shown to the fully equipped wet bar. The senator served his guests drinks in crystal tumblers, and then settled into his leather chair. "Randy was trying to figure out what to say to Willie," Isenberg remembered. "It was clear they did not have a personal relationship."

Trying to cut the tension, Brown pointed to a framed picture on Collier's desk. "Is this your wife?" he politely inquired.

"Yeah, good-looking woman, don't you think?" Collier replied.

"Very handsome," Brown diplomatically agreed.

Then Collier remarked, "You know, she's part Chinese"—suggesting that he was not the bigot Willie Brown imagined him to be.

The comment took the usually quick-witted Brown completely off guard. He paused for a few moments before replying, "She looks kind of Chinese."

Isenberg held his glass to his mouth to hide his smile and keep from laughing.

From their awkward start, Brown and Collier worked out a mutually beneficial relationship. Each helped the other to get what he wanted, and each protected the interests of the other. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Brown was the leading Assembly Democrat in the annual shaping of the state budget. It was work that Speaker Bob Moretti did not particularly like, preferring to spend his time on higher-profile issues. Although drafting a state budget was dull work, it was the basic document setting government policy in California, and it held enormous potential for political power for those who understood how to use it.

"I told him that I represented Bob Moretti in our house," Brown remembered. "We didn't want get into any trouble, but I had a laundry list of people that I needed to take care of, and I'm prepared to take his laundry list of people that he needed to take care of. He said 'Young man, I like the way you do business. These are my items. The rest of the budget is yours. You just tell us what we need to do.'"[10]

The old senator was once asked to explain his relationship with Brown. "It's a strange thing," he replied, "because our backgrounds are so different. My grandfather owned 125 Negro slaves and my father a half dozen. One day I asked Willie whether he knew any Negroes named Collier and he said 'yes.' They probably came from the old Collier plantation."[11]

Each year, the Senate and the Assembly each approved its own version of the budget. Then three representatives from the Assembly and three from the Senate met in secret as a "conference committee" to iron out the differences and come up with a single budget bill—the real budget bill. Deals were cut, pet projects lived or died, debts were paid or owed. The grittiest, most basic politics was practiced in the conference. And young, brash, black Willie Brown joined the club. "These are heavy-duty old-time legislators. I don't think there'd ever been an African American in the conference committee ex-


cept to serve coffee. They were surprised, very surprised," Isenberg remarked. "Willie for many of them was a scary type: black politician, must be like Adam Clayton Powell, can't be any different. They'd never faced an African American politician who's not deferential before."[12]

The budget conference committee usually met in a Senate lounge, out of the public eye and, even more importantly, away from other legislators. Not even staff members were allowed inside except to run errands and answer technical budget questions. As the meetings got under way, senators stretched out on leather sofas. Brown, however, sat upright in a chair, remaining fully alert. The six lawmakers on the conference committee worked their way through the budget, page by page, penciling in a building here, scratching out a park there. Political careers were made and broken. It was a task where mastery of the details resulted in power over the results. Willie Brown was in his element. Brown protected his constituents—welfare mothers, blacks, the elderly—and Collier got his hospitals and highways. Collier and Brown grew to enjoy each other. "Willie managed to get along reasonably well with the old rednecks," Isenberg observed. "He had far greater difficulty getting along with liberals, like George Miller from Contra Costa County."

From the start Willie Brown tried to strike a responsible public pose as the new chairman of Ways and Means. On his first day on the job, he issued a statement that outlined a liberal, but safe, budgetary program: "I expect to present the governor with a balanced budget which will provide adequate funding for our education system, our endangered environment, and with sufficient money for our unemployed and aged or ill residents."[13] It was the last bland statement he made for the next twenty years.

Brown beefed up the committee staff, assembling a bright group of aides led by Isenberg, who later went on to a solid political career as mayor of Sacramento and then as an assemblyman. When Georgia state legislator Julian Bond came to visit Brown, he was amazed: "He had a staff at Ways and Means bigger than the governor of Georgia."[14] The staff, in fact, was one of Brown's greatest political assets, and he knew how to make the most of it. Elisabeth Kersten, who later headed the Senate Office of Research, worked on general government issues. Robert Connelly, a gruff but sharp analytical assistant, analyzed parks, resources, and environmental issues. Connelly stayed with Brown as the chief administrative officer of the Assembly until the end of Brown's speakership in 1995. Another long-time loyalist, John Mockler, joined the committee staff to handle education issues, and he remained Brown's closest adviser on schools long after he had left state service and had become the most important education lobbyist in the state. Possibly the most brilliant and creative member of the Ways and Means staff was Steve Thompson, whose command of policy ranging from the state budget to health and welfare could stop the nimblest of lobbyists in their tracks.

Virtually all his original Ways and Means staff members became life-long advisers. Brown expected candor from them, and he returned it to them in


kind. "When a political decision was made, he didn't try to finesse it with some kind of a program jargon. He just said, 'That's politics,'" Thompson observed.[15] Brown gave his staff members their heads. At first, the staff was wary of the latitude. "One of the first questions we asked is how do we have access to you, how do we get to you?" Connelly remembered.[16] "He said, 'You don't. I hired you all because I think you can do the job. Do the job. If you get off track, I'll tell you.'"

Brown had a bigger vision of what the staff could do than his predecessors.[17] Barely a decade earlier, the fiscal committees had relied almost entirely on the governor's staff for fiscal information, and not surprisingly the committees were captive to the governor. The legislative analyst's office was then established to give legislators an independent source of data, and it proved valuable. It was also a training ground for talented legislative staffers; Connelly himself had came out of the legislative analyst's office. But for the most part, Willie Brown found the analyst's office too plodding and cautious, and he wanted his own unfiltered source of fiscal information.

Brown's staff poured over budget documents and interviewed department directors and lower-ranking bureaucrats. They traveled to state hospitals, prisons, and parks and brought back first-hand details about what was really going on in state government. On one such field trip Connelly fought a brush fire near Oroville alongside a Division of Forestry director. In August 1971 Brown himself inspected San Quentin prison after six inmates had been shot to death by guards, and Brown was fined $50 for contempt of court for missing a court appearance for one of his private law clients.[18] Such first-hand experiences were almost unheard of for legislators and their staffs.

Brown's committee staff launched investigations, most notably into the scandalous spending of state tidelands oil revenues for the refurbishment of the Queen Mary steamship into a tourist attraction in Long Beach Harbor. The issue was complicated, tied up in uncodified law dating from 1911 over the distribution of oil royalties to municipalities. The city of Long Beach purchased the old luxury liner in 1967 for $3.5 million using its share of state oil revenues from drilling in the harbor.[19] Original estimates were that it would cost $8.7 million in state funds to refurbish the Queen Mary , but Brown's committee investigation found that costs to the state had ballooned to $63 million. The committee also highlighted Long Beach's flimsy interpretation of the 1911 law. The city preposterously argued that it could use public oil revenues to develop the tourist attraction because it was building a "maritime museum." The investigation proved embarrassing to some of Brown's legislative colleagues because a number of them, including former Speaker Unruh, had traveled aboard the ship in posh staterooms when it was brought around Cape Horn to Long Beach.

The Queen Mary investigation won Brown laudatory news stories, but in the end little came of it. The city of Long Beach agreed to reimburse the state trust fund $7.5 million—a fraction of what it had taken—but the Queen


Mary project went forward. No one was charged with a crime, and the state Tidelands Oil Trust Fund has never been reformed. "We had a lot of fun with it, but we really didn't bring anybody to justice, and we didn't reform the tideland oil distribution," said Connelly, who conducted the investigation.[20]

Still, no one in the Legislature at the time had ever seen a committee chairman, or his staff, make such waves since Phillip Burton in the 1950s. The Capitol was accustomed to lazy legislators who spent most of their time drinking and carousing. But Brown was explosively energetic and constantly on the move. He was a quick study, calling aides into his office in the morning, telling them the topic of the day, and then ordering them, "Go." By afternoon he got a briefing. Staff work was a key to Brown's power, giving him reach into as many issues as his staff could master and placing him in the middle manipulating everything he could. Connelly remembered briefing his boss in a car on the way to the airport. The subject was an obscure dispute with the Greek government, and Brown was to be interviewed about it for a television program. Brown listened, never taking notes, and then caught his airplane. When Connelly later saw the tape of the program, he was amazed. "Goddamned if he didn't sound like the State Department."[21]

On another occasion Connelly briefed Brown on water issues, some of the most esoteric and technical of all issues in California. To his chagrin, Connelly discovered that Brown knew nothing about water. "Tell me about water in California," Brown said.

"I thought he was kidding me," Connelly recalled.

But Brown was not kidding; he knew nothing about water. So Connelly and Brown sat down to dinner at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco, and Connelly began outlining the issue. "It's a long, grubby story, and very complex," Connelly began. Soon, Connelly was drawing a map of California on the tablecloth. "I drew the water plans and gave him a picture of where the major dams were, and the transmission facilities, and what the issues were about—unused surpluses in the Metropolitan Water District, contractual interest in the State Water Project, et cetera." When Connelly was done, Brown finished dinner and went home. The next day, accompanied by Connelly, Brown flew to Los Angeles to meet with the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times . "He went in there and sounded like the guy who wrote the Water Code."

Brown's management style was loose. Those who could cut it, Brown trusted and loaded with work. Those who could not, he hectored and bullied and made their life miserable until they left. "He's really not a manager. He tends to hire staff and give them their head, and that's either good or bad," said Thompson. "If you have people who are not self-starters, and need structure, they not only don't thrive, they don't perform well. That's been the pattern that he's had over the years, and that's why you'll see some really good talent in the Willie staff operation, or you'll see some folks that you wonder why they're there."[22]


Brown's staff armed him to the teeth for budget meetings with other legislators, preparing a list of every proposed Department of Motor Vehicles office, every proposed Division of Forestry fire prevention substation, every proposed park acquisition, and every proposed community college building in California. The lists were cross-referenced to every Assembly member and senator in the state. "He wouldn't take them in there with him. He would read them and he would remember them," said Connelly. "And he knew that there was a fucking capital outlay project in a park in Costa Mesa, and he knew whose district that was, too. He could point to that member and tie that member to the issue. He knew where his votes were because he knew how to pluck the string to get these guys to go along with him."[23]

Brown's chairmanship of Ways and Means was a tour de force. By all accounts, from friend and foe alike, Brown was a brilliant chairman, perhaps too brilliant for his own good. He lorded his brainpower over his colleagues, and they soon resented him. "I think from Willie's point of view, there wasn't any reason for him to negotiate about anything because he was in the catbird seat. He had the Speaker with him," said rival San Francisco Democrat Leo McCarthy. "Once Willie became chairman of Ways and Means, he became a power himself. While Phil [Burton] was still acknowledged as the head of the group, Willie's strength grew geometrically over the next several years. He ran a very, very strong Assembly Ways and Means Committee, and wielded considerable power because he was unafraid to be a very strong chair."[24]

The Ways and Means Committee easily had the most crushing weight of bills each session, but Brown became their master. Every week the committee considered 175 to 200 bills, and each committee staff member was responsible for writing an analysis of 25 to 30 bills before the next committee hearing. The analyses had to be finished and put in a shoe box by Tuesday afternoon. Brown took the bulging shoe box home Tuesday night and read the contents.

On Wednesday morning Brown gaveled the Ways and Means Committee to order at 8 A.M. When colleagues stepped forward to explain their bills, Brown often cut them off and succinctly summarized the arguments for and against their bills, sometimes before the authors even got to the microphone. Brown usually knew their legislation better than they did. "He frankly was in command of the detail. It knocked people over," Isenberg recalled.[25] But Brown also chastised colleagues in public, once calling a Los Angeles legislator an "idiot." He called another fellow assemblyman a "500-pound bowl of Jell-O."[26] If anything, Brown took after Collier in his high-handed management of the Assembly's fiscal committee, and that disturbed his Assembly colleagues. He embarrassed them. "It pissed them off," Connelly said. "Willie, sometimes he gets a little carried away. When he's being funny sometimes he goes too far, and he often would go too far with members with their bills."[27]

The staff reports on each bill contained an extra page for Brown's eyes only. The "cheat sheet," as it came to be called, explained whatever dirt and scuttlebutt the staff could find out on the bill—who stood to benefit, who


might be paying off whom, what the political implications for the legislation might be, why it was probably a stupid bill. The more sarcastic the cheat sheet, the more Willie Brown loved it. He was prone, however, to repeating in public hearings the wisecracks that a staffer had written on the private cheat sheet. On a park acquisition bill, for example, he repeated a Connelly line that the particular piece of land in question was so barren that "a crow flying over would have to carry its own provisions" (Connelly had stolen the line from a Civil War general). Brown found it hilarious, but the line rubbed his colleagues the wrong way. "He was perceived to have a staff that was out of control, that was playing games that were not restrained by any grown-up adults, if there are any grown-up adults in here," said Connelly.

In a vain attempt to prevent outbursts of Willie Brown's sarcasm in public, Steve Thompson purchased a strip of Thanksgiving turkey stickers at a stationery store. "Rather than make comments, we just pasted a turkey sticker on the analysis, which of course he also advertised. Willie was never one to keep a secret," Thompson said.[28]

Brown was no easier on his natural allies in the civil rights movement. "You needed to have your stuff together when you went to talk to Willie," said Virna Canson, the western regional lobbyist for the NAACP. "You couldn't go to him and ask him to think through what you should have thought through before you came to him." Brown told her, "I'm the politician, you're the lobbyist, you do your job. Now what is the information, Virna? What do you want?"[29]

Curiously, Brown began to win the respect—even secret admiration—of Republicans. They enjoyed watching him shoot down lard-ladened bills, all the more so since most such bills were carried by Democrats. Brown's growing stature among Republican Assembly members was to have unexpected political benefits for him in the next few years.

Brown gave his staff enormous leeway in dealing with constituents, lobbyists, other state legislators, and even members of Congress. Thompson once wrote U.S. Representative John E. Moss: "If at any time you or other members of the Congress wish to explore ways of making the budget process more meaningful in terms of Congressional power, I and my colleagues in the State Legislature would be more than happy to share our thoughts with you."[30]

Thompson was widely considered the most brilliant, but also the most outrageous, member of Willie Brown's staff. He once wrote a constituent from upscale Tiburon that officials in the Fair Employment Practices Commission were "continuing to play chickenshit with the employees."[31] Thompson wrote snappy memos to Brown about everything. In one, Thompson told Brown that the governor's administration was requiring pregnant women to prove they were pregnant before they were allowed to deliver a baby and claim Medi-Cal benefits. "If the governor would consult with medical experts (or even read Dr. Spock), he would find that pregnancy is an extremely hard condition to fake," Thompson wrote Brown.[32]


Brown asked his staff for unvarnished advice, and he got it. When Governor Reagan appointed crony William P. Clark to the state Supreme Court, liberals complained that he had an undistinguished record. Nonsense, Thompson told Brown: "You don't like Clark because he's going to be a 'bad vote' (a bad vote is one who doesn't share your own opinions). . . . The real problem with Clark—unlike other conservative appointments—is that he is too dumb to change his views."[33]

Brown used his chairmanship to bludgeon both private and public employers into hiring more minorities through affirmative action programs. He sent a flurry of letters in the early 1970s to some of the state's most influential employers. To Charles Hitch, president of the University of California, he lectured that "the University has some distance to go before it approaches a more equitable distribution of minorities and women within its work force, both academic and staff."[34] To black leaders, Brown privately promised to use his full powers as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee if the University of California did not begin full-scale affirmative action hiring programs. He wrote a black employee leader in the University of California system: "The issue of Affirmative Action and the University has been a very sore point between the University and me for some time, and it will continue to be a factor in my consideration of its budget proposals."[35]

Brown was equally concerned that the University of California was not admitting enough black students. At the flagship Berkeley campus, for instance, fewer than 3 percent of the undergraduates were black at the start of the 1970s. "There was census data that showed there were more blacks from Africa enrolled in the University of California than blacks from America," said Mockler. "That kind of stuff troubled us so, we were trying to figure out a way to increase that. So we provided a lot of focus on education."[36] Under pressure from Brown and others, the University of California campus chancellors agreed in 1971 to revamp admissions policy to include considerations of disadvantage in an applicant's background.[37] Minority admissions, however, remained dismal.

Brown also hammered the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for avoiding a meeting with black leaders in San Francisco to discuss hiring practices. When the black leaders, including the Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church, could not get Pacific Gas and Electric executives to meet with them, they asked Brown to write a letter. He did so, and the meeting was arranged.[38]

Brown used his chairmanship as a bully pulpit around the state. He scheduled legislative hearings outside Sacramento on the state budget, an unprecedented practice that at first piqued Senator Collier. "We can obtain all the information on budget items right here where the agency affected can be readily reached," Collier growled.[39] Republicans were also slow to understand the public relations benefit of leaving the state Capitol; Assembly Republican Caucus Chairman John Stull branded it a "travelling road show." But the


hearings proved a hit, were well attended, and most important, did nothing to threaten Collier's and Brown's real grip on the budget process.

Brown and Collier jealously guarded their prerogatives in the budget for each other. One afternoon Brown briskly walked into a budget conference committee meeting late and looking angry. He immediately sat down next to Collier and asked for a "point of personal privilege." Collier granted him the courtesy, and Brown asked to return to an item in the budget to appropriate funds to purchase guns and other equipment for the California highway patrol. Brown then demanded that the funds be deleted from the budget. The trust between the two was so great that Collier asked no questions, immediately complied, and struck the CHP equipment appropriation.[40]

At the end of the meeting, Connelly asked his boss what was going on with the highway patrol. "He was so mad, he wouldn't talk about it." Finally, Brown told Connelly that he had been stopped not once but twice by CHP officers that day on his way to Sacramento from San Francisco along Interstate 80 in his bright red Porsche. Each time, the officers walked over to Brown and said, "Hey, boy, where'd you get this car?"

Connelly quickly found the CHP's lobbyist and told him what had happened. "The guy's eyeballs rolled clear back into his skull. He said, 'We'll fix it.'" By the next morning, the CHP was distributing photographs of Willie Brown to officers along the Interstate 80 corridor between San Francisco and Sacramento with orders to "memorize this face." The CHP got its appropriation back—and more.

Brown championed pay raises for CHP officers by authoring a bill that tied their salaries to a formula based on the salaries of large municipal police forces. The measure gave highway patrol officers a windfall raise, and then an automatic pay raise every time one of the unionized city forces got a new contract. Brown also placed into the budget pay increases for state employees and higher education faculty, prompting Reagan to complain that Brown was "dreaming up new expenses and then passing taxes to pay for them."[41]

At the outset, Brown's relations with the Reagan administration were rocky, partly reflecting Speaker Moretti's poor relations with the Republican governor. Brown took an early shot at Reagan's budget proposals for the 1971–72 fiscal year: "Governor Reagan's fiscal gimmickry has brought this state to the edge of financial disaster—yet he continues to attempt piecemeal solutions. It's like putting a Band-Aid on a major wound."[42] Brown argued that only a tax increase could fill an impending $150 million state budget deficit. Brown also blasted Reagan for a proposed $10 million cut in Medi-Cal services for poor and aged patients.[43]

In private, relations between Brown and Reagan were equally terrible. During a group meeting with legislators, Brown and Reagan got into a shouting match. In anger, Brown thrust his hand into Reagan's legendary jelly bean jar and then declared that he knew that neither Reagan nor his staff would eat the jelly beans because his black hand had been inside.[44]


In truth, little was getting accomplished in Sacramento in the first few months of 1971, and it was reflecting poorly on both Governor Reagan and Speaker Moretti. Finally, Moretti aide Bill Hauck and Reagan aide George Steffes, two of the most enduring political operatives in the Capitol, arranged a meeting in June between the two leaders. They had not met, other than on ceremonial occasions and in large gatherings of legislators. The meeting went well. More meetings followed, and as Reagan biographer Lou Cannon wrote, "From these meetings emerged a strange, mutual respect between Reagan and Moretti, who are as little alike as any public officials I have known."[45]

Reagan's landmark welfare reform bill, considered one of the chief accomplishments of his gubernatorial tenure, was the first result. The negotiations were tedious. Willie Brown did not play a leading role. Instead, John Burton, who chaired the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Welfare under Brown, took the lead for the Democrats, and Steve Thompson provided the staff work.[46] Burton and Moretti played a good-cop, bad-cop game with Reagan. Burton threw a tantrum over a detail, and Moretti stepped in to be reasonable. Reagan trusted Moretti, and Moretti later said the two had a "grudging respect" for each other.[47] In truth, Moretti enjoyed making deals with Ronald Reagan on high-profile issues. "Bob Moretti thrived on it," said his chief aide, John FitzRandolph.[48]

Brown played a shrewd game by staying to Burton's left on the welfare reform bill and carping about the details. Brown's stance allowed Burton to hold out for a better bill for welfare recipients. The final bill resulted in boosting benefits for a family of three from $172 a month to $235 a month. "That was another way Willie Brown operated—stay on the outside and move the big system," Mockler observed. "He recognized—that crass term—that the extortion activities of legislators could leverage the system to get something he cared about. And he was very successful."[49]

Brown ended up voting against the welfare reform bill after it had been massaged by his committee. Brown conceded it was a "fairly decent piece of legislation," but maintained that, far from saving taxpayers money, it would cost an additional $100 million a year. "All that business about 'savings' is phony—absolutely phony," Brown said.[50] He turned out to be right. The cost-of-living escalator for benefits in the bill became the target for a later generation of Republicans and one of the seeds of bitter battles over the budget in the 1980s and 1990s when Brown became Assembly Speaker.

The thaw between Reagan and Moretti did not stop Brown from continuing his drumbeat against the Republican administration. Brown kept it up right until the end of Reagan's second gubernatorial term. In typical fashion, Brown opened the 1973 budget deliberations with a salvo: "The governor's spending proposals as outlined in the budget now before us, as well as the projected state surplus, are all based on data which no longer has any relationship to reality."[51]


At the start of the 1972 session, Brown applauded only once during Reagan's State of the State address—when Reagan said "a year's accumulation of solid wastes could cover the entire city of Los Angeles with a layer of garbage seventeen inches deep." Brown later explained that his applause was not meant as a slur on Los Angeles, but he considered it "the only accurate thing the governor said." The San Francisco Chronicle described Brown as "the Legislature's most outspoken Reagan-hater."[52]

But all was not as it seemed. Brown's public posturing hid a cordial relationship he was building with Reagan and his aides in private. "He was one who always enjoyed coming down and talking with the governor, and trying to work something out on contentious issues," remembered Edwin Meese, Reagan's gubernatorial chief of staff.[53] Few in the Capitol knew that Ed Meese and Willie Brown went back together to the late 1950s, when Meese had been a deputy district attorney in Alameda County and Brown a defense attorney. Meese prosecuted several of Brown's prostitute and Free Speech Movement protest clients, and the two lawyers got along as fellow denizens of the Oakland criminal courts.

As Reagan's chief aide, Meese learned to ignore Brown's denunciations and wait for him to come to the governor's office to make a deal. Sooner or later both Collier and Brown showed up to talk about the budget or something else they wanted. "Willie has a great sense of humor, and Randy was the same way," said Meese. If it wasn't the budget, it might be judicial appointments. "I remember Willie came back down to discuss those with the governor."[54] A little help for a friend of Brown certainly would not hurt Reagan at budget time.

Moretti left the budget to his Ways and Means chairman, rarely asking for details unless it was on a high-visibility issue. "I think there definitely has been more communication and more agreement with regard to the budget this year than there ever has before. As a matter of fact, Assemblyman Brown and Senator Collier have been in nearly daily contact with regard to the budget," Moretti once remarked.[55] Brown and Collier presented a balanced $7.3 billion state budget for passage by both houses on July 2, 1971, one day past the constitutional deadline for adoption of a state spending plan. Brown's Assembly version was actually $250 million lower than the Senate's version, and reconciliation was a last-minute sticking point between the two houses. When it finally landed on his desk, Reagan used his "blue pencil" line-item veto to cut the 1971–72 budget to $6.8 billion, prompting an angry Willie Brown to threaten that lawmakers might leave town early for the year if the governor was "going to be a dictator and ignore the legislature." Brown never got used to the blue pencils of governors.[56]

Willie Brown was thriving, and as he grew in power, his appetite for clothes, cars, and women grew as well. He told Joan Chatfield-Taylor, the fashion writer from the San Francisco Chronicle , that his hobby was clothes shopping. "When you dress, you dress for yourself, and to show love and


appreciation to other people. It's like cooking a fine dinner."[57] He filled his closets with Brioni and Cardin designer suits at $1,000 each. Brooks Brothers' suits were far too dull, he opined. Brown's fussiness showed; he was careful not to buy the same suits as Congressman Ron Dellums, another noted clotheshorse, since the two black politicians frequently appeared on the same stage together. But, he confessed, he was tired of being questioned about his natty dressing up in Sacramento, where the average legislator wore a plaid jacket off the rack from Sears. "I don't care what my constituents think about my clothes. I care what they think about my honesty, my intelligence and the time I spend on the job."

Brown's love of lavish parties was also becoming legendary. He threw a thirty-eighth birthday party for himself at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel. The entertainment was provided by singer Joe Williams and jazz great Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Among the featured guests was actor Greg Morris of the television show Mission: Impossible .[58]

In September 1971 Brown played model at a fashion show staged at the Fleur de Lys restaurant for San Francisco menswear store Wilkes Bashford.[59] Brown, Wilkes Bashford, and columnist Herb Caen by now were regular Friday luncheon companions, a tradition they have kept up for three decades. That day Brown modeled a brown and white Brioni suit and a suede jacket. Later he showed off a full-length sheepskin coat. And he offered plenty of fashion advice. "Without a groovy suede jacket, you're not what's happening," he said. "All males should look like peacocks—but not in costume." He called his look "bold conservative," and he was accompanied by his wife, Blanche, who wore a skirt and a high-necked white blouse.

But Brown's relationship with Blanche was stormy and falling apart. While he worked hard and played hard, she was rearing their children virtually single-handedly. The two argued frequently. "Every other week or two there were little things that would happen and he would tell me about it," said his friend and law partner, John Dearman.[60] Brown barely concealed his philandering, and Dearman finally told Brown, "My man, you better cool it with this stuff."

The two buddies spent a weekend away from their wives at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and Brown picked up a woman and spent the night in a motel room with her. "This young lady was hanging all over Willie," Dearman said. "About two weeks later, I guess my wife had thought about it a little bit and she said, 'Um, you and Willie did share a place together?' I said 'Yup.'" She told her husband that gossip had it otherwise. "I went back and told Willie. I said, 'Man!'"

Brown was increasingly being seen in public with young women in San Francisco, and the gossip intensified. He went to hear Lou Rawls sing at a local night club, and the waiter gave Brown a table up front. Dearman remembered in amazement, "Lou Rawls says, 'My friend Willie Brown, take a bow Mr. Brown!' And so the spotlight is on Willie with this chick."


Finally, Brown told Dearman he was leaving Blanche.

"You're what?!" Dearman reacted.

"Well, I'm just making it official," Brown told his friend.

"Yeah, 'cause, hell, you been out for a long time," Dearman shot back. Dearman and his wife were fond of Blanche and were heartbroken at the collapse of the marriage.

Brown told Dearman he was finding his own apartment in San Francisco. "That was really tough when that happened," Dearman remembered, placing the date in either 1971 or 1972. "He was around these chicks all the time and stuff, so apparently she had gone out with somebody, and Willie was really rocked. I mean, he was really upset. . . . I'd never seen Willie so depressed. And ever since then I haven't seen him that depressed. . . . He should have known it was going to happen because he would go places with these chicks, man."

Willie and Blanche Brown have never divorced. She has lived in their Masonic Street house in San Francisco, and the two have built a friendship while leading separate personal lives. Brown continued to support her and their children financially, and he took care of things when leaky pipes and plugged toilets needed fixing. Dearman and his wife have speculated over the years that the two will get back together. "My wife says, 'Ah, they're getting back.' She says when Willie reaches the point where these young girls are going to stop looking at him, he'll go back home."


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