previous chapter
Chapter Nineteen— The Play for Power
next part

Chapter Nineteen—
The Play for Power

Now the little black kid can count.
Willie Brown
December 10, 1980

In his gloom, Willie Brown retreated to the familiar surroundings of Sacramento, where the game was not necessarily a matter of life and death. Politics in the state Capitol was churning and was about to turn the Democratic Party inside out. But at least it was one arena that Brown understood, and not the politics of cults and insanity. Despite his being at a low ebb, or because of it, Brown was about to go from the very bottom of his career to the very pinnacle of power in California. Brown's instincts as a gambler came into full play, and he was about to beat the odds. How he did it remains one of the most extraordinary stories in modern American politics.

Even before Moscone's death, Brown was visibly a chastened man, and it showed in how he treated people. He was a committee chairman again, but this time he was the epitome of decorum and fairness. This time he listened to his colleagues, letting them explain their bills, and he did not cut them off at their knees when they tried. He showed that he had listened to his colleagues when they rejected him for Speaker in 1974. Most importantly, Brown went out of his way to treat the new conservative Republicans with respect. His behavior with Republicans was not generally noticed, but it was noticed by an important few. Brown was possibly the only Democrat on the planet who understood that the conservative Proposition 13 Babies were politicians like any others, and that they would make a deal for power. He began instinctively searching for how.

"One of the reasons that we liked Willie was the way he had treated the Prop 13 Babies," said Robert Naylor, a Republican elected in 1978 from


the Silicon Valley who was serving as the party's whip, the second-ranking position. "He was chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, and I served on that committee in my first term. And he involved us. He was procedurally very, very fair."[1]

A half-dozen of the Proposition 13 Babies met for lunch once a week (calling themselves the "Dirty Half-Dozen"). During one such lunch, Dennis Brown—considered the most doctrinaire of the conservatives—startled his colleagues with an observation about the Democrat who chaired the Revenue and Taxation Committee: "You guys won't believe this but I think the best chairman that I serve under is Willie Brown," he told them. "He's fair and he's honest and he gives me a chance to speak. He listens to my points and actually agrees with me sometimes. I always get a fair opportunity to say what I think."[2]

Dennis Brown's assessment of Willie Brown shocked the other Republicans. Another member of the lunch group, Patrick Nolan of Glendale, later observed: "I came here thinking that there were two agents of the devil on earth: Jess Unruh and Willie Brown."[3] In the next few months the hard-right conservatives, including Nolan, began to soften their view of the black liberal from San Francisco. "Over time, we all had bills before the Revenue and Taxation Committee. And we always were treated fairly. The analysis was always fair. And if there ever were a mistake in the analysis, he fell all over himself to correct it and to make it clear that it was a mistake," said Nolan.

Leo McCarthy, however, was baffled by the new Republicans, and he said so openly: "In the freshmen class in the Assembly that came up last year there are some people who seem to be in a permanent state of belligerency. . . . I think we have a 'who can be the greater hawk' contest going on."[4]

Before the end of their first term, the Proposition 13 Babies put together the votes to dump veteran Assembly Republican leader Paul Priolo, a moderate from the Westside of Los Angeles. The new Republicans were not content to sit back as a minority; they wanted nothing less than a majority and control of the house. They replaced Priolo with Carol Hallett, a forty-one-year-old former legal secretary from a rural San Luis Obispo County district who was only in her second term.

Some of the older men in her caucus did not take Carol Hallett seriously. Trying to win them, she declared, "I am not a feminist, period." She won the respect of the Proposition 13 Babies because she treated them with respect and because she put the interests of winning a Republican majority first. "She was an activist and was willing to harness the energy and enthusiasm of this new group of legislators and lead us as opposed to trying to squelch us," said Nolan.[5] Conservatives relished in the fact that they, and not liberals, were the first in California to elect a woman as the leader of a legislative party caucus. But her election also generated hard feelings among the old guard within the caucus. An unnamed former Republican legislator fumed to California Journal : "Hallett has to realize that the so-called children of [Proposition] 13 owe their allegiance to


being children of [Proposition] 13 first, not Carol. Carol has to fit, in some measure, their idea of what carrying out the mandate of 13 is."[6]

Hallett got the job in a three-way race in the Republican caucus. Many later credited the new Republican lieutenant governor, Mike Curb, for secretly convincing key allies in the caucus to back Hallett, providing her with the winning margin.[7] Curb had never before held office, but he had backing from Ronald Reagan's biggest financial supporters, who saw him as a young conservative who could carry Reagan's legacy into the next generation. Although he had been lieutenant governor only a few months, Curb was already angling to run for governor in four years, but with Democrat Jerry Brown still holding the office, Curb had no power and little work to do. Some of his meddling was well publicized, and it eventually blew up in his face when he appointed judges to the bench when Jerry Brown left the state to campaign to be president. Curb's help for Hallett was barely noticed, but it would turn out to be among the few significant actions of his brief political career. Nor would it be the last time Curb played politics in the Assembly.

With so many new, ideologically driven Republicans filling the Assembly chamber, the Democrats were already near panic when McCarthy committed the largest blunder of his career. McCarthy made it clear that he wanted to use the Speaker's chair as a platform to run for statewide office, possibly for governor or U.S. senator. The last straw for many Democrats came when McCarthy hosted a political fund-raiser at the Los Angeles Convention Center with Ted Kennedy and devoted the $500,000 he raised to his own election coffers. McCarthy added to the insult by introducing his Assembly Democratic colleagues not by name but by having them stand as a group. Within hours many were meeting to talk about replacing him. A small group, including Walter Ingalls, an acerbic Democrat from Riverside in Southern California, dubbed themselves the "Gang of Four" and urged Berman to topple McCarthy.[8] Each had his own reason. Ingalls, for example, wanted to become Speaker pro tempore, the person who presides from day to day over floor sessions in the Assembly.

Close friends, including John Foran, warned McCarthy that a challenge was in the wind. But McCarthy paid no attention. More warnings came, and still McCarthy did not catch on. In November 1979 California Journal hit him over the head by running a picture of Howard Berman, the Democratic majority leader, on the cover with the caption "Speaker McCarthy's successor? Bet on Berman."[9] The article boldly predicted, "There is near-unanimous agreement in the Assembly that the next speaker will be Howard Berman. . . . It appears Berman's support may be so solid that he can withstand challenges of other candidates."


California Journal speculated that Berman's chief rival from the Democratic ranks would be Dan Boatwright, from Contra Costa County, who boasted he could get the votes if he wanted the job. As for Willie Brown, California Journal dismissed his chances: "Brown has been devoting an increasing amount of time to his law practice in San Francisco—an indication of waning interest in the speakership contest."

The breaking point came late in the afternoon of December 10, when Howard Berman, whose vote and those of his liberal Los Angeles friends had made McCarthy Speaker five years earlier, marched into McCarthy's office and told McCarthy to resign.[10] Berman came armed with a note he legalistically called his "bill of particulars." He bluntly told McCarthy that he wanted McCarthy to step aside and let Berman become Speaker.

McCarthy was furious. The encounter raged for eleven hours, and the Speaker was eventually joined by allies Art Agnos and Louis Papan. When Berman left the room he was no longer majority leader, but McCarthy was still Speaker. The lines were drawn.

A day later Berman held a press conference to make his declaration of war public. His grievance with McCarthy had to do not with policy disagreements but with how McCarthy was allocating campaign contributions: "What I and many of my Democratic colleagues find especially disturbing, and what we refuse to accept, is the Speaker's decision to create this devastating drain on our political resources," Berman said, citing McCarthy's intention to use the $500,000 he had raised for his own bid for higher office rather than for reelecting Democrats to the Assembly to preserve its majority.[11] "I am now actively exploring my own prospects for the speakership. I would relish the opportunity to help give my colleagues the full-time support and guidance they now lack."

McCarthy had choice words of his own for Berman: "Ambition has overtaken Howard's normally high standards of decency and loyalty."[12] McCarthy took pains to point out that he kept up a heavy schedule of fund-raising for Democratic Assembly candidates.

Years later McCarthy still felt anger toward Howard Berman. In his view Berman should have waited for McCarthy to signal when he would leave so that he could hand off the speakership gracefully. To hear McCarthy tell it, Berman's behavior was unforgivably rude. "I guess I should have seen it coming, but when it happened, it really did come as a great shock," McCarthy remembered. "When Howard walked in that day, I was really taken aback because I liked Howard Berman very much. So it hurt from a personal point of view. And the manner in which it was done, too: he had been going around trying to collect votes for a few days, particularly over that weekend, without ever having talked to me."[13]

But Berman felt there was no time to wait. The 1980 election was fast approaching, and the Republicans were better organized and were raising money. With Ronald Reagan likely to be on the ballot running for president


and the triumph of Proposition 13 still very much alive with the voters, the year could shape up as one of the worst for Democrats unless they got to work fast. McCarthy needed to get out of the way or there would be no speakership to hand off.

"I didn't want to be minority leader," Berman explained. "We were on the road to losing our Democratic majority, so that the notion of being the person to succeed wouldn't be worth too much. I really thought we really headed in a very downward spiral in terms of Democratic control."[14]

In hindsight, Berman said, he should not have met with McCarthy; he should have lined up the votes secretly and struck fast to dump McCarthy, just the way the new Republicans had dumped Paul Priolo. "I let him know I was going to do it—that was probably my mistake," said Berman.

Berman calculated that he could give the Democrats a quick advantage if he could become Speaker in December 1979. Berman had raised $85,000 for his colleagues in the 1978 races, and as Speaker he could raise even more. Well connected to the Los Angeles Westside liberal Jewish community, he could easily get a few dozen benefactors to bankroll Assembly candidates.[15] The Democrats would not have to cut deals with public employee unions, trial lawyers, and others with business in the Legislature. His brother, Michael Berman, was a master campaign strategist and was skilled in the technicalities of redistricting. With reapportionment fast approaching, the Berman organization was in a good position to protect, even expand, the Democratic hold on the Legislature and the congressional delegation.

In the days that followed, McCarthy took the pulse of his Democratic colleagues. Democratic Assemblyman Bill Lockyer, from Hayward, told him "not to get nasty," and McCarthy took it as a sign of support, although Lockyer ended up supporting Berman.[16] McCarthy soon turned to the sharpest politician he knew in the Assembly for help: Willie Brown.

McCarthy asked Brown to be his new majority leader. The caucus post that had eluded Brown a decade earlier was now his for the asking. But the decision to accept was not easy for Brown. Recalling how Berman had doubled-crossed him and how McCarthy had beat him in the 1974 Speaker fight, Brown told reporters, "I had only two choices: Vote for the Speaker who defeated me or the majority leader who stabbed me in the back."[17]

Brown talked with Berman for five hours before deciding what to do. Reapportionment arithmetic played a part in Brown's decision. At least with the speakership in the hands of McCarthy, a fellow Democrat from San Francisco, Brown could be assured of playing a central role in redistricting. Willie Brown was not about to let political power slip to Southern California. In the end, however, Brown said he made up his mind based on a belief that Berman was essentially untrustworthy. "He traded my Speakership for his majority leader's job as a freshman. I classify that as a knifing," said Brown.[18]

Berman also took the pulse of his colleagues, and a few days after Christmas he picked up two key Hispanic votes: Art Torres and Richard


Alatorre. Both were close to Cesar Chavez, the head of the United Farm Workers union, and Chavez was close to Berman particularly because of his work on the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.[19] Fashioned after the National Labor Relations Act of the 1930s, the law gave farmworkers the same rights as industrial workers to organize and seek injunctions against growers who did not follow the law. The act was an immense step forward for Chavez and his union, and Berman was largely responsible for moving it through the Legislature. Chavez had become a key player in his own right in Sacramento, and he often worked through Torres and Alatorre. The two had been key supporters for McCarthy, and their defection to Berman boded ill for McCarthy's chances of political survival.

Chavez, however, made a major mistake in picking sides in an internal power struggle in the Assembly. Chavez was not the only outsider to make the mistake. The governor would, too.

When the Assembly convened in January 1980, Berman's side tried to "vacate the chair" and oust McCarthy. Berman mustered twenty-six votes in the Democratic caucus to McCarthy's twenty-four votes. However, it took forty-one votes to be elected Speaker, a majority of the full house. Berman demanded that his colleagues hold to the "tradition" that the Democrats unify behind whoever had a majority within the caucus. The tradition was only as old as the previous speakership fight, six years earlier, but memories were short. McCarthy's loyalists, many with longer memories of the Unruh era, refused to knuckle under.

The balance of power was held by the Republicans, and they stayed neutral. There was nothing Berman could do. Without forty-one votes in the Assembly to dump him, McCarthy stayed Speaker, although severely wounded and no longer the leader of his own caucus.[20] The Berman and McCarthy forces would fight it out on the ballot, targeting each other for defeat in Democratic primaries. In reality, the California Assembly now had three political parties: Republicans, McCarthyites, and Bermanites.

The Republicans looked on with glee as the Democrats chewed themselves up. "As much as we hated McCarthy, we thought Berman would be worse, and there was a political advantage to keeping that war going between the Democrats," said Naylor. The war between the Democrats lasted a year. Each side took casualties. Friendships were broken. Most unforgivably for Willie Brown, the Bermanites defeated Jack Fenton, an old friend of Brown's, in the June primary and replaced him with Matthew Martinez. No one had ever fought a speakership battle by targeting members of their own party for election defeat. The ambitions of the few at the top seemed to have overtaken the interests of the Democratic Party as a whole. The animosity between the two camps spilled over into the regular course of legislating in Sacramento. Each side killed the other's bills, and nothing of substance got done.

"It was a terrible year," McCarthy reflected in an interview for this book.[21] "It was a year that all sides should look back on and say how foolish that was,


how harmful it was to the legislative process. No one came away from all of that with any honor, and anybody who really wants the legislative process to work should feel very badly about that whole episode."

By spring political reporters were writing about the demise of what had been considered the second most powerful job in California. The job had turned from one of making policy and guiding legislation to an increasingly political one consumed with guiding election campaigns. "The speakership as it exists today is a shattered remnant of what it was just a year ago," wrote Vic Pollard in the May 1980 issue of California Journal .[22]

The Republicans' glee at their rivals' division turned to alarm as the Democrats sharpened their election skills on each other and raised mounds of campaign cash, far more money than they could possibly have raised otherwise. Public campaign finance records revealed that Berman raised $209,181 in the first four months of 1980. Those who checked the records might have noticed something else significant. The legislator raising the second highest amount of cash was not Speaker McCarthy but Willie Brown, who raised $169,323 in the same period.[23] The 1980 primaries marked the first time that Brown entered the political money-raising game in a big way. Legislative power had shifted to those who could raise the most in campaign contributions. The tip-off that Willie Brown was emerging as the Assembly's new leader lay in the contribution numbers, but no one then yet realized it. Raising campaign money had always been an element in the power game; now it was essential. Other Brown friends amassed large campaign chests as well, particularly Michael Roos, with $108,577. By contrast, the Republicans did poorly; Hallett was the only Republican breaking into six figures—and just barely—with $100,863.

Brown played the loyal lieutenant, going flat out to help elect Assembly members loyal to McCarthy. For the first time since 1968, Brown played a low-key role in presidential politics. By midsummer Brown was predicting, accurately, that President Carter would lose big. Brown served as a delegate pledged to Ted Kennedy at the national convention, but that was the extent of his presidential politicking. He had far more at stake in state politics than ever before.

In truth, the Democrats defeated in the primaries would have been ripe for the Republicans' picking in the general election. The Democrats replacing them on the November ballot were tougher and presented harder targets for the Republicans. Once the primaries were out of the way, the McCarthy and Berman forces began competing to see who could inflict the most damage on Republican candidates. The Republicans now discovered that they faced two opposing political parties. "They each turned their attention to electing their particular nominees," said Naylor. "So we ended up fighting what amounted to a two-front war. Each campaign was the Speakership for them."[24]

The prospect of having Howard Berman as Speaker terrified the Republican leaders. He was too partisan, and his election skills were formidable. "It was an anybody-but-Berman game," said Ed Rollins, Hallett's chief of


staff.[25] The Republicans quietly turned to Willie Brown as their candidate for Speaker, believing he would be less dangerous than Berman. Their collaboration with Brown came into the open in November, and it came as a stunning development in an already tumultuous political year.

Even fifteen years later few in the Capitol knew just how long Brown had been talking with the Republicans about making him Speaker. Not even his Democratic friends knew what Brown and the Republicans were plotting or how long they had been at it. Willie Brown had begun talking secretly to the Republican leaders in August 1980, well before the course of the election was certain.[26] By the time they came into the open in late November, the deal was done.

The talks began casually enough. Republican leader Carol Hallett and her second in command, Robert Naylor, jokingly asked Brown if he still harbored ambitions of being Speaker. That would depend, he laughed.

"I kept kidding Willie: 'Just let me know when you want the votes, we've got them,'" Hallett recalled. "Every once in awhile I would pop off again and say: 'Hey Willie, you ready for the votes yet?'"

The Republicans' probe was no joke. "It was very quiet," said Naylor. "It was just filed away pending the election."

Brown asked one thing that summer of the Republicans—that they stay neutral until November and things sorted out. "Keep your powder dry," he put it.[27] Their neutrality ensured that McCarthy could stay Speaker until after the election. Without them, Berman could not get to forty-one votes.

The flirtation between Brown and the Republicans found its way into an August 28 column by Sacramento Bee political editor Martin Smith, who wrote that the jesting hid a very real interest that Republicans had in Brown's becoming Speaker. "If [Willie Brown] decides that McCarthy's cause is doomed, he might make another run for the post himself, with or without the present Speaker's blessing," Smith wrote. Smith cited an unnamed Republican source, who in fact was Hallett's chief of staff, Ed Rollins, saying, "Willie makes deals, and he is a man of his word."[28]

Smith's column sounded far-fetched, and few paid much attention to it. However, his speculations were more accurate than he realized. To make sure that Brown got the point, Rollins circled the column and sent it to Brown. When he received it, Brown immediately telephoned Rollins:

"When do we meet?"

Brown drove up to Sacramento from San Francisco, and was in Rollins's office in a little more than an hour. Brown asked how many chairmanships the Republicans wanted. Rollins replied that they wanted none—a chairmanship without a majority of votes on the committee was meaningless. The Republicans wanted vice chairmanships with the staffs to go with them. Most importantly, they wanted an equal share of the resources to draw up redistricting plans in 1981. As it evolved, Republicans wanted more than that, including chairmanships, and negotiations proved difficult and protracted.


The talks remained secret, and no one in the press—or the Berman camp—picked up on the hint offered by Smith's August column. Even Smith speculated that the most likely compromise candidate was the affable Frank Vicencia from Southern California.

The election campaign ground to its conclusion, and the Democrats won forty-seven seats to thirty-three for the Republicans—a gain of three seats for the Republicans. On election night, November 4, 1980, it appeared Berman had won twenty-five seats, a handful more than McCarthy. That evening Art Torres appeared with Berman on stage at a victory party and addressed him as "Mister Speaker," underscoring that McCarthy's speakership was over.[29] It looked to the Democrats and the press as though Berman could now safely claim the speakership and take over the ornate northwest-corner suite in the soon-to-be-opened Capitol, with its lovely antique furniture and paintings of clipper ships and the Golden Gate.

Two days after the election, the twenty-one Assembly members loyal to Leo McCarthy met in a conference room at San Francisco Airport.[30] McCarthy grimly opened the meeting by announcing that he would step aside as Speaker. The group immediately agreed that they could not support Berman as Speaker under any circumstances, and they began discussing finding an alternative candidate. Just as Maxine Waters arrived, someone floated the idea of Vicencia.

"I said 'no way, no way,'" Waters recalled. "I stormed into the room and I took on that idea and said that he didn't have what it takes, he's not strong enough—I mean, I said things that probably I felt bad about later on."

The bickering continued. Finally Assemblyman Tom Hannigan, a lanky ex-Marine who represented a Bay Area district, told them he was completely disgusted with the whole mess.[31]

"Look," Hannigan told them. "I've been the good soldier all year long. I believed in Leo's abilities and thought he should retain the speakership and did everything I could to help, and I don't take a backseat to anybody here, but I've had it. I mean, this is as much as I can take. I'm leaving this meeting today, and I'm going home and I don't want to hear from any of you. I'll come up to Sacramento and get sworn in early December, but I've been listening as we go around the room and I suspect there are some other agendas here and I don't want any part of it."

Hannigan then left the meeting.

The meeting broke up after those still there decided to dispatch a delegation led by Brown to feel out Berman on what they could expect if he became Speaker. Despite Waters's protests, the group also authorized Vicencia to negotiate with the Republicans to see if they would support him as Speaker. Brown went along with the Vicencia plan, not tipping his hand that the Republicans were ready to support Brown and no one else. Not even his closest allies, including Maxine Waters, knew of the cards he secretly held.


The talks with Berman predictably went badly. The McCarthy group felt insulted. "Howard was patronizing, showed disdain and turned off our people," complained Agnos. "He tried to stiff-arm us."[32]

Meanwhile Vicencia talked with the Republicans about supporting him as Speaker. Vicencia, not knowing about the secret summer talks, was accompanied on his mission by none other than Willie Brown. As Vicencia later told an oral historian, he could not stomach the Republicans' demands, particularly their insistence that the new Speaker fire Assemblyman Louis Papan as chairman of the Rules Committee. Known as "the Enforcer" or "Sweet Lou," Papan was an ex-FBI agent with a volcanic temper. He once decked Assemblyman Ken Meade in his office with a single punch to the eye over an obscure dispute on a transportation bill.[33] Republicans detested Papan, as did most Democrats, though they were so intimidated by Papan that they expressed their disdain in private. Getting rid of Papan was something Vicencia would not do, either out of fear or friendship:

Then when Willie and I left the meeting, we went back to his office and I said to him, "Willie, look, I'm not going to go for that crap. If you want to go for it, you've got my support."

He said, "No man, I don't want it. I really don't want it. I'd rather you do it. I've got my law practice. I really don't have time." I said, "Look, I've got my business, too. But if I go for it, I think maybe I'd crumble the whole thing because I'm not kicking Lou Papan off."

He said, "Oh, that's no big deal." I said, "Yes, it is. I think it's a big deal." We had a disagreement over that. He knew at that point that I really was serious about it. I think from that point on, he really thought that he was going to have to make the move himself if he really wanted it, and I thought he did.[34]

Vicencia did not know it, but Brown was already talking with the Republicans. Vicencia was the one moderate Democrat who might have made a deal with the Republicans, but the idea of sacking Papan stood in the way. When Vicencia admitted that, Brown knew that a major threat to his becoming Speaker had been eliminated.

Maxine Waters and others urged Brown to run for Speaker. "I joined with Roos and Elihu Harris and talked Willie Brown into being our candidate for Speaker and started to put it together," said Waters.[35] Brown was now in the best possible position he could be, with his friends believing they were talking him into running for the post he had always coveted. He could now run as a compromise candidate, as the man others were turning to in a crisis. Willie Brown's ego would no longer be the issue in the speakership fight.

The final talks with the Republicans were held in hideaway offices in the Capitol, at out-of-the-way restaurants along the Sacramento River, and at Hallett's home. She began including Ross Johnson, considered the leader of the most conservative faction and one of the smartest members of the Republican caucus. Brown hedged, giving concessions sparingly, "tap


dancing" as Johnson indelicately put it.[36] More than once Hallett was tempted to give up on the game. "In my heart," Johnson said, "I believe that the turning of the tide was a shouting match in Carol Hallett's office where Ed Rollins and I were pounding the table and saying, 'Goddammit, we can do this.'"[37]

Word leaked to the newspapers that Brown was now a candidate for Speaker.[38] At first Berman did not believe it, making the same mistake Brown had made in 1974 when Brown dismissed Leo McCarthy's chances. Berman said any speculation that Brown was going to be Speaker was "hogwash."

Berman tried to open talks with Hallett, but she told him flatly that she was not interested. Berman then turned to Republican Assemblyman Charles Imbrecht, who began working on other Republicans. To the outside world the machinations in the Assembly looked complicated, with at least three candidates for Speaker and a fourth who held the office and would not step down. But to the insiders the situation sorted itself out fairly simply. Brown was rallying the McCarthy forces, and Berman was trying to find a way to win Republicans. Berman's last-ditch effort to find Republicans came through Democratic Assemblyman Rick Lehman of Fresno, who roomed with Imbrecht in Sacramento. Lehman in reality was a Berman supporter, but he began floating the idea of himself as a compromise candidate. However, the Republican leadership was well aware of the relationship and considered Lehman not a real candidate but a stalking horse for Berman. Ross Johnson recalled that the Republican leaders would not talk about their negotiations with Brown in any detail when fellow Republican Imbrecht was in the room. "The assumption always was that we had to be somewhat circumspect if it was something we really didn't want Berman to know," Johnson recalled.[39]

The deal between Brown and the Republicans came together even as Berman scoffed at the idea that it was possible. "Willie was the only one who was willing to really negotiate in good faith," said Hallett. That the Republicans were well satisfied with their deal was since clouded by the heat and smoke of political battles that came later.

Eventually, when Republican leaders, like Ross Johnson, had to explain their role in creating Willie Brown's record fourteen-year speakership, they insisted that Brown had broken his promises. But did he? Ascertaining the truth of such claims is difficult nearly two decades later because the deal was never put to paper. Years later, during an interview in her public relations office in Washington, D.C., Hallett pointed to a yellowed Sacramento Bee editorial hanging on her wall.[40] The clipping was the only written evidence she could produce containing the details of her deal with Willie Brown.

The outline of the deal, said The Bee and other news accounts, was that Brown agreed to give the Republicans five chairmanships, and vice chairmanships on those committees chaired by Democrats. "It's already clear that the biggest winners will be Carol Hallett's Republicans," the editorial concluded.


Republicans also got representation on each committee proportional to their overall strength in the Assembly. Brown further agreed to grant authority to the Rules Committee to assign bills to policy committees, a power previously held exclusively by the Speaker. Hallett was granted authority to virtually assign Republican members to committees, a power never before granted to a minority leader. Brown also promised the Republicans money from the Assembly budget to work on reapportionment. Finally, Hallett agreed to give Brown two years of breathing space to solidify his hold on the speakership. Brown interpreted the last point to mean that the entire deal would be of only two years' duration, a point that was subject to much misinterpretation, but a point which Hallett said was correct.

There was no mention of firing Lou Papan in The Bee 's editorial or in any other news story. Invariably, however, Republican claims that Brown reneged on his deal come down to one point—whether he agreed to fire Papan, a point that to the outside world was petty but to those inside the Legislature was an issue of no small importance. Hallett and Johnson claim that Brown indeed agreed to dump Papan. "That's the only thing where Willie reneged. In everything else he was true to his word," said Hallett.[41] More graphic in his description, Johnson claims that Papan heard he was going to be fired and confronted Brown. "Papan, as he's wont to do, went ballistic and went charging in." Johnson asserted that Brown was completely intimidated by the overbearing Papan, and Brown backed off from firing him.[42]

However, Brown maintained that he never promised to fire Papan, although he said Papan was "fucking nuts." But Brown said he would not have made such a promise precisely because Republicans were asking for it. "I don't give a shit about him—Lou Papan mistreats everybody," Brown said when asked about Johnson's view. "I concluded that the day that I sacrifice one of my own, for my own personal ambition, was the day that I build the potential for my own defeat. So I went back and told Rollins, 'You can't make demands because then you will be controlling the Speakership. It has to be a deal where I am the Speaker free of any control by you because if that happens, I'm dead.' And he agreed. So I said 'I will control Lou Papan, but I won't necessarily dump him. If I decide to dump him it will be because I conclude that he ought to be dumped, not because it's a condition of me becoming Speaker.' And he agreed with that—to his credit."[43]

In a 1993 interview for this book, Rollins backed Willie Brown's version over that of his fellow Republicans. "He never agreed [to fire Papan]," said Rollins. "There's not anybody in the Legislature who can tell you Willie Brown breaks his word."[44]

Republicans should not have been surprised that Brown would keep Papan as chairman of the Rules Committee. A week before the Speaker vote, he told reporters he would probably keep Papan at Rules and give John Vasconcellos the chairmanship of Ways and Means.[45] When Brown became Speaker, that is exactly what he did.


Brown's speakership was characterized by frequent conflict with the Republicans. So why did they cut a deal with him and elect him?

"We really believed that Willie would self-destruct," said Hallett. "We really felt that Willie's flamboyant approach would get him into so much trouble with his own caucus that he wouldn't last. And we were certainly wrong on that one."[46]

At the time Republicans believed Brown would be less partisan than Berman. They feared Berman's formidable election machine, which had played a big role in electing Tom Bradley as mayor of Los Angeles, defeating conservative Mayor Sam Yorty. In comparison, Brown did not have much of a political organization outside of San Francisco. Further, Brown had been out of power for most of the last six years, and the Proposition 13 Babies had no memory of Brown's heavy-handedness as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Ironically, Brown's time away from Sacramento enhanced his fortunes because both the Republicans and the Berman forces underestimated his political skills. Their memories of 1974 were short-lived or nonexistent.

There was one other large but unspoken reason Republicans supported Brown: he was black. Republicans strategists believed they could set up Brown as a black bogeyman and scare white suburbanites. Berman, with his boyish looks and blond curly hair, could never give Republicans such an opportunity. "Willie would always be a very visible target. Berman would never have his head up. But we could run against Willie," one the strategists close to Hallett later admitted.[47] They planned to make Brown into the worst political nightmare ever seen in the San Fernando Valley and everywhere else race could be used against Democrats. They believed that Willie Brown sitting in the Speaker's chair would generate more campaign contributions for Republicans than any other villain they could find or create.

However, before their plan could be set in motion, the Republican rank and file needed convincing that they should cast their votes for a black liberal from San Francisco. And that meant convincing the Proposition 13 Babies. Voting for Willie Brown was a hard swallow, even if he had been fair to them as a committee chairman. Brown's only legislative goal the entire year was in pushing a bill to legalize cultivating marijuana, hardly a popular issue with hard-right conservatives.

Willie Brown had another secret card to play: Jesse Unruh.

The former Speaker had been elected state treasurer in 1974, a post that kept him in Sacramento, where he commanded a booth nightly at Frank Fat's, a popular watering hole with legislators a few blocks from the Capitol.[48]

"Jess held court every night and didn't care if it was a Republican or a Democrat," said Hallett. "He just was very, very at ease. He would share views and ideas. He would make recommendations whether they wanted to hear it or not." Unruh had instant credibility with the newer Republicans because of his antipathy toward Berman and McCarthy. "Jess Unruh could


not could not stand Leo McCarthy," Hallett added. "Whether it's true or not, Jess told me he voted for me for lieutenant governor," referring to her campaign against McCarthy for lieutenant governor in 1982.[49] Unruh felt slighted that the Speaker had never consulted him about anything.

Unruh had his reasons for hating Berman as well. In 1973 Unruh had run for mayor of Los Angeles, but was beaten by Berman's candidate, Tom Bradley. "Seven years later, Jess has a good memory," Berman later reflected.[50]

Unruh reassured the Republicans. He told them that Willie Brown would be a good Speaker, that he would keep his word. Willie Brown, whose first vote in the Assembly had been cast against Unruh a quarter of a century earlier, showed respect to the former Speaker. And doubtless Unruh delighted in the roll of kingmaker. Back in the 1960s Brown had been a rebellious young legislator bucking the system Unruh had built. But Unruh had grown to respect Brown. The two had become friends, and frequented the same bars in Sacramento and enjoyed swapping jokes. Brown still remembered that Unruh had once told him: "It's a good thing you're not white. . . . Because if you were, you'd own the place."[51]

The audacity and the intrigue of Brown's move must also have appealed to Unruh. The former Speaker complained to California Journal in April 1980 that legislators lacked passion.[52] "There's so very little risk-taking now," he said. "You know, the most personalized thing in politics now, today, is the computerized letter." It was a comment he would not have made about Willie Brown, who was taking the biggest gamble of his life.

Brown had help from yet another unexpected quarter: Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb, who remained close to Hallett. She and Unruh prevailed upon Curb to help with the Proposition 13 Babies.[53] The strategy worked.

Still, Brown did not entirely trust the Republicans to follow through on their promises to vote for him. Nor did the Republican leaders entirely trust their followers. Johnson and Rollins devised an ingenious method for cementing the deal. Rather than having the caucus sign a form letter, as was the usual custom, Johnson and Rollins got each Republican to send a telegram to Willie Brown pledging support.[54] Most were short and to the point, although Phillip Wyman, who represented the Mojave Desert community of Lancaster, felt compelled to write a lengthy treatise justifying his vote. The stack of telegrams proved a powerful stage prop for Brown when he walked into the Democratic caucus for the final showdown vote.

Brown and the Republicans had their deal, and both parties were satisfied.

Meanwhile Brown began looking for Democratic supporters. He had only the seventeen or so McCarthy supporters, at best. Many of them felt uncomfortable making a deal with Republicans. Brown needed to give them cover by denying Berman the claim that he commanded a majority of the Democrats and was therefore the caucus's real leader. Berman was pushing for a rule change to provide that the leader in the majority caucus was also


the Speaker of the Assembly. Jerry Brown declared his support for such a rule change, and his words were widely seen as a public endorsement of Berman— and interference in the speakership battle.[55] The congressional delegation also weighed in, supporting a rule giving the majority caucus power to elect the Speaker. Berman even minted campaign buttons featuring his face and the caption "Support Majority Rule" (leaving aside the fact that real majority rule was forty-one votes of the Assembly). So far, McCarthy as Speaker had squelched efforts at adopting the rule. But to make the rule issue moot, and deny Berman his moral ground as the legitimate Democratic leader, Willie Brown needed to work for at least a tie vote in the Democratic caucus.

To succeed, Brown focused on picking off at least a handful of Berman's votes. Brown started calling in old chits. Assemblyman Curtis Tucker, a black legislator from Los Angeles, was first. Tucker felt slighted by Leo McCarthy and was supporting Berman. What Berman did not know was that Tucker had been urging Brown to make a deal with Republicans since the 1974 Speaker fight.[56] After a long lunch with Brown, Tucker announced he was supporting Brown. "I had a beef with Leo, but not with Willie," Tucker explained. "Willie has attended every one of my [fund-raising] functions in Los Angeles."[57] In East Texas, where Brown grew up, there was a slang word for such favors: "kadus." With them Brown put together his votes.

The two most critical Democratic votes turned out to be those of Assemblymen Richard Alatorre and Art Torres of Los Angeles, both of whom went back decades with Brown. They had already switched once, deserting McCarthy. They were about to switch for a second time in the Speaker war. The two Latinos were close to Cesar Chavez, and the labor leader vehemently supported Berman. In fact, Berman had promised Torres he would be majority leader—number 2—if Berman became Speaker. Chavez invested $300,000 of his union's money backing Assembly candidates loyal to Berman.

Alatorre's switch was the easier to figure out. Brown had helped him win his seat in 1972, and he had been one of Brown's staunchest allies in the 1974 speakership fight. The two had grown personally close, so when Brown asked for his vote, Alatorre did not hesitate.

But Torres was harder to read. He was not particularly close to Brown, and he stood to lose more in the Assembly by backing Brown. "I told him I would support him on one condition: That I didn't want anything in return," said Torres.[58] He supported Brown, he said, because he saw Brown as the only leader who could get the Assembly out of its morass. But Torres, who had got his start as a lawyer for the UFW, irreparably damaged his relationship with Chavez. "He was furious that I had disobeyed him," Torres remembered. Chavez told his former protégé that "men like him did not belong in the Assembly."[59] Chavez briefly considered mounting a recall against Torres. Chavez never spoke to Torres again for the rest of his life.

A week before the vote, Berman got a hint that Democratic votes were peeling off. "I was going along, doing pretty well, and Richard [Alatorre]


said something like 'What about Willie?' I should have paid more attention to that comment. What Richard was doing was signaling to me: 'I'm with you if you're against Leo, but if Willie is getting into this, this is my way of telling you, you've got a problem.'"[60]

Brown needed one more Democratic vote to get his tie. Tom Hannigan presented the best opportunity. Widely seen as a squeaky-clean good-government advocate, Hannigan was pledged to McCarthy, but after he walked out of the Democrats' airport meeting no one knew where he stood. Hannigan was sick of the whole fight, and had all but quit taking phone calls. Finally Brown reached him while Hannigan was up on a ladder painting his house. Brown asked if he could come visit, and Hannigan replied he was holding public office hours later in the week at Benicia City Hall, and Brown was welcome to drop by.

"Fine," Brown replied. Then puzzled, he asked, "Where's Benicia?"

The two met in Benicia, about an hour's drive from Sacramento. Brown explained how he had the support of the Republicans. Hannigan told him that he did not like it, that he wanted a Democratic Speaker to be free of the opposition party. "He didn't push it," said Hannigan. "He just let it go. So I didn't hear from him anymore. I started hearing then from Art Agnos and Mike Roos."[61]

Berman began to scramble, but too late. He told reporters that there was something insidious about cutting deals with the Republicans, although he was trying to make such a deal himself. He said if Brown got the job with Republican support it would mean "chaos, total lack of progress, a betrayal of the voters' mandate."[62]

As it became clear that Brown was working a deal with Republicans, Berman called in his chits with the congressional delegation. Eighteen of the twenty-two Democratic House members from California signed a letter November 21 declaring that a deal with Republicans would be a political catastrophe: "We believe that a coalition speakership of this type would be a disaster for the interests of the Democratic Party . . . . It would seriously endanger the critical district reapportionment you are about to undertake."[63] Those who did not sign were Augustus Hawkins, the senior black member of the delegation; black congressman Ron Dellums, from Berkeley; and Phillip and John Burton. Still, Phillip Burton had his misgivings.

"Phil questioned whether or not it was a good idea for me to make a coalition with Republicans to become Speaker," Brown recalled. "He seriously questioned. I'm not even sure he wanted to do it, or he wanted me to do it. But he was wise enough to let Johnny Burton and Willie Brown do whatever they needed."[64]

The Assembly Democrats convened on December 2, 1980, behind closed doors. Tucker, Alatorre, and Torres—former Berman supporters—voted for Brown, giving him a 23-23 tie in the Democratic caucus. There was one


abstention—Tom Hannigan—and that was as good as a vote for Brown because it denied Berman a majority of Democrats.

Berman was in shock. The speakership fight would have to come to the Assembly floor; there could be no possibility of deciding it in the caucus. Once it was on the floor, Berman was in for a bigger shock. Carol Hallett delivered her votes: twenty-eight Republicans voted for Brown, giving him fifty-one votes to Berman's twenty-four. More Republicans voted for Brown than Democrats. To their everlasting regret, the Republicans gave Willie Brown the most powerful job in the California Legislature.

As the votes were cast, Brown sat with his son, Michael, and his wife, Blanche, in one of her few public appearances. As the votes were posted, pandemonium broke out in the house. Brown embraced McCarthy and accepted a handshake from Berman.

"Berman and McCarthy spent $2.5 million to get the speakership," Brown quipped to Berman. "I spent $80,000, with $40,000 on clothes, and I won."[65]

Within minutes Brown was escorted to the Speaker's dais, where he took the oath of office from San Francisco Superior Court Judge John Dearman, his old law partner.

The Republicans looked on in jubilation. "The day of his swearing in was a fabulous day," said Ed Rollins. "There was an excitement in Sacramento like I've never seen before. One of the good guys made it."[66]

Brown's jokes flowed.[67] "Now the little black kid can count." Brown asked Berman to punch his voting button for him as the house elected McCarthy Speaker pro tem. The practice of pushing the voting button for another member was called "ghost voting," and was technically illegal. But that morning Brown said, "That's not considered ghost voting, even though it's [being] done for a spook." The most enduring photograph of the day was of a beaming Brown surrounded by his wife and son, and Art Torres standing behind them with a wide grin.

Berman played along good-naturedly, but he was stunned all the same.

"This could not happen and therefore I just assumed this would not happen," Berman said years later, still incredulous that his fortune turned so dramatically.[68] "What I never believed was that Willie—Willie Brown, the San Francisco liberal-left activist legislator —could get that hard-core Republican vote to go for him." But Willie Brown did just that. And now he owned the place.


previous chapter
Chapter Nineteen— The Play for Power
next part