previous part
Chapter Twenty— Drawing Lines
next chapter

Chapter Twenty—
Drawing Lines

One day they'd show you the map and you know you'd been screwed.
Robert Naylor
Republican Assembly leader, 1981–1984

They were snookered.
Maxine Waters
Assemblywoman, 1976–1990

Five days into the new year of 1982, California's legislators returned to their newly renovated capitol for the first time in six years. Settling into their desks in the cavernous Assembly chambers, lawmakers were elated at what they found: mahogany desks, immense green draperies, crystal chandeliers, and majestic nineteenth-century landscapes everywhere. Befitting the occasion, they held a forty-five-minute dedication ceremony in which they pledged they would act as dignified as their restored surroundings. The first Assembly session under the restored copper-sheathed dome was opened with a prayer to seek "goodness, truth and beauty, and not re-election."[1]

The Speaker of the Assembly that morning was Willie Brown. Visibly moved by his new surroundings, Brown noted that a "Negro chain gang" had removed stumps from the grounds in 1862 to make way for the new Capitol. "In 1980, you elected what at one time was a Negro as Speaker of the California Legislature," he told his colleagues. He invited them into his new office, filled with Victorian antiques and oil paintings. No Speaker before him had ever been surrounded by such opulence. Only a few veterans remembered that he had paid a political price years earlier in pushing the unpopular Capitol restoration bill onto Governor Reagan's desk for his signature. The


renovated Capitol reflected Willie Brown's impeccable taste for art and antiques. Everything was done with his eye for excellence, and nothing was done cheaply. Now everyone was beaming broadly.

Brown had been Speaker for one year, and many considered that a major accomplishment. When he became Speaker, few believed he would last long enough to open the restored Capitol. Fewer still believed he could do much more than preside over the floor sessions. Wielding power effectively seemed out of his reach. But Brown did more than survive. He discovered opportunities where few believed they could be found, and he cleverly exploited each one. By the end of his first two-year term as Speaker of the Assembly, Willie Brown was solidly entrenched. But he never held the job as firmly as Jesse Unruh. Brown always needed to look over his shoulder, and his energies were significantly devoted to keeping his job. Paradoxically, he held it longer than anyone else.

The Republicans made a deal with Willie Brown in December 1980 to share his power as Speaker, and they expected big payoffs. Not just cynics believed Brown would be little more than a puppet of the Republicans. Conventional wisdom held that a coalition speakership could not work and that Willie Brown could not survive long under such an unstable arrangement. "The betting action in the Capitol is on how long Willie Brown will keep his job as Assembly Speaker," wrote Martin Smith, political editor of McClatchy newspapers, based at The Sacramento Bee . "There is considerable body of opinion that his tenure will be remarkable for its brevity."[2]

Smith was not alone in December 1980 in his prognostication. Brown's deal was improbable; no one had ever become Speaker quite the way he did. A coalition speakership was a setup for failure; indeed, Brown's successor, Republican Doris Allen, tried the same thing with Democrats fifteen years later and was recalled by voters in her home district of Orange County. By failing so ignominiously, she proved the point.

Brown's first steps as Speaker were rough. Within a week of his election as Speaker he ran into a buzz saw by trying to keep not one but two seats on the prestigious University of California Board of Regents. Governor Jerry Brown had appointed Willie Brown to a twelve-year seat on the twenty-six-member governing board in September 1980. When he became Speaker, Brown was entitled to an ex officio seat on the board, and he audaciously asserted he would keep both seats.[3] Newspaper editorialists were soon beating their drums about his arrogance in trying to keep both seats. Brown had not even sought the first seat and in fact had been urging the governor to appoint his old patron, black newspaper publisher Carlton Goodlett, to the board. But Goodlett's newspaper had offended some of Jerry Brown's Jewish supporters


with articles they considered anti-Semitic.[4] The governor was left offending someone no matter what he did. His solution was to appoint Willie Brown and keep both black and Jewish supporters happy. Once he had the seat, Brown saw no reason to give up the one with the longest term. But his position was both politically and legally untenable, and in the face of criticism he backed down, resigning the seat given to him by the governor.

"I've been doing a considerable amount of apologizing," he later confided. "And I don't do that well."[5]

Brown looked vulnerable like no other Speaker before him. If his misstep over the Board of Regents seat was any indication, Brown looked as if he could bring himself down with little outside help. In any case, the opposition party that had put him there could pull him out any time it wished. The Republicans would rely on Brown's downfall to catapult themselves into the majority they were sure was inevitable. In the afterglow of Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980, the Republicans predicted they would take over in two years or four at the latest. Willie Brown was nothing more than a caretaker for the real power brokers of Sacramento. And with Willie Brown, a flamboyant black liberal from San Francisco, as such a visible target in Assembly district elections, the Republicans believed they could hasten the day of their majority. The Republicans found considerable affirmation for their beliefs. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who had been hired away from the conservative but financially sinking Sacramento Union , repeatedly predicted an impending Republican majority throughout the 1980s, and then when it did not materialize, he continued his prognostication into the 1990s.

Political analysts at the time also believed that the Republicans were the big winners on policy issues with Brown as Speaker. Brown gave six committee chairmanships and nineteen vice chairmanships to the Republicans. In keeping with his agreement with Carol Hallett and the Republicans, he put forward new Assembly rules that gave away one of the Speaker's biggest weapons—the power to assign legislation to committees. The new rules put that authority in the hands of the Rules Committee. The Assembly ratified the new rules with three dissenting votes. Howard Berman, one of the three, called the new policy "unwise."[6]

Brown further alienated environmentalists and allies of the United Farm Workers union when he agreed with Hallett to route pesticide regulation bills to committees friendly to the agriculture industry.[7] The matter was of no small importance to Hallett, whose husband, James, was president of the Western Agricultural Chemical Association. Brown's agreement with Hallett gravely alarmed Cesar Chavez and the UFW, confirming Chavez's view that Berman should have been Speaker and that Assemblyman Art Torres was a traitor to the cause.[8] Although the UFW eventually patched things up with Brown, it would never again enjoy the clout it had once held in the Assembly under Leo McCarthy or would have enjoyed with Berman.


The predictions of Brown's quick decline were, in hindsight, breathtakingly wrong. As it turned out, Willie Brown became the longest-reigning Assembly Speaker in California history, flourishing through the terms of four U.S. presidents, three governors, and six Republican Assembly leaders.[9] Other politicians came and went, but Willie Brown endured. He became the most dominant politician in California in the latter part of the twentieth century. The more Republicans vilified him, the stronger he got. Brown ended up serving twice as long as Jesse Unruh. In truth, the Republicans underestimated the man they made Speaker. No matter what it looked like on paper, he could outmaneuver his opponents under practically any set of rules. As long as he was Speaker, as long as he could find forty-one votes, he could do anything he wanted. He called it the "Rule of Forty-One," and it was the only rule that really counted.

Brown proved that a skilled black politician could triumph not just in black politics but on a playing field dominated by white politicians, many of them hostile to his race and his generally liberal cause. He did so by being smarter and working harder than his opponents and, most critically, finding fissures to split them apart and keep them preoccupied with their own squabbles.

What those who depended on Brown's downfall did not clearly foresee were the opportunities that steadied Brown's hand. The gambler in him turned out to be more clever—and luckier—than the Republicans and pundits ever imagined. If Brown was ever worried that his speakership would be short, he never let it show. "It's not a honeymoon here—it's a permanent love affair," he boasted three months into his reign. "I expect to keep this job forever."[10]

Like other states in 1981, California went through its once-a-decade reapportionment of congressional and legislative districts. Brown used the occasion to shore up support among Democrats with a redistricting plan masterminded by his political mentor, Congressman Phillip Burton. It was Burton's last gift to his protégé.

As the Legislature moved into the reapportionment battle, Carol Hallett stepped aside as Republican leader so that she could run for lieutenant governor to replace her friend Mike Curb, who was mounting a run for governor. Hallett was replaced by her second in command, Robert Naylor, an affable Republican elected from a suburban district on the southern base of the San Francisco peninsula.

As it emerged, the redistricting plan gave Democrats a lopsided advantage in California's congressional delegation and in the state Legislature. The congressional redistricting plan was crucial for Brown because it provided an honorable way for his strongest Democratic rivals to leave the Assembly for seats in Congress in the 1982 elections. Among those who availed themselves of the Burton-sent escape hatch to Congress were Howard Berman, who was another Burton protégé, and Brown's chief rivals, Mel Levine and Rick Lehman. Burton wanted them in Washington anyway, where he was getting


ready for another run at House leadership. Other Democratic Assembly rivals, like Wadie Deddeh of San Diego, got safe seats in the state Senate. The Republicans never quite understood how rewarding Brown's Democratic rivals helped solidify his power by removing them as threats. Rewarding enemies was not a part of their political value system, then or later.

The Republicans not only underestimated Brown but also misjudged how quickly the Democrats could come together after the bloodletting of the speakership fight. The Democrats privately swore they would never repeat the carnage of their political civil war. The memory of the 1980 leadership battle was so traumatic for Democrats that they remained loath for more than a decade to engage in another one. Berman was in no mood to challenge Brown again. The fact that it was Brown who beat him let him save face. At least Leo McCarthy had not beaten him. "I never had a bit of hostility to Willie from this," said Berman. "You know, when you live by the sword, you die by it. So, unlike Leo, where there was a deeper hostility because we had been so close, with Willie it was, 'Hey Willie, gee, nice move'"[11]

Brown was smart enough to make a deal with Berman and his allies on the issue that mattered most to them—reapportionment. Phillip Burton and Berman's brother, Michael, were given a free hand over the congressional redistricting, maximizing Democratic gains and giving Berman and his friends their path out of Sacramento. "Within four months after Willie beat me, he made a deal with us on the reapportionment process which the Republicans spent the next ten years litigating," said Berman with glee.[12] The Republicans believed that Brown was cowed by Phillip Burton and Berman, but in fact those two gave him the gift that solidified his speakership: his enemies were promoted via redistricting to the state Senate and the U.S. Congress. The state Democratic Party was unified, and Brown could function as a Democratic Speaker and break with the Republicans who put him there.

Willie Brown needed no convincing while Phillip Burton cajoled and pushed his Democratic colleagues in Congress into accepting strangely drawn districts that maximized Democratic gains and concentrated Republicans into the fewest possible districts. He carried the plan, and all the intricate demographic data supporting it, around in his head and on reams of yellow work sheets. The plan was technically brilliant; no districts differed by more than 223 people. But it also was a crazy quilt of lines patching together district pieces, with thin corridors across bays and mountain ranges. Burton weakened some incumbents, including himself, to shore up other Democrats, including his brother John. He called his work on his brother's district "my contribution to modern art." Naylor, on the other hand, called the whole thing a "diabolical masterpiece."[13]

By law the Legislature was required to approve Burton's elaborate plan. In return the state legislators wanted a congressional bill exempting their per diem living allowance of $75 a day from federal income taxes. Burton got Congressman Robert Matsui, who sat on the House Ways and Means Committee,


to insert an amendment into a bill, and the tax loophole for legislators quietly became law as part of President Reagan's 1981 tax bill.[14]

While Republicans fumed and stewed, Brown had his own problems within the Democratic caucus. For starters, it looked as if the Berman supporters were getting all the plums and all the Brown supporters were getting their districts hacked to pieces. Brown kept his distance from his disgruntled Democratic colleagues by handing over the Assembly's redistricting to Richard Alatorre, appointing him chairman of the Elections and Reapportionment Committee. Brown then stood back and played the peacemaker.

Alatorre was an up-from-the streets legislator from East Los Angeles. He had built his own political machine in the barrio, and he could be gruff, hard-edged, and mean when necessary. He was also exceedingly sharp. The Republicans, however, did not take him seriously and believed that his appointment was Brown's gesture to Latinos. One joke making the rounds in Republican circles was that Alatorre would draw district lines with spray paint.[15] The Republicans severely underestimated the new chairman.

Alatorre hired Bruce Cain, a talented political scientist from the California Institute of Technology who was proficient with computers. Joining him was Bill Cavala, a Berkeley political scientist associated with Howard Berman and his political consultant brother Michael, and Assemblyman Bill Lockyer's college roommate (Lockyer had voted against Brown, and he was another to be rewarded with a Senate seat).[16] Alatorre's staff attempted to maximize the number of Democratic Assembly seats while pushing Republicans into smaller districts with larger numbers of Republicans. The strategy meant that Democrats would have several marginal districts where incumbents would face tough election campaigns, while most Republicans would have safe districts. However, to come up with concentrated Republican districts, the plan called for putting several Republican districts into single districts, essentially collapsing Republican districts. If those Republicans wanted to stay in the Assembly, they would have to run against other Republican incumbents.

The strategy sounded great to Democrats until Cain started peeling off safe Democratic neighborhoods from incumbents and putting them in new districts. Suddenly some incumbents who had not faced a serious election challenger in years found themselves in marginally safe Democratic districts. The new lines ran counter to the natural instinct of incumbents, for whom no district was safe enough. As Alatorre began carving up San Jose to create a new Hispanic seat, for example, he pitted John Vasconcellos against Dominic Cortese. Both Democrats embraced the concept of new Hispanic seats, but neither could understand why he should give up territory to create one.[17]

Brown went to meetings with Alatorre and his aides, but he did not stay long. "He'd get the picture and then he'd walk out," said Cain. "He wasn't really interested in the details. He figured between Richard Alatorre and Bill Cavala, he had people who enjoyed it, were interested in the details of it, plus it was painful, and he just didn't want anything to do with it."[18] And by


staying out of the detail work, Brown could plausibly deny knowledge when an incumbent came to him screaming. More than a few gruff incumbents never saw through Brown's ploy.

Democrats sometimes found that their new district did not include their own home. As Democratic Assembly members arrived in Alatorre's office to learn what their new districts looked like, many were stunned. A few were furious. Assemblyman Leroy Greene briefly surveyed the map, said there was "nothing to say," and got up to leave. Although Greene had lost only one percentage point in Democratic registration, he was unyielding and voted against the plan.[19] Greene did not bother to run for reelection to the Assembly, but fortuitously won a state Senate seat in 1982.

Brown wanted to avoid embarrassing lawsuits from organizations representing racial and ethnic groups. Latino leaders in particular were suspicious that their people would be shortchanged by the remap, as they had in every other remap since California had become part of the United States. Los Angeles County was 27 percent Hispanic, and Latino leaders called for one more predominantly Latino Assembly seat.[20] Brown met with members of the Californios for Fair Representation, an organization of lawyers and civil rights leaders determined to increase the number of legislative seats held by Hispanics. Brown offered to collapse seats held by incumbents who were not part of the leadership coalition that brought him to power.

But carving out a new Hispanic seat in Los Angeles proved difficult because it could strip territory from black incumbents and alienate Berman's liberal allies. Alatorre began looking for territory elsewhere in the state to patch together. Alatorre managed to create sixteen new districts with a minimum Hispanic population of 30 percent, up from the previous ten districts. He did it by pushing incumbents into unfamiliar territory, making the jigsaw fit. One Los Angeles district that included rural areas of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties was nicknamed the "condor seat" because it included a mating reservation for the endangered bird.[21] To consolidate Hispanic areas in central California, Alatorre collapsed Carol Hallett's area into a single concentrated Republican district by combining the southern parts of Santa Clara County with the Salinas Valley. The new district became known as the "John Steinbeck" seat. Although it could have been safer for Hallett, she was infuriated to lose one hundred thousand constituents and some of her biggest donors in the Salinas Valley.

The Republicans remained miffed, but there was little they could do if enough Democratic incumbents voted for the plan. Not all Democrats went along. Some, like San Diego Assemblyman Wadie Deddeh, flat out refused to vote for the remap although he was leaving the Assembly anyway. But the bulk of the Democrats were pushed, prodded, and cajoled into accepting new districts despite their displeasure.

Willie Brown's thespian skills proved crucial in convincing enough of his colleagues, and those skills were never more needed than with the explosive


Louis Papan, who represented a suburban district just south of San Francisco.[22] Part of Papan's old district was given to another legislator, and aides forgot (or were afraid) to tell him about it until the day of the vote on the entire reapportionment plan. While the reapportionment bill was being debated, Papan discovered the change and summoned Cain to the back of the Assembly chambers. Demanding an explanation, Papan grew angrier by the second. Cain began worrying about his personal safety just as Brown arrived.

Brown listened to Papan's rant. Then he asked Cain what his own Democratic registration would be under the plan, pretending not to know.

Cain told the Speaker he had lost five percentage points of Democrats.

"You mean, you bastard, that you dropped my registration?" Brown scolded.

Brown asked how much of Papan's Democratic registration had slipped. Catching on to Brown's theatrics, Cain replied that Papan's Democratic registration had actually gone up by three points. Papan calmed down, and he walked away with the Speaker commiserating over the raw deals wrought by lowly assistants like Bruce Cain. Papan voted for the bill and Cain breathed a sigh of relief.

Whatever discomfort Brown gave his Democratic friends was nothing compared with what he did to Republicans. When Naylor finally got to see the maps, he discovered to his horror that Republican incumbents would have to run against other Republican incumbents to stay in the Assembly.

"One day they'd show you the map and you know you'd been screwed," Naylor remembered. "It didn't include seats for all members. The only incumbents it caused to run against each other were Republicans. Three pairs of Republicans! And we were just absolutely livid. We knew we had been double-crossed."[23]

The Republicans declared war on Brown, and their anger never subsided. "On reapportionment," said Patrick Nolan, who would soon succeed Naylor as Republican leader, "my recollection is the only deal with Willie, other than giving us the ability to analyze votes, was that we would be treated fairly. No specifics. And that's where he let us down because we weren't treated fairly."[24] But it was too late for the Republicans to depose Brown. By now his hold on the speakership was solid enough in his own party to survive the withdrawal of Republican support. For all practical purposes, the bipartisan coalition speakership was dead. "That reapportionment deal poisoned the well," said Naylor. "Just that one act dramatically altered the civility of the Assembly and the ability of parties to work together—no question about it."[25]

For as long as Willie Brown was Speaker, the Republicans never got over feeling betrayed. By voting for the black liberal Democrat from San Francisco for Speaker, many had taken a huge risk in their suburban white Republican districts. As they saw it, he should have at least rewarded them with a "fair" reapportionment. "We wanted to have a chance at a majority, a fighting


chance," said Nolan. "Therefore we needed more competitive districts, not slam-dunk districts. The Democrats never understood that."[26]

But Brown understood all too well that competitive districts could give Republicans an edge and topple him as Speaker. The Republicans were, in fact, hugely naive in thinking Brown would permit a reapportionment plan awarding them control of the Legislature. Brown had no choice but to tilt toward his own party if he was to have any chance of long-term survival. To deliver even the possibility of a majority to the opposition party was suicidal. "You can imagine the Republicans asking for the status quo plus one maybe, or two," Cain observed. "But it's another thing to say to a Democratic legislator, 'Give us a Republican majority, and oh yes, and we'll keep you as Speaker.' Do you think a street-wise black guy who has fought his way up from poverty in Texas is going buy that one? I think Willie works from the premise that people will be good to him as long as they have an interest in being good to him. And that's a very solid basis for relationships in politics."[27]

Brown delivered to the letter on his promises to Republicans. He gave them computers and statisticians to work out their own redistricting plan. That did not mean he had to listen to what they came up with. The Republicans hired the Rose Institute in Claremont to give them a state-of-the-art redistricting plan. But Republicans found that sharing resources did not mean much when Democrats held the majority vote on all the committees in the Assembly. Democrats were not about to share power in the committees.

Nor did Republicans do themselves any favors by unveiling a redistricting plan that eliminated Brown's San Francisco district by dividing it up into other districts. When he saw that wrinkle, Brown quipped that he was "negotiating with the Israeli air force about visiting Claremont" to wipe out the Rose Institute.[28] In any case the Republican reapportionment plan was dead on arrival in the Legislature with or without a visit from the Israeli air force. "They were snookered. They were outdone, and I don't think they knew what happened to them," observed Maxine Waters, who was one of Brown's closest lieutenants in the Assembly.[29]

Brown did one other thing to strengthen his hold on power for the future. He took out a political insurance policy with a handful of Republicans by quietly helping them get safe, or safer, districts. He went out of his way to make sure they knew he was responsible for helping.[30] Brown's tactic quietly split the opposition party because the Republicans had sworn an oath to stick together during reapportionment and not cut individual deals. He showed up in the districts of Republicans to make appearances for them. When Democrats whined, he reminded them he was "Speaker of all the Assembly."

Writer Dan Blackburn observed in California Journal that "by promising almost everything to almost everyone, Brown bought precious time to practice his magic."[31] Throughout his speakership Brown could seemingly


pull a Republican vote out of his hat when he needed it, and the origin of those votes can be found in the 1981 reapportionment and the favors he did for Republicans back in their home districts.

As the redistricting legislation reached its climax, Brown delivered a plan to remove his strongest Democratic rivals from the Assembly and solidify his hold on power for the next decade and beyond. The plan included shifting Leo McCarthy's district eastward to include part of Sacramento.[32] The new district was tailored for Brown's ex-aide, Phillip Isenberg, who was winding up his term as mayor of Sacramento. McCarthy planned to leave the Assembly anyway, but his political fate was up in the air; he dearly wanted to run for the U.S. Senate in 1982, but Jerry Brown also wanted the Democratic Senate nomination. Willie Brown helped persuade McCarthy to run for lieutenant governor instead.

Brown also had his hands full with the state Senate, where the Democrats elected a new leader, David Roberti of Los Angeles. The new president pro tempore was no pushover, and he declared that he would be more sharply partisan in protecting the Democratic majority in the state Senate. Roberti said that Brown's plan conflicted with his own designs, and he called a press conference to announce that "the Senate is alive and well" and "reapportionment will not be accomplished in the first person singular by any legislator."[33] Brown and Roberti worked out their differences, but their relationship would remain prickly for the next fifteen years.

When the plan was finally rammed through the Assembly, at 1:20 A.M. on the last night of the session for the year, the Democrats were elated and united behind their new leader. "You are the best Speaker I never voted for, and I want to tell you I'm happy to be a part of your leadership," Berman proclaimed that night.[34]

But Naylor glowered: "We have a kind of betrayal."

And Brown gloated: "The Speaker in California is the closest thing you will ever know in the world to the Ayatollah."[35]

Paradoxically, Brown's prominence as the most powerful African American politician in California, and quite possibly in the nation, forced him to scale back his activities in national black political circles. Shortly after becoming Speaker, Brown and Julian Bond planned another summit of black political leaders to map strategy for dealing with the Reagan White House.[36] But as Brown's energies were increasingly consumed with keeping power in the California Assembly, the role he played in national black political circles became more sporadic. He needed to focus on keeping at least forty-one of his eighty members happy at any given time, and that meant he was less inclined to play the role of a vocal black politician embracing traditional black positions that might alienate some of his Assembly members. The most volatile of those


issues was court-ordered school integration, which, as Brown saw it, was a no-win issue for blacks and Democrats.

Traditional black political organizations felt increasingly alienated from the new Speaker. Symptomatic was his relationship with the NAACP and its western regional director, Virna Canson. Unknown to Brown, Mervyn Dymally, now in Congress and back in his feuding mode, added fuel to the conflict between Brown and Canson. Dymally mailed Canson a February 1981 Washington Post column by David Broder that quoted Brown declaring that black leaders were hurting black candidates by defending busing. Broder observed that Brown was "still groping for the levers of leadership" by selling a "cynical view of the realities of political influence."[37] But Brown believed his view was not cynical at all. He was a realist, and he was going his own way on the volatile issue.

The breaking point for Brown and the NAACP came a month later when Brown made a speech to life members of the NAACP in the Bay Area. He again cautioned against turning busing into a live-or-die issue. Canson grew increasingly furious as she listened. She then wrote Brown a lengthy letter. She told him that the members had been insulted by his remarks, and she compared his position to that of state Senator Alan Robbins, a foe of school integration who at that moment was under indictment for having had sex with an underage girl. Canson concluded by telling Brown:

If there is some temporary mental state which you find yourself in which causes you to believe that you can accommodate the racists and escape their seeing you as Black, I trust that conditions will soon end and reality will once again be a part of your state of mind.

We are going to fight for school integration, including busing for as long as it takes. We do not ask that you take a leadership role. We do implore you to "shut up." Don't make our burden harder. . . .

P.S. Don't force me to go public.

Brown's reply to Canson was as short as it was unflinchingly characteristic of his temperament:

Your non-public letter to me and many other people is neither respectful of my free speech rights nor accurate. You have done yourself serious damage and demeaned the NAACP in the process.

Virna please "go public," repeating all over the world exactly what you said in your letter and I'm sure it will not be long before you realize how wrong you really are.

Sincerely, Willie L. Brown, Jr.[38]

Canson, who was closer to Dymally than Brown to begin with, said she patched things up "little by little" with Brown over the years.[39] But she and the NAACP never had the access to the Speaker's office that other organizations and groups developed over the next decade. Whatever chance


the NAACP had of entering Brown's inner circle was squandered when Canson took Dymally's bait and wrote her angry letter.

Brown's break with the NAACP was symbolic of a larger break from his early black political roots. Brown had nearly completed his public transition to becoming the ultimate pragmatic politician. That journey was never easy. There were reminders, some not so subtle, that no matter how much power he attained, or how rich he got, Willie Brown was a black man in a white country. One such reminder came when he led his colleagues on a trip to Washington, D.C., for the first time as California Assembly Speaker.[40] Brown paid most of the airfares out of his own campaign funds to protect his members from being accused of taking a junket at the taxpayers' expense. When they arrived at the White House, the white assemblymen were routinely ushered inside. But Brown was stopped at the door. He could not prove he was Speaker Brown, and the White House police would not budge. Finally, an embarrassed Ed Rollins, who was by now working for the Reagan White House as political director, came out and vouched for the man he had helped make Speaker.

Earlier in his career Brown would have called a press conference to complain about the snub at the White House gate. But he did not. He told a few Sacramento Capitol reporters, but he kept it jocular. Now that he was the Speaker of the Assembly, he was dependent on white legislators and their white voters to stay in power. For public consumption, he deliberately submerged his earlier black militancy. That did not mean he was abandoning black politics.

Brown quietly consolidated his position as the most powerful black politician in California. One of his vehicles was the Black American Political Association of California (BAPAC), the successor to the Watts-riot-era Negro Political Action Association of California (NPAAC), founded by Augustus Hawkins. Brown put Alice Huffman, a former legislative aide of Maxine Waters, in charge of BAPAC. Huffman was also the chief lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, one of Brown's most crucial campaign contributors. There was grumbling in the ranks at the CTA that Huffman's loyalties were divided, but it suited Brown's purposes perfectly to tie the two organizations together. "If you put CTA and BAPAC together, that organization has really empowered black people," Huffman observed in an interview in her Sacramento office, a block from the Capitol. "When you talk about Willie and Alice, you have to put that BAPAC piece in there. That's the brother-sister piece that everybody up here doesn't see, but it's very real. In fact, I know Willie more through BAPAC than I know Willie through public education."[41]

Brown got the CTA's money, and he used BAPAC to enhance his clout and promote a new crop of black political leaders throughout the 1980s. Black leaders who owed their political careers to Willie Brown included Maxine Waters, who eventually went to Congress; Elihu Harris, who chaired the Assembly Judiciary Committee before his election as mayor of Oakland;


Gwen Moore, who chaired the Utilities and Commerce Committee; and Marguerite Archie-Hudson, who chaired the Higher Education Committee. Brown also used his growing clout as Speaker to diminish black rivals, particularly Mervyn Dymally.

As Brown's power grew, a younger generation of blacks chafed at their inability to get ahead in politics. Brown was so large and powerful that there was little room for anyone else to move up in black politics. Compounding the problem, most black legislators and city council members represented uncompetitive districts with large black voter registrations, and it was almost impossible for younger blacks to dislodge them. Willie Brown, as leader of the Assembly, perpetuated the system. A few black leaders began worrying that once Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley ceded the stage, there would be no black leaders of stature around to take their places. Brown, however, was not particularly sympathetic.

Journalist Herbert A. Sample, a member of that younger generation of African Americans, once asked Brown about such sentiments. "First and foremost," Brown replied, "I'd welcome young blacks to do anything. This generation has not shown a great propensity to be heavily involved. With all of the skills, with all of the ability, with all of the resources available to them, they have got to pick up the mantle of leadership and move it to the next level. This business of spending all of their time buying BMWs and Porsches and Mercedes and houses and joining black ski clubs and all of that kind of stuff, doing the yuppie type activities, is a terrible waste."[42]

Brown discovered first-hand that the job of Speaker included taking unending flak from all directions. While he fought with the NAACP on one front, he was accused on another of "racism" for championing black political rights by saying he would protect black districts during reapportionment.[43] His remarks were nothing more than a restatement of the federal Voting Rights Act, which required protection for the political districts of blacks and other minorities. But some believed he was showing favoritism to blacks.

Brown's loyalties to the black caucus occasionally got him in trouble with the rest of the Democratic Assembly caucus. With the 1981 reapportionment looming, Brown remarked that Latinos did not vote and that he would not create a second Latino congressional seat "at the expense of black folk." Speaking at a luncheon of the Black Journalists' Association of Southern California, Brown also said that he would share power with other Democrats and "remain partisan forever and ever and ever." Brown further compounded his difficulties by saying that Dymally and Julian Dixon would be safe enough in Congress during reapportionment, but that Ron Dellums from Berkeley would have "veto power" over the lines of his congressional district.[44] Brown's rivals threw his luncheon remarks back in his face for more than a year.

As it turned out, Dixon, Dymally, and Dellums would all be safe enough. But only one person had power over the congressional lines, and that was Phillip Burton. His first priority was stretching the number of Democratic


seats to the maximum possible. Next was protecting his younger brother's San Francisco district. He even peeled off some of his own safe areas to give to John.

"Should I try to hurt my brother? My brother is Willie Brown's closest personal friend and I got him into politics. I suspect there are few people in the world Richard Alatorre would hold in higher esteem than my brother," Phillip told reporters when pressed about his maneuverings. "If anyone suggests a plan that Willie Brown and Richard Alatorre thought was unfair to my brother, the thing would hit the dust before anybody could do anything."[45]

Phillip Burton said he was just taking care of all his friends in Northern California. "I don't anticipate any incumbents in the North being discumbooberated."

What about Southern California?

"How do I know?" he lied.

In fact, Phillip Burton was collapsing several Republican districts and carving up Anthony Beilenson's safely Democratic Beverly Hills district to make room for Berman and Mel Levine in Washington.[46] Beilenson tried to block the plan through David Roberti in the state Senate.

But the plan was hard for Roberti to oppose; it gave the Democrats lopsided control over the Legislature and the congressional delegation. The congressional delegation went from twenty-three Democrats and twenty-two Republicans to a lopsided 28-17 majority for the Democrats. All of the Republicans' Rose Institute plans went for naught. "I gave them what we agreed," said Brown. "I handed them the money [for reapportionment] . . . and I let Phil Burton rip their hearts out in Congress. We didn't have a deal on that."[47] In the Assembly, the Democrats ended up with forty-eight seats, and a solid majority that lasted the rest of the decade and well into the next. For the Democrats the remap fit together perfectly. Despite the grumbling over its individual parts, the Democrats rammed it through both houses on September 15, 1981, and sent it to Jerry Brown for his signature.

The Republicans began a petition drive to overturn the Democrats' redistricting at the ballot box, and gathered nearly a half-million signatures. The Democrats sued to stop the ballot measure and won a partially favorable decision from the California Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Rose Bird. The court ruled that the 1981 redistricting was valid for the 1982 election regardless of whether the voters approved a Republican-backed initiative to overturn the new districts in June 1982. The decision reeked of partisanship, and conservative Republicans vowed to get even with Bird by removing her from the bench.

Voters approved the June 1982 ballot measure and so required the Legislature to come up with a new plan. Not wanting to take chances with what the Democratic-controlled Legislature would devise, the Republicans qualified another ballot measure, Proposition 14, for November 1982 that


would have given redistricting to a bipartisan commission. The Republicans raised $305,718 to get the measure on the ballot, but they put up only $88,260 to try to get it passed.[48] With the Republicans failing to adequately bankroll the measure, it lost. However, the ballot proposal unleashed a barrage of Republican-sponsored ballot initiatives on reapportionment.

Under Chief Justice Rose Bird's rulings, all the Legislature needed to do to get court approval was change Burton's redistricting plan around the edges. The new plan, like the old, met the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act by giving racial minorities distinct districts. The few significant changes were wrought by Maxine Waters, whom Brown had made the new Elections and Reapportionment Committee chairwoman following the elections. Waters proved formidable, and even Phillip Burton backed down and acceded to her demands for changes to some congressional lines.[49] The new plan was again approved by the Legislature and sent to Governor Brown. He signed the bill on January 2, 1983, one of his last acts in office. The gerrymander was in place, and the Democrats' grip on the Legislature would go unchallenged for the next decade. The stage was set for a new crop of Democratic legislators to join Willie Brown in Sacramento.

Nearly lost in the midst of the reapportionment struggle was John Burton. He hated Washington, his second marriage was over, and he had developed a cocaine addiction.[50] His behavior was erratic in public and worse in private. He missed nearly 40 percent of the votes in the House. He forgot to show up at the House subcommittee he chaired, gave ranting speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives, and got into roaring arguments with his older brother. Compounding everything, Phillip constantly treated his younger brother as if John could not function politically without him, and he belittled his accomplishments. The two brothers could not connect.

Phillip tried using Congressman George Miller in Washington and Willie Brown in California as go-betweens. "I became a peacemaker between John and Phil," remembered Brown. "There were bitter disputes between the two. And I would make connection. But 'til Phil's death, I still enjoyed a very close, warm working relationship with Phil. I spent probably as much time as anybody with Phil every time he came to California. Every time he came home I would eat one meal with Phil."[51]

When reporters heard the rumors of John Burton's drug use and confronted him, he said he had "piles." Finally, friends took John Burton to Bethesda Naval Hospital and saved his life. Two days before the March filing deadline, John Burton announced he was retiring from Congress. He told waiting reporters at San Francisco Airport that he "just wanted to come home."[52] Notes in Phillip Burton's files indicate that Willie Brown talked with John Burton before he made his decision.[53] Phillip Burton, however, did not know his younger brother was quitting until George Miller told him.


The Willie Brown style took Sacramento and San Francisco by storm. Stories about his expensive clothes, beautiful women, and slick cars were legion. He turned heads one day by showing up for work driving a Rolls Royce. He had borrowed it from a law client. He said it was too big and a bit of a clunker. He bought $1,500-to-$2,500 tailored Italian suits from his haberdasher friend, Wilkes Bashford, and said his body would "reject a Plymouth"—a jab at the car Jerry Brown used in lieu of a state limousine. Brown threw out his Brioni suits once a year, giving them to a charity thrift shop. Owning a pre-worn Willie Brown suit was very chic in San Francisco. Willie Brown was possibly the only politician in America featured in GQ magazine, and possibly the only one whose closet was ever the subject of a photo spread.[54] His fashion tips were constantly turning up in magazines and newspapers. And he once explained why he was chronically late to meetings: "If I'm scheduled to meet you at 8, and I'm 10 minutes late, it's because I'm in the third outfit."[55]

He drove new Porsches and Jaguars and a rare V-12 Mercedes, price tag $125,000. He dated movie stars, and he attended parties with his wife on one arm and a girlfriend on the other. Above all, he loved to be noticed. On his wall in his law office was a poster quoting himself: "The only thing worse than being misquoted is not being talked about at all."

It was only half in jest that lobbyists complained that the Legislature did not settle down to legislating until after Willie Brown attended the Academy Awards.

At home he enjoyed tinkering with stereo systems, building ever more elaborate sound systems. He delighted in seeing the first run of a movie before anyone else. One weekend in the mid-1990s in San Francisco he saw Red Rock West and loved it so much that he told his friends in Sacramento that they had to see it. When he discovered it was not playing in Sacramento, he borrowed the film from the San Francisco theater where he saw it, and then rented the Crest Theater, two blocks from the state Capitol, for a private showing for two hundred of his friends.

Brown flaunted his lavish lifestyle. Brown's parties were bigger than life. In March 1982 Brown staged "Oh, What A Night!," a political fund-raiser like no one had ever experienced before.[56] The bash set a new standard for excess. Held at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel, mounds of food and drink were piled high on tables, each with a distinctive theme. In one corner was "Japantown," while in another was the "Coit Tower Bar." In the farthest corner from the door was "Willie's Soul Food." The guests were dazzled by nonstop entertainers including Melba Moore, the Dick Conte Trio, and the Emmitt Powell Gospel Elites. With Willie Brown, fund-raisers were no longer a dreary chore but a hot ticket. Even


his Republican opponents came to his "events." He threw another lavish party just for his favorite women, filling a banquet hall and giving each a present. He went to the Academy Awards each year. All but the starchiest were dazzled by the new Speaker and delighted in his company even as they castigated him in public.

Soon the rest of Sacramento came to be amazed with the Willie Brown style. His staff and colleagues threw him a party for his forty-eighth birthday.[57] Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz gave him a black silk jacket from the Palomino club in Hollywood. The jacket was embroidered: "The Speak-ah." Jerry Brown came and gave Willie seven silk hankies from Wilkes Bashford's store in San Francisco. Willie Brown got laughs when he stuffed the hankies into seven different pockets.

His flamboyance did not escape notice from the eastern media. The CBS weekly program 60 Minutes profiled Brown for a segment in 1984 shortly before the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. "For those who never heard of Willie Brown," reporter Harry Reasoner began, "he's probably the most influential black politician holding elective office in the country."[58] Reasoner observed that Brown's power was second only to that of the governor, but "when it comes to using that power with style, there are those who say Willie Brown is second to none."

Brown gave a dazzling television performance in his interview with Reasoner. "You really have to have more than just a good heart," Brown told him. "You also have to have some style. You're competing with Frank Sinatra. You're competing with Richard Pryor. You're competing with some real heavyweights, both in and outside of the field of politics. California is a media state. California is an image state. California is where it happens. You really—you really have to project something."

He loved being Speaker, and he loved showing off, particularly to other politicians. Sometimes they got the last laugh. Soon after Brown was elected Speaker, Congressman Julian Dixon came to pay a courtesy call. He and Brown whisked down an elevator located two paces from the Speaker's office to the Capitol garage below, where a driver with limousine was waiting. Brown ushered Dixon inside the car with a flourish. "He had not only a telephone, he had a Highway Patrol direct line and all of this stuff," Dixon remembered.[59] Brown ordered the driver to take them to the Firehouse for lunch. But the motor would not start. "He was fit to be tied. I thought it was funny," Dixon said.

Brown's political footwork was not always dazzling either. The state budget negotiations in 1982, the last with Jerry Brown, did not go well.[60] The problem was not with the governor, who barely cared as he was busily running for the U.S. Senate, but with David Roberti, the other Democrat in Sacramento who considered himself at least the equal of Willie Brown. Setting a pattern for the years ahead, the Roberti-led Senate grew tired of endless


haggling over the budget and left town before the final $25.2 billion plan was approved. During a three-day showdown with Roberti, Brown tried to get the Senate to go along with using $235 million in reserves for education. Roberti held firm, and the budget plan was approved without the extra money for schools.

Brown was so furious at being beaten on the budget by the Senate that he threatened retaliation against all Senate bills in the Assembly. Roberti managed to smooth things over with Brown, but it was the last time for a long while that the Senate would call the shots on the state budget. From then on, Brown was the one using strong-arm tactics to force the Senate to go along with his budget. However, there was little time for rehashing the budget battle. He had to gear up for the 1982 election, his first as a legislative leader. The outcome would determine whether he would remain as Speaker.

That election turned out to be the most important of the decade, setting in place the leaders and electoral trends that would dominate California politics until the mid-1990s. It brought the political demise of Jerry Brown, who was beaten for a U.S. Senate seat by San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson. It also saw the election of Republican George Deukmejian as governor. Although he was less than charismatic, Deukmejian proved to be a solidly enduring figure through the rest of the decade. The election was not all bad for Democrats. Leo McCarthy was elected lieutenant governor, beating Republican Carol Hallett, who left politics for good. The voters also reelected Democrats Jesse Unruh as treasurer and March Fong Eu as secretary of state, and they elected a new state attorney general, Democrat John Van de Kamp.

Willie Brown rose to his task of protecting the Democratic Assembly majority, but he did little to help the Democratic nominee for governor, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a mild-mannered black politician and ex-UCLA track star. Bradley had been a participant in the 1966 Bakersfield summit of black political leaders, and a member of Willie Brown's 1972 convention delegation pledged to George McGovern. Bradley narrowly lost to Deukmejian, and a low turnout by black voters contributed to his loss. Some statewide Democrats later condemned Willie Brown for not doing enough to help Bradley.

However, Brown was preoccupied with protecting his Democratic majority in the Assembly, and just as critically, proving that he was capable of running a complex election machine. He needed both to win the election for his Assembly members and to show that he was the crucial cog in the machine. Brown was confronted by some powerfully ugly moments during the 1982 election. Republicans tried to use him as a scapegoat, and they made thinly disguised references to the color of his skin in doing so. Slick brochures mailed to voters smeared Democratic Assembly candidates for their association with Brown. Photographs of Brown in the brochures showed him with a dark Afro haircut, although he had been bald for a decade, and with a sneer that made him look one step


removed from Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.[61] The text usually painted Brown as the "boss" of Democrats, and Democratic candidates as his foolish tools. Ethics aside, the tactic was of questionable value. Sacramento Bee political columnist Martin Smith revealed that "some hardheaded Republican campaign strategists don't think it swung many voters over to the GOP's side."[62] Nonetheless, Republican strategists repeated the tactic over and over, election after election, as the decade wore on.

To counteract the Republican onslaught, Brown raised $2.2 million in 1982 for Democratic Assembly candidates.[63] He showed himself a formidable fund-raiser in his first campaign as Speaker, raising more than twice what Leo McCarthy had raised in the tumultuous 1980 Assembly campaigns, and McCarthy's war chest in 1980 was twice the previous record for Assembly Speakers. Brown got the money from the one place he could get it—corporations and trade associations seeking to influence legislation. Roughly 60 percent of Brown's campaign funds in 1982 came from businesses and political action committees in Sacramento, while only eleven cents out of every campaign dollar came from an individual donor. Brown was building the speakership into Willie Inc.[64]

Predictably, the Republican smears infuriated Brown. "They sent out a sheet with blood flowing off and they still sent them out with my picture on them," he declared.[65] When the Legislature returned to Sacramento for its 1983–84 session, he dumped Republicans from their committee chairmanships. If there was any doubt left in anyone's mind, the deal that had made him Speaker was now officially dead.

The Democrats also maintained their majority hold on the congressional delegation and the Legislature. Burton's and Alatorre's reapportionment plans worked. The Democrats won forty-eight seats in the Assembly, and the class of 1982 became the backbone of the house leadership well into the 1990s. The new Democratic members included Lloyd Connelly, Johan Klehs, Tom Hayden, Rusty Areias, Gary Condit, Bruce Bronzan, Jack O'Connell, Phillip Isenberg, Burt Margolin, Charles Calderon, Lucky Killea, and Steve Peace. All were chairing committees before long. The Republicans elected that year were also notable, such as Doris Allen, who went on to succeed Brown as Speaker in 1995. Other Republicans in the class were Bill Jones, who was elected secretary of state twelve years later, and Frank Hill, who also left office in 1994 sentenced to a federal prison for bribery.

Willie Brown emerged from the 1982 election with his power solidified and with a firm hold on the job he had coveted for so long. Although few yet realized it, he was rapidly becoming the most powerful Democrat in California. And over the next eight years he would have a most improbable partner with whom to share power.


previous part
Chapter Twenty— Drawing Lines
next chapter