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Chapter Twenty-Two— Willie Brown Inc.
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Chapter Twenty-Two—
Willie Brown Inc.

In many ways, the Speaker of the Assembly, in pure politics, may have more power than the Governor. . . . Willie has an awful lot of power, and none of the headaches of being governor.
Ed Meese
Chief of Staff to Governor Ronald Reagan, 1967–1975


He would stay in that job for the rest of his life if he could. He would give up making the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars, he could get out in the private sector to stay in that job. He loves that job. He loves being the center of attention.
Steve Merksamer
Chief of Staff to Governor George
Deukmejian, 1982–1986


No one could top Willie Brown for sheer extravagance.

In July 1984 Brown threw the most lavish bash in the history of national political conventions.[1] The Democrats came to San Francisco to nominate former vice president Walter Mondale for president, but Brown made sure that he was the most memorable event of an otherwise dreary presidential campaign. Brown's party was again called "Oh, What A Night!" after the bash he threw in his first term as Speaker. This time, however, no hotel ballroom was big enough. Brown rented the expansive Pier 45, just west of Fisherman's Wharf on the waterfront, and he sent ten thousand personal invitations.

Willie Brown's party was a huge logistical undertaking. Brown chartered seventy-four buses to shuttle delegates, reporters, and other politicos back


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and forth between the George Moscone Convention Center and Pier 45. When his guests stepped off the bus and onto the pier, they found a miniature redwood forest, scale replicas of the city's greatest landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower, and all the beer, wine, and liquor they could consume. The party throbbed to music on six elaborate stages, featuring the likes of the legendary Jefferson Starship and Tower of Power rock bands, produced by San Francisco rock promoter Bill Graham. The invitations were so hot that not even former president Jimmy Carter could get enough tickets. The former president asked for one hundred and got only ten.

"It's unbelievable. It's out of hand," Brown gleefully exclaimed. "Everybody in the world is trying to get into this event."[2] The pier was so crammed with people that firefighters, fearful of calamity, stood by with fire extinguishers. The out-of-town guests and media were flabbergasted at Willie Brown's extravagance.

The party cost $250,000 to stage, but not a cent came out of Brown's pocket. Brown raised the money from corporations, trade groups, and others with business in the Legislature. The food and booze also came free of charge: California wineries delivered a truckload crammed with one hundred cases of wine. San Francisco's best eateries, the finest on earth, provided delicacies to match. "I am hell-bent on enjoying every minute of my life," Brown proclaimed in an interview with GQ magazine. "So I do not mistreat myself. I make very few sacrifices. I live my dreams."[3]

Not everyone was impressed with Brown's stupendous excess. David Roberti peevishly stayed away, giving his ticket to a Burbank city council-woman. The prickly Senate leader was in a snit over Brown listing himself on the invitation as "Speaker of the Legislature." Roberti fulminated that the Legislature had two houses and Brown was Speaker of only one. "You should bill yourself accordingly," Roberti huffed in a letter to the Speaker.

Roberti was technically correct; Brown was the leader of only one house of one branch of state government. But nobody that night cared about Roberti's civics lesson, much less his pride. In the world of politics, there really was only one Speaker of the Legislature, and that was Willie Brown. He was the most powerful politician in the Capitol, and arguably in the entire state. Willie Brown was more than that; he was the P.T. Barnum of California politics, the best show in a state that relentlessly produced bland, blow-dried political leaders.

Brown's flamboyance, however, hid another reality. The bashes were one more method for Brown to spin his web of power, tying other politicians, interests groups, campaign donors, and power brokers to himself. Lobbyists, corporate executives, and union officials paid for everything so that they could don a tuxedo or a formal gown and rub elbows with Brown and his friends. Brown was allegedly "treating" them to his party, and everyone played along with the facade. The end result was the same. Those who wrote


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checks expected, and got, the attention of the Speaker and a place at the negotiating table when the party was over. Brown got their money and used it to fuel an election machine that kept his friends and allies elected to the Assembly. His friends, in turn, kept him elected Speaker.

The whole edifice was based on a simple principle: keeping Assembly members happy. As long as Brown could keep forty-one members happy, he could remain Speaker. As long as he was Speaker, the checks kept coming, and Assembly members remained happy.

"Don't ever misread me—ever," Brown once said in the middle of a challenge to his leadership. "I always have forty-one votes. Always."[4] Few understood or appreciated how accurate he was.

Keeping the members happy only started with getting them reelected. Like a small-town preacher, Brown called it "tending to the flock."[5] His was a small congregation of eighty, and he knew everything about each member. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, who was energetic, who was lazy. He knew their appetites for work and play, food and sex; he was their father confessor, their uncle or brother, and the ultimate fixer of any problem. He would go to extraordinary lengths to tend to their individual needs. Artie Samish, the boss-lobbyist of an earlier generation, had once boasted, "I am the governor of the Legislature."[6] Brown could fairly make the same boast as long as he had forty-one members on his side—any forty-one. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, one of Brown's harshest critics, accurately observed: "Brown functioned like a Chicago ward heeler, dispensing favors to his flock and making it clear that his continuance as Speaker and his party's control of the Assembly were his two highest priorities."[7] Assemblyman Tom Hannigan of Fairfield, who served as Brown's Democratic majority leader, put it more succinctly: "If he could please your self-interest, he controlled your broader conduct."[8]

But there was another side to Brown as well. He could, and would, punish his enemies ruthlessly. As Brown's power grew, Terry Francois, his former law partner and mentor from the old days, noted in awe: "He engenders fear like you wouldn't believe. I have just become enthralled at the way he wields power. I don't know a politician in San Francisco that dares take him on."[9]

Willie Brown had an arsenal of political weapons at his disposal, and the longer he stayed Speaker, the bigger the arsenal got. The weapons started with the formal rules of the house. Brown presided over the twice-weekly sessions of the full Assembly, and his parliamentary rulings were absolute law. By comparison, the state Senate was run by a five-member Rules Committee, which diffused the power of the Senate's leader, Roberti, the president pro tempore. Brown could directly manage the flow of legislation, frustrate opponents, and help his friends.


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"The speakership would be powerful even if Willie didn't hold it," observed Jim Brulte, the last Assembly Republican leader to serve concurrently with Speaker Brown. "But you couple the structural power of the speakership with someone who is as bright as Willie Brown and you have a powerful institution."[10]

The art was in knowing when to do what. Theoretically, the eighty members of the Assembly were answerable only to the voters of the districts they represented. But to be effective as legislators, Assembly members were very much dependent on the Speaker. "When I first got the job (of majority leader), I thought it was important to spend a lot of time with members," said Tom Hannigan. "I finally realized that the real heat center was the Speaker. And there's nothing you can do to change that. If members really want something, they know where to go."[11]

Every Assembly staff member was ultimately hired or fired by the Speaker. To the consternation of Republicans, Brown even reached down into their staffs and exerted his authority over hiring and firing.[12] Every square inch of Capitol office space, every desk, every telephone and fax machine, every district office was assigned by the Speaker. Offices, cars, secretaries, and legislative aides were all dispensed by the Speaker for everyone, Republican and Democrat alike. And what the Speaker gave, the Speaker could take away—and give back again. "You ought to understand the environment in which you are operating," said Brulte. "And I've read the rules of the Legislature. And the rules say that he gets to do just about what he wants. Now whether I think it is right or not is academic."

That was no accident. Brown wrote the rules, and as long as he had forty-one votes, he could make the rules stick. That meant the first choice for everything went to Democrats.

"I think Willie Brown has been Speaker for thirteen years because he works overtime figuring out how to retain loyalty from Democratic members," observed Democrat Patrick Johnston, who served for a decade in the Assembly representing a Central Valley district. "Some of that is committee assignments, some of that is staff, some of that is office space, some of that is where you park your car, some of that is the more personal things he does for members. He's found doctors for some, lawyers for others. He's done lots of things for members. I mean, he's a 'Members' Speaker.'"[13]

Brown kept his members happy by serving as a lightning rod for thunderbolts from opponents and pundits, a role often lost on governors and the public. He absorbed blame for them. During a record-breaking stalemate in 1992 over the state budget, Brown endured a daily drubbing from Republican Governor Pete Wilson and newspaper editorial writers. Little appreciated at the time was that Brown was giving his colleagues—from both political parties—cover until a budget compromise could be forged. "If you can shield them from the political attacks, you should do it," he explained.[14] Brown


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was the ultimate winner, particularly in 1992 when Wilson's poll ratings took a dive and Brown picked up one Democratic seat in the November election.

The Speaker did favors, big and small, for his members and their families regardless of their party affiliation. Brown found ingenious ways to become the dispenser of favors. When Assembly members began demanding tickets to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Peter Ueberroth, the chief organizer, was distressed over what to do. He called Brown, who told him to ignore the demands.[15] The tickets could go through the Speaker's office, and both Brown and Ueberroth were happy.

"In my job as Speaker I'm like the chief administrative officer of the Legislature," Brown once explained. "And in that capacity I do things to make this body function."[16]

That was an understatement. Brown lined up defense attorneys for Assembly members under federal investigation. Phillip Ryan, who shared a law office in San Francisco with Brown, was tapped to represent Democratic Assemblywoman Gwen Moore during a federal grand jury investigation into bribery. Moore was cleared, although one of her aides, Tyronne Netters, was later indicted, convicted, and sentenced to prison. When Democratic Assemblyman Frank Vicencia ran into trouble with the Fair Political Practices Commission, staffer Bill Cavala was dispatched to talk it over with the agency.

Brown also built up a reservoir of goodwill among a handful of Republicans. When the daughter of Republican Assemblywoman Cathie Wright, who later became state senator, received one too many traffic tickets in 1988, Brown arranged for a defense attorney to represent her and telephoned Municipal Court Judge Herbert Curtis III fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to take the bench in the case. Brown asked for leniency and the judge put Wright's daughter on probation. The frustrated prosecutors charged that Brown had acted unprofessionally, and they issued a ninety-seven-page report backing up their allegation that Brown's telephone call was "legally improper." But the State Bar declined to discipline Brown.[17]

The criticism was worth the pain for Brown. By having a group of Republicans more loyal to him than to their party leaders, Brown had accurate intelligence on the workings of the opposition and assurance that the Republicans could not overthrow him. "I think we have a man who is really brilliant in the use and exercise of power," Brulte remarked. "Particularly at times where his caucus is not totally united, he has a vested interest to see to it that our caucus is not totally united."[18]

Each election year, the Republicans focused their campaigns on smearing Democrats for their association with Willie Brown. But in Sacramento the Republicans for the most part put on a different face when they were around Brown. "I've been so vilified over the years by Republicans, but only for reelection purposes, not because they really dislike me," he explained in a 1994 interview. "It's hard to find a Republican in our house who really genuinely


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dislikes me. It's hard to find one who legitimately would want anybody else as Speaker if they couldn't have a Republican."[19]

Brown's main act was his election machine. That he had an election machine was not unusual. Other Assembly Speakers before Brown were adept at raising campaign funds. Jesse Unruh raised plenty of cash and ran his machine with a collegial group of legislative colleagues nicknamed "Unruh's Praetorian Guard." Unruh coined the adage "Money is the mother's milk of politics," and he dispensed money to keep his friends happy. But no Speaker before Brown so completely centralized the campaign apparatus or made it so completely the focus of one man's ambition. Brown had followers, but never a "Praetorian Guard" of cronies like Unruh's.

Brown co-opted the Unruh-vintage Capitol lunch clubs. The clubs were dying anyway because new laws had made it impractical for a lobbyist to buy lunch for a legislator. Brown helped give the clubs a shove into oblivion by turning his old Mice Milk lunch club into an official Assembly Democratic caucus luncheon held on Tuesdays.[20] Attendance was mandatory. Each Assembly member kicked in $100 from campaign funds every few months for the caucus lunch fund. Using campaign funds was an indirect method to get the lobbyists to pay for lunch with the added benefit of lobbyists not coming to lunch. The lunches provided a private sounding board for the Democrats to talk about legislation and politics and knit themselves together as a caucus. Brown usually sat in the back and listened, offering an observation when needed. Mostly the lunches gave him a barometer for gauging the political temperature of his Democratic colleagues from week to week.

Brown rarely held to a regular schedule, and those with appointments often waited for hours before getting in. Assembly members always had first crack at his time, with or without an appointment. "Every member knows they have unlimited access," he said. "So you never see a member's name on my (scheduling) card, yet I see approximately thirty members every day, so my schedule means almost fucking nothing."[21]

There was really nothing secret to any of Brown's methods. He required Democratic Assembly members with relatively safe seats to regularly ante into his election fund, usually in a minimum denomination of $10,000. Those he appointed to chair committees garnered contributions from the industries over which they had legislative jurisdiction and then turned over a portion of those contributions to Brown's campaign fund.[22] Sometimes they were asked to directly give to candidates of Brown's choosing. New West magazine once published an unflattering cover piece about him entitled "The King of Juice" because of such "juice committees."

Those who did not milk their committees adequately were removed as chairmen. He also expanded the size of the two most lucrative committees—Ways and Means, and Finance and Insurance—so that more Democrats would be in a position to soak up campaign contributions.[23] Finance and Insurance grew to nineteen members, and Ways and Means grew to twenty-three, fully


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one-fourth of the membership of the house. The perception steadily grew in the 1980s that Willie Brown had posted a "For Sale" sign on the Capitol dome.

"His legacy is the refinement of the Jess Unruh speakership so that it is the person who has the money who controls the house," said Ruth Holton, the executive director of California Common Cause, a liberal organization that was a continual thorn in Brown's side. "He's the chief fund-raiser, he's the one who has set fund-raising standards which are now higher than ever before. And now anyone who wants to be Speaker has to prove their adeptness at raising money. That now is the main job of the Speaker."[24]

Brown tried to deflect the criticism of his fund-raising practices, but with little success. He held an unusual "Committee of the Whole" hearing of the entire Assembly on campaign finance reforms, and in it he acknowledged that the perception of influence peddling was justified. The problem was that his words were louder than his actions. Republican Assemblyman Ross Johnson quipped, "This committee of the whole is a lot like Al Capone hosting a temperance rally."[25]

Johnson was among the few Republicans who saw the potential of campaign finance reform as a weapon against the Democrats.[26] For the most part, however, the Republicans sought to emulate Brown rather than change the system that kept him in power. Republican efforts at raising money reached an extreme under Assembly Republican leader Patrick Nolan, who built an organization mirroring Brown's. Nolan even assigned Capitol staff as liaisons to specific industries. Nolan was tripped up by his organization, and it eventually led to his indictment and guilty plea to avoid a trial on federal corruption charges, for which he served a prison sentence.

By the mid-1980s Brown was running multiple campaign committees, each with its own funds. Brown hewed to the law by filing regular public disclosure forms about the donors. But the money flowed back and forth between the funds so freely that it was nearly impossible for opponents or the press to follow exactly what he was doing. He was also careful that no contribution could be legally construed as bribery. His associates said he was so exceedingly careful in conversations with lobbyists that the subject of campaign donations never came up.[27] "You never raise money, or have conversations about raising money in the Capitol," said Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg. John Mockler, an old Brown staffer turned lobbyist, once remarked, "I've seen him in rooms where people even hint in a conversation about an issue and a fund-raiser. He stops immediately and sends them out of the room."

He found a way to make fun of those who branded him corrupt, and it was vintage Willie Brown. His friend, movie director Francis Ford Coppola, gave him a walk-on role in The Godfather Part III . Brown appeared for a few seconds in the opening scenes of the gangster movie shaking hands with Mafia don Michael Corleone, thanking him for his campaign contributions and asking for more money for judicial candidates. As soon as Brown finished


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his lines, he stepped to the side and beamed broadly. On the day the scene was shot, Brown told movie-makers that he did not need any help from the wardrobe department; his own expensive Italian-cut suit was more than adequate for the scene. When the movie was released, and Brown was on the Big Screen, it struck many inside the Capitol that only Willie Brown would have had the audacity to mock his critics by playing a crooked politician in a movie—and only Willie Brown could have gotten away with it.

In real life Brown dispensed campaign funds to Democratic incumbents in the most need and to challengers with the best chance of bumping off a Republican. He also kept an eye out for newcomers who could win an open seat for the Democrats. In the 1986 campaigns, for example, Brown interviewed each potential Democratic candidate and then gave the nod to sixteen of them.[28] Brown's chief of staff, Richie Ross, went off the state payroll to oversee the campaigns. The work was lucrative for Ross; he operated three campaign service firms that netted $1.02 million in business for Assembly candidates that year.

Brown's regard for the intelligence of voters was not particularly high. "To win [elections] in this country these days," Brown once said, "you've got to campaign down to a thirteen-year-old's level of mental development."[29]

He tried repeatedly to shake the perception that money ruled everything. After the 1986 elections he called for finance reforms. Greeting his colleagues back in Sacramento at the start of the new session, he said, "The process of special interest groups providing money for political campaigns, regardless of who the special interest group happens to be, had gotten beyond the limits of anyone being able to successfully and accurately say they don't have too much influence."[30] But Brown never followed through with any viable campaign finance reform proposal, and business went on as usual.

The campaign contribution arms race steadily escalated. For instance, in the 1992 elections, winning Assembly candidates received an average of $434,000; Brown raked in $5.3 million to support his candidates that year. The Republican Assembly leader, Bill Jones, was no match, raising a relatively paltry $1.2 million in the same period.[31]

Willie Brown found novel ways to raise money. Brown paid Marlene Bane, the wife of Democratic Assemblyman Tom Bane, $75,000 a year out of campaign funds for staging fund-raising dinners for him in Southern California.[32] Brown also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at his own yearly birthday party in San Francisco. Lobbyists and their clients paid dearly, but at least they enjoyed the evening when first-class entertainers like Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, and the Temptations entertained for them.

The parties reached a frenzy toward the end of every two-year legislative session just as hundreds of bills hung in the balance. In the month of August 1990, for instance, legislators scheduled 112 breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and cocktail parties.[33] It would have cost a lobbyist $51,200 for a ticket to all of them.


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Brown also funneled money to the California Democratic Party, which spent it on voter registration drives in targeted legislative districts. He gave $1.18 million to the party in the 1992 elections.[34] In effect, Brown was a major benefactor for the party and the party was an arm of his machine. In fact, without a Democratic governor, Willie Brown was the real leader of the party; he was the glue that held it together to keep at least one branch of the state government in Democratic hands. Brown helped the state party raise money in other ways as well. Jerry Brown reemerged in California politics by getting himself elected state Democratic Party chairman in 1990. The former crusader for campaign finance reform hosted a breakfast for lobbyists during the last week of the legislative session in 1990, charging them $2,500 each for orange juice and rolls. To make sure the lobbyists showed up, Willie Brown stood at the door shaking hands. "I'm the hook," he proclaimed.[35]

The fund-raising excesses in Sacramento did not escape the notice of federal authorities. Republican leader Patrick Nolan himself secretly asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation in July 1985 to look into Brown's fund-raising activities.[36] Nolan told agents that Brown used a system of "bag bills" in the Assembly designed to "milk lobbyists" for campaign contributions. He could not prove it, but he suggested that agents go undercover and try to trick Brown and his associates into asking for bribes. Nolan indirectly unleashed a lengthy investigation that ultimately hooked himself.

The FBI began secretly investigating influence peddling in 1985, setting up an undercover sting by peddling a bill to see if legislators would demand bribes for its passage. The FBI drafted a bill that would have given a state subsidy to a sham shrimp processing company in West Sacramento. The FBI even went as far as making the sham firm eligible for state financing for minority-owned businesses. The investigation had all the earmarks of targeting Willie Brown, although federal authorities would never say whether he was their ultimate objective. Undercover agents posing as southern businessmen began spreading campaign money around the Capitol, including $4,000 to buy tickets to one of Brown's bashes.[37] The undercover agents tried slipping cash to a Brown aide, who gave it back. Before they were done, federal agents had passed out at least $85,000 in the Capitol.[38] A handful of legislators were caught on hidden videocameras taking or asking for bribes in restaurants or in a hotel room across the street from the Capitol. Many in the Capitol later remarked that the FBI never had a chance of trapping Willie Brown; he never would have been so stupid as to walk across the street to an unfamiliar hotel room to pick up a check.

In August 1988 the FBI blew the cover on its undercover operation with a spectacular raid on the state Capitol. Combing through legislative offices until dawn, agents removed boxloads of records. In the years ahead an assortment of lobbyists, legislative staff members, senators, and Assembly members were indicted, convicted, and sentenced to prison, including Nolan. But no Democratic Assembly member was ever charged, much less convicted.


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After the FBI sting surfaced, many in the Capitol were convinced that Brown was the original target of the FBI, including Brown.[39] The investigation moved close to Brown with the indictment of Mark Nathanson, a slick Beverly Hills real estate broker. Nathanson had raised campaign funds for Brown, and Brown had appointed him in 1986 to a seat on the powerful state Coastal Commission. Nathanson ended up admitting he had solicited $975,000 in bribes while on the twelve-member Coastal Commission, and he agreed to help federal investigators.[40] Prosecution sources said that the FBI was hopeful that Nathanson would provide evidence against Willie Brown, but Nathanson gave them nothing useful.[41] Nathanson was sentenced in August 1993 to four years and nine months in federal prison.

Brown's connections to a huge trash-hauling firm in Northern California were also probed by federal authorities. NorCal Solid Waste Systems was a Brown law client, paying him more than $70,000 in a five-year period and donating $124,000 in campaign contributions to Brown and other legislators.[42] The company held waste-hauling contracts in dozens of cities, including San Francisco. Brown sponsored AB 1853, the Tire Recycling Act of 1989, which provided grants and subsidies for recycling, and it sailed easily through the Legislature to the governor's desk. NorCal, meanwhile, was expanding its recycling operations.[43] Federal agents subpoenaed records from Brown, and a grand jury began investigating and taking testimony from lobbyists. But nothing ever came of the investigation. All told, federal investigators spent nearly a decade circling around Willie Brown. When they reeled in Nolan instead, Brown was not inclined to gloat: "It's been very painful for me [to watch] elected officials go down in flames of impropriety and corruption," he said.[44]

But the perception still lingered that Brown and his organization had dodged a bullet. While his activities may not have been illegal, they were still ethically questionable. He was the largest recipient of tobacco industry donations of any public official in the nation—a total of $600,492 of such donations flowed his way while he was Assembly Speaker—and he championed that industry's cause in the Legislature.[45]

Until the voters outlawed the practice, he was, year after year, the largest recipient of honoraria for making speeches to interest groups. One such speech was to a gathering of tobacco executives in New York in 1990, in which he offered them off-the-cuff advice on how to neutralize local antismoking ordinances by sponsoring a bill in the California Legislature.[46] By the end of the 1980s Brown was being roundly condemned for it by health groups and campaign reform organizations. In 1993 the Assembly passed AB 996, a tobacco industry–sponsored bill that would have preempted local antismoking ordinances. The measure was killed in the Senate. The issue came back to haunt Brown in 1995 when he ran for mayor of San Francisco and his opponents lambasted him for his tobacco contributions.


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To Brown, the origin of campaign money was unimportant. Brown took money not just from the tobacco industry but also from trial lawyers, teachers, bankers, public employee unions, trade groups, and anyone else who wanted to give it to him. He considered accepting the contributions as one more service for his members; he provided them with political cover by putting the funds in his own campaign committee and then passing it along to their campaign funds.

"The Speaker's job is to seal and shield the membership," Brown explained. In his view he would have been dishonest to choose between the donors. "I take it all. I don't have a choice," he said. "If you can shield them from the political attacks as the result of it, you should do it. And you cannot anticipate the one day in your life you might be running for something where this might be problem."[47]

His candidates needed all the campaign money they could get. In his view the only thing offsetting the natural advantage Republicans held with big-business donors was the power of the Speakership. "There's no way any Democrat can get $125,000 from any tobacco industry," Brown said. "I raised a shitload of money. I average four to five million dollars a year. I average seven or eight million dollars in an election fight." Most of the tobacco money, in fact, was funneled into fighting Republican-backed ballot initiatives that threatened the power of all Democrats in the Legislature. Brown said he and Roberti divided up the special interest groups: "I drew the tobacco industry to go raise the goddamned money, and I did my job on behalf of the Senate and the Assembly."

There was more to Brown's power than just collecting money. As he grew more powerful, Brown delegated authority to those he trusted. Soon after Phillip Isenberg, his former assistant, joined the Assembly, he was put in charge of the day-to-day management of the Assembly Democratic campaign apparatus. But Brown kept tabs on everything; there was no detail too minuscule for his attention. "Long before the battle, Willie will nickel and dime you to death on campaign stuff. He's awful, he just drives you nuts," said Isenberg. "But when the battle is really on, there is nobody better. He understands risk-taking, he listens to people, and he makes the decision. Once he is in a fight, he sticks in there forever. He's terrific, just terrific. He doesn't underestimate his opponents, but he doesn't overestimate them, either. Most of us tend to overestimate our opponents and underestimate ourselves."[48]

Willie Inc. drew on top-flight pollsters, graphic artists, direct mail experts, and campaign managers. He looked for economies of scale by hiring the same graphic artists, pollsters, and the like to do several Assembly campaigns at once. Brown was choosy about whom he hired to do campaign work, and he kept tight control over which consultants worked for Democratic Assembly candidates. He tended to pick campaign consultants with experience working


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in the Assembly. More than a few political consultants were resentful over being locked out of such lucrative work. In the mid-1980's Brown relied heavily on Art Agnos's brilliant former aide, Richie Ross, to run many of the Assembly campaigns. Ross became one of the most skillful political consultants in California.

The line between public service and campaign work was blurry in Brown's operation. Brown built a huge staff operation at taxpayers' expense. In 1970, when Moretti was Speaker, the Assembly's budget was less than $3 million; by 1995 it stood at $74 million. Included was a huge bill for the Speaker's Office of Majority Services to help Democratic Assembly members with constituent services, newsletters, public forums, press relations, and other services only one step removed from actual campaigning. Brown centralized constituent services for Assembly members through Majority Services. Brown did not want to leave the vital work to chance, knowing some of his Democratic colleagues were lazy or preoccupied with legislation and fund-raising. Majority Services also operated a state-of-the-art television studio—nicknamed "WBTV" for "Willie Brown Television"—packaging video-feeds featuring Assembly Democrats for local television stations.[49]

During election years many of Majority Services' employees routinely left the state payroll to join the campaigns of Democratic Assembly candidates. The practice was increasingly common for Democratic and Republican staff members in both houses, but nowhere was it more prevalent than in Willie Brown's operation. A sampling of campaign records from the 1986 legislative races showed that seventy-one Democratic Assembly staff members were paid a total of $603,788 by Brown's campaign funds for work in legislative races, far more than for any other legislative leader in either house.[50]

When election time rolled around, staff members in Majority Services were the first to jump off the state payroll, move to Bakersfield or Rialto or Riverside, and organize precinct and voter registration operations. The office had a succession of politically able directors, including William Cavala, Richie Ross, and finally Gale Kaufman, a veteran political consultant with political experience in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. "We do a lot of work that we know that the district offices should be able to do but don't have time to do. And we try to keep a good relationship with their offices," she explained.[51] The state of California paid her $129,000 a year for working four days a week for the Assembly. The fifth day of every week she devoted to her political consulting firm, primarily serving Democratic Assembly candidates.

Brown built a formidably able staff.[52] William Hauck, who had once worked for Moretti, was Brown's chief of staff for a time. Hauck became something of the David Gergen of Sacramento, crossing party lines to work for Republican Governor Pete Wilson in the 1990s. Brown kept several of his old aides from his Ways and Means Committee days close at hand, and they formed the nucleus of his operation. Steve Thompson, who had presided over health and welfare issues at Ways and Means for Chairman Brown, became


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Speaker Brown's chief of staff. Another holdover from the old days was Robert Connelly, who managed the budget, physical space, cars, personnel, and all the other assorted tools legislators needed to do their jobs in the Capitol. Dotson Wilson, who had been Brown's aide when he chaired the legislative black caucus, became the chief clerk of the Assembly and its top parliamentarian.

Brown brought in other friends and mentors from the old days. The Reverend Hamilton Boswell, who had made Willie Brown his youth director in 1951 and had run Brown's first unsuccessful Assembly campaign in 1962, was appointed chaplain of the Assembly. Boswell had retired to Richmond, but at the behest of the Speaker he made the trip twice a week to Sacramento to open Assembly sessions with a prayer. Boswell finally retired as chaplain shortly before Brown stepped down as Speaker in 1995.

Richie Ross served for a time as chief of staff before Brown settled on the even-tempered Michael Galizio, who was comfortable with both the political and the policy assignments that came with it. "Politics are a necessary part of what we all do here," said Galizio. "I think it's important to separate politics from campaigns because there's a significant difference. Campaigns are the things you do on your own time, separate and distinct from the political discussions that affect policy."[53]

Working for Brown was something like working for the family concern. Galizio's wife, Barbara Metzger, was Brown's press secretary. Even after she became a partner in a public relations firm, she continued to offer media advice to Brown and remained an influential member of his inner circle. Brown also hired Gina Moscone, widow of the slain San Francisco mayor, as an Assembly senior assistant, paying her $53,600 a year.[54] Members of Brown's family were also on the campaign payrolls. Brown's son, Michael, worked for his father's campaign committees and produced his father's lavish parties. Brown also put a girlfriend, Wendy Linka, on the campaign payroll, paying her $40,000 in 1986 for fund-raising work.[55] Linka's sister was also on the campaign payroll.

"The only people you can really trust on your campaign committee are your relatives," Brown remarked. "The guys who get in trouble in their campaigns and come to the attention of the Fair Political Practices Commission are people who just have employees."[56]

Many of his closest aides in the Assembly had been with him so long that they may as well have been his relatives. The highest-paid Assembly staff member was Connelly, a former Ways and Means Committee staffer. Officially Connelly was the executive officer of the Assembly Rules Committee, paid $119,000 a year.[57] In reality he was Brown's dispenser of favors and punishment to Assembly members. Connelly did Brown's bidding on office space, staff payrolls, and parking spots. Every telephone, every computer terminal, every box of paper clips had to be ordered through him. Connelly knew every square inch of the Capitol—every closet, every telephone jack,


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every bookshelf. On more than one occasion Connelly accompanied Brown with a tape measure to check an Assembly member's office. Walls were soon moved, expanding or shrinking a member's space. "Interior decorating has long been one of Speaker Brown's less appreciated skills," noted William Cavala, who worked in Majority Services for years and at one time was its director.[58]

Steve Thompson was eventually put in charge of the Assembly Office of Research, ostensibly a nonpartisan policy office for legislators. Thompson soon earned a reputation for devising creative policy solutions that also passed Brown's political muster. Thompson's work finding solutions to one state fiscal crisis after another proved essential to Brown's success in the 1990s. Even after Thompson left to become executive director of the California Medical Association, he remained a crucially important member of Brown's inner circle. Another former Ways and Means aide, John Mockler, became a lobbyist for schools but remained Brown's chief adviser on education.

Working for Brown was never easy. He told a press secretary, "We don't have time for normal bodily functions around here." He could be uncommonly harsh and demanding on staff members, and even worse on those he did not believe were measuring up. He could also be permissive and allow some staff members incredibly wide latitude to speak for him.[59]

Brown's huge apparatus extended into every crevice of the Legislature and beyond into state government. He had dozens of appointees on state boards and commissions, some of them well paid. Each time a new board was created, the Speaker made certain he had at least one appointment.

In the closing days of the Deukmejian administration, environmentalists backed a bill to create a new state agency to manage the state's solid waste disposal regulation. Brown and Deukmejian got together, and by the time they were done, the state's new garbage management board had five seats paying $95,000 a year each.[60] Deukmejian appointed his outgoing chief of staff, Michael Frost, and his finance director, Jesse Huff, to the new board. Brown also got an appointment and gave it to Kathy Neal, the wife of Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, an old friend and former Assembly member.

Brown's web of friends and allies grew larger and larger the longer he stayed Speaker. In the closing days of Brown's tenure as Speaker, Sacramento Bee political columnist John Jacobs dubbed it "Willie Inc."[61]

"Beyond this small army of publicly paid employees," Jacobs observed, "are even larger networks of lobbyists, consultants, former employees, elected officials and former elected officials, friends, law partners and former partners, girlfriends and former girlfriends, appointees to scores of state boards and commissions and others whose relationship with the speaker stretch back over 31 years."

Brown kept grounded with Democratic core constituencies through his members, his staff, and his friends. He relied heavily on Maxine Waters, who served as Assembly Democratic caucus chair from 1984 until her election


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to Congress in 1990. Many found her difficult and quick-tempered, and they nicknamed her "Mad Max," but her importance to Brown was unquestioned. "I was the gatekeeper and the protector of resources and possibilities and opportunities for the constituencies that we all cared about," she recalled. Brown appointed her to serve on the budget conference committee each year, and she served as his eyes and ears. "To know what was going on, and to know how to identify some things, is exactly what Willie needed," she said. "So while he may have had to be in the room with bankers and the insurance guys and the trial lawyers and all of that, he had somebody in the room with the poor people and with women and with children and that kind of stuff."[62]

Brown had no single "gatekeeper." He had many eyes and ears throughout California. He maintained a state office in Los Angeles—four hundred miles from his San Francisco district—with state-paid aides keeping contact with the varied communities of Southern California. Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, considered in the 1990s as the most powerful Hispanic politician in California, was among several politicians who began as Brown aides in his Los Angeles office collecting political intelligence.

"We were gathering a lot of that information so that the Speaker would be able to, you know, enjoy the support of every ethnic group," Molina said. "His goal was very clear: he intended to be Speaker for life. He wanted to make sure that his members that elected him were very happy."[63]

Molina was hired on the recommendation of Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, who left the Assembly for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. Others in Brown's Los Angeles office over the years besides Molina included Marguerite Archie-Hudson, who eventually replaced Waters in the Assembly, and Linda Unruh, daughter of Jesse Unruh. "I think we all recognized very clearly that we're all political," said Molina. "All of us who were in that office were very political. And believe me, I had the same goals as the Speaker did."[64]

After Molina became an Assembly member, her relationship with Brown became strained. She received Brown's favors, but she was extremely ambitious and not easily manipulated. "There are so many incidents," she explained. "The kind of payback that he expects. You know, how he moves around in different groups. And then the demands that he makes and wants back. He buys everybody in, and that makes him powerful."[65]

Brown had no rival for authority over the internal workings of the Assembly. He created committees and appointed the members. If it suited his purpose, he expanded or shrank a committee or replaced its members to obtain a desired vote on legislation. Giving Governor Deukmejian the vote he needed to get his Los Angeles prison bill was among the more public examples. There were dozens of other examples that went unnoticed by the public.

Nor did Brown stand in the way of politically popular bills even when he believed them unwise. The most noted example was the "three strikes,


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you're out" prison sentencing bills in 1994. Four versions moved through the Legislature before one reached the governor's desk. The legislation required life prison terms for three-time felons regardless of how trivial the offenses. Brown considered the bills simplistic in their approach to justice and fiscally irresponsible because they would result in a massive expansion of the prison population. In Brown's view the prison budget would soar at the expense of schools and higher education. But after the kidnap and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas from a slumber party in her suburban Petaluma home, the public overwhelmingly supported "three strikes." Brown recognized that his Democratic colleagues needed to be on record voting for such a bill, so he got out of the way and let the bills come to the Assembly floor despite his opposition.

"An overwhelming majority of the public is in a mind to put people away forever for jaywalking, period," he declared in January 1994 as the issue caught fire. "And I think that's the mentality and the thing that's going to prevail, so I am not going to attempt to be the person that fashions rationality out of this. That's not my role."[66]

As on many issues, Brown's position came down to a cold political analysis about what was best for a majority of his members rather than his personal ideology. What was best for them was ultimately best for him. "The power of the Speakership is holding onto forty-one people," he explained to reporters. The issue that day was "three strikes," but it could have been any issue during the tenure of Brown's Speakership. "I think there is a perception by many members that this crime thing could be the difference between their continuing for the next two years until term limits gets them or to an earlier exit."[67]

The final version of the three-strikes bill was overwhelmingly approved by both houses and signed into law.

Brown used his legislative prowess to protect his members. "He doesn't try to jam us on anything that's not good for our district," said Democrat Delaine Eastin, who served four terms in the Assembly before her election as state superintendent of public instruction. "A lot of people see him as more of an arm twister than he is. He's a lot more of a team captain than he is an autocrat. Willie is the guy you can disagree with and walk away with your head."[68]

Isenberg viewed his old boss as the ultimate pragmatic politician. "He is smarter than anyone else around," said Isenberg. "At a distance all you see is Willie: the hard edges, the sharpness, and a San Francisco legislator who's got to be a lunatic. Right? Well, you get up anywhere close to him, and you understand here is a very sophisticated elected official who understands government, understands the processes, is prepared to compromise and negotiate—and to do so directly, clearly, and specifically."[69]

The ultimate example was the extent to which Brown went to protect Norman Waters, a plodding Democrat who represented a conservative district


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in the Sierra foothills. Brown tried to shore up Waters by appointing him chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, a plum assignment for his farming district. But Waters could not present a bill without a crib sheet. He let lobbyists make the presentations for him and answer questions. When Waters proved unable to block farmworker protection legislation, Brown squashed it for him on the floor of the Assembly.[70] But Waters was undone by his own stupidity, making a speech about his opponent: "He talks about family values. He talks about praying and going to church and all this B.S."[71] The speech was taped and used in television commercials against Waters, and he was defeated by Republican David Knowles, a Christian-right activist.

By the mid-1980s influential Democrats in the Assembly began to believe that Brown had compromised too much for the sake of staying Speaker. "One of the things that people really respected about Willie Brown was that he was someone who absolutely believed in certain things and was going to fight to the end to get them done," Molina reflected. "I think that as he became Speaker, he just had to compromise so much more, because there were so many points of view. He had to buy a little bit from each one. He had to keep everybody happy."[72]

Brown found it increasingly difficult to juggle the competing, and sometimes irreconcilable, political and economic differences represented in the Democratic Assembly caucus. In 1987 the liberals formed a new dining club and began meeting for dinner at the Firehouse restaurant to talk about issues and strategy. The members of the new club were some of the most liberal legislators in the Capital, including Tom Hayden of Santa Monica, the former student radical, and Tom Bates, who represented Berkeley, the leftist-most district in the state. Both represented communities so left-wing that they were often dubbed "The People's Republic of Santa Monica" and "The People's Republic of Berkeley."

"We invited Willie because we did not want Willie to view this as some kind of threat to him," said Assemblyman Tom Hannigan. "Willie came to the dinner."[73] The group soon dubbed itself the "Grizzlies" and began to push Brown and the Democratic caucus leftward. In so doing, the liberals set in motion a new civil war in the Democratic caucus, soon to be made worse by Brown's overreaction. However, it was not the liberals Brown punished, but the moderates who resisted the Grizzlies. Brown's instincts as the "Members' Speaker" began to fail him in the fall of 1987, and it nearly brought him down.


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