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Chapter Twenty-Four— The Ends of Power
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Chapter Twenty-Four—
The Ends of Power

I'm the ultimate negotiator, period.
Willie Brown
May 24, 1994

Frank Fat's is the smallest building on its block. The garish pink Chinese restaurant is sandwiched between a parking garage and an old brick office building a short walk from the California State Capitol. Up the street is the stately Sutter Club, long a bastion for the powerful. Down the street are rows of glass-and-steel office towers housing lawyers and lobbyists. Those who regularly drink and dine at the place refer to it simply as Fat's.

Inside, behind Fat's heavy oak door, is a long, narrow bar. Fat's was remodeled in the mid-1980s to give it a fashionably slick art deco look. Most of the tables are in the rear, but off to one corner is a booth with a brass plaque memorializing it as the favorite table of James "Judge" Garibaldi, who until his death in 1993 was the king of Sacramento lobbyists. He represented a most lucrative set of clients: the liquor and horse racing industries.[1] The best dish in the house is not Chinese, but a New York steak smothered in onions. The powerful do not come to Fat's for the food. They come for each other.

Not long ago, on any given night when the Legislature was in session, a blue Cadillac, its motor idling, was usually parked in front of Fat's. Sitting inside the car, monitoring a radio and a telephone, a state driver would be waiting for Willie Brown, the Speaker of the California State Assembly. It was on one such sultry night, September 10, 1987, that nine representatives for four economic mortal enemies assembled in the private dining room upstairs at Frank Fat's.[2] All of them were experienced political insiders and were well paid for their connections.


Those sitting around the table that night included the preeminent lobbyist of his day, Clay Jackson, a gruff, six-foot seven-inch three-hundred-pound cigar-smoking fixer for the insurance companies who eventually would go to prison on a federal corruption conviction; Don Green, a lobbyist for the California Trial Lawyers Association, the trade organization representing litigation attorneys; Jay Michael, a lobbyist for the California Medical Association, the avowed enemy of the trial lawyers; Kirk West, the powerful president of the California Chamber of Commerce; and Gene Livingston, chairman of the Association for California Tort Reform, a front group for a variety of industries.

Also sitting at the table were several former Capitol figures who had crossed the street to use their power for private clients: Steve Merksamer, former chief of staff to Governor Deukmejian, who was now representing manufacturers; Merksamer's law partner, Robert Naylor, the former Assembly Republican leader; and Kathleen Snodgrass, former chief counsel to Speaker Brown, who was now working for the trial lawyers.

The four economic powerhouses broadly represented at the table that night—insurance companies, trial lawyers, doctors, and manufacturers—were also among the biggest campaign contributors to state legislators in California. Each had spent years fighting expensive battles against each other in the Legislature and at the ballot box, with little to show for it but ever increasing campaign contributions to candidates and initiative campaigns. That their representatives were having dinner together was a momentous event in California.

As plates of chicken wings and pea pods were shuttled to the tables, the representatives of the warring industries scribbled on legal pads, trying to work out a political truce. They were joined by Democratic state Senator Bill Lockyer and eventually by Willie Brown. The night wore on, and Brown shuttled between the tables, talking with each participant, probing for trouble spots. The talks nearly broke down when the trial lawyers balked over a detail. "Are you going to trust me?" Brown bullied them. "Are you going to let me deal for you?"[3] Brown closed the deal.

A few hours later the group slipped out of Frank Fat's with a cloth napkin upon which was scrawled in ink the outline of a political peace pact. Each side agreed to observe a five-year cessation of hostilities in return for supporting compromises representing the most sweeping changes in California's civil liability laws in decades.

The "napkin deal," as it came to be called, was the final touch in complex negotiations painstakingly conducted over a series of days at Fat's restaurant and in Willie Brown's private cloakroom in the Capitol. The napkin itself was penned by Senator Lockyer, a major mediator in the talks. His involvement marked his ascendance as a power player in the Capitol. The napkin was scribbled with legislative shorthand like "non-touchable


w/o mutual consent," "meet & confer, neg in good faith," and "DMZ" for demilitarized zone.[4]

Legislation was prepared in less than forty-eight hours and brought to the Assembly and Senate for immediate votes on the last night of the legislative session for the year. Brown allowed quick "informational" committee hearings but no chance for changes by anyone who was not in the room that night at Frank Fat's. The legislation included a drastic restriction in product liability laws offset by fee increases for lawyers prosecuting medical malpractice cases. Doctors got promises that protections already in place against lawsuits would not be touched. Insurance companies won a reprieve from threatened regulations gaining momentum in the Legislature and won restrictions on when outside lawyers could be hired by policyholders in lawsuits. Most controversial of all, civil immunity was granted to manufacturers of products considered "inherently unsafe," such as tobacco.[5]

Alarmed consumer groups fought for time that night, pleading with weary legislators who were aching for their yearly adjournment. Democratic Assemblywoman Jackie Speier asked in futility why the Assembly could not hold the legislation over for a more careful look when it returned a few months later in January. Speier had been elected the year before, overcoming Brown's opposition to her candidacy in a Democratic primary. Eight years earlier, as Congressman Leo Ryan's assistant, she had nearly died of wounds inflicted by the same Peoples Temple gunmen who murdered her boss on a South American airstrip. Speier was a rarity in the Legislature: a free agent elected without help from any political boss. Her questioning of Willie Brown that night displayed her independence. He took it as a challenge.

"I have the votes on the floor tonight," Brown replied.[6]

Democratic Assemblyman Byron Sher, a Grizzly who was also a Stanford University Law School professor, came to his feet asking for a recess so that the Democrats could at least discuss the deal among themselves in a caucus before voting.

"There will be no more caucuses tonight, Mr. Sher!" Brown growled from his Speaker's rostrum. With that, the legislation was jammed through with a lopsided vote and signed a few days later by Republican Governor George Deukmejian.

For critics of the Legislature, the napkin deal came to symbolize how narrow economic interests dominated lawmaking in California in the mid-1980s to the exclusion of public participation. "The process stinks," complained a bitter Harry Snyder, regional director for the Consumers Union. "It is outrageous to take all these special interests, find them a room in the Capitol, then say the public is not allowed."[7]

But for Willie Brown it was one of his proudest accomplishments, and he called it the high point of the session. He had brought peace, if only for a time, to the seemingly insoluble battle over liability laws. And writing a


new law on a napkin in an upstairs room at Frank Fat's appealed to his sense of showmanship. So proud were Brown and Lockyer that they reproduced the napkin on a large poster, titled "Tort-Mania 1987," and signed it at the bottom and gave copies to their friends. One of the posters was hung above the pay phone at Frank Fat's restaurant.

In fact there was really nothing unusual about the napkin deal other than the theatrical touch of writing it on a napkin (which was Lockyer's idea). The evolution of the complicated pact followed a pattern recurring throughout Willie Brown's career that displayed both his genius as a politician and the limitations of his genius.

Long identified as the protector of trial lawyers—being one himself—Brown was in the unique position of being able to force his allies into swallowing unpalatable concessions to prevent a fate far worse. On the offensive, doctors and insurance companies were threatening a raft of ballot initiatives to trim liability laws to their own advantage unless the Legislature acted on the issue. As the negotiations proceeded, insurance companies ran full-page ads in The Sacramento Bee and posted signature gatherers for ballot initiatives in strategic locations near the Capitol so that legislators would notice.

In a series of speeches and interviews in 1986, Brown signaled his willingness to entertain changes in California's tort system. At the time, the doctors and insurance companies were promoting Proposition 51, an ultimately successful ballot measure to limit civil damages. Brown and the trial lawyers vehemently opposed it.

But Brown also kept his lines of communication open. Significantly, Brown made a speech to the California Medical Association on April 2, 1986. His words foreshadowed the napkin deal. "Let me assure you I don't want to be identified as a knee-jerk trial lawyer obstructionist," he said. "You've been unsuccessful in the legislative process and I am partly, I suspect, responsible for that. You have an absolute right to pursue [Proposition 51] in that fashion. Once that's over, though, I hope you will come back into the arena with me, with the insurance companies, with the trial lawyers, with cities and counties, and sit around and beat ourselves to death with all of our respective interests on the table."[8]

Many of the details of the napkin deal were quietly mediated by Lockyer, who had begun his career in San Francisco working in Phillip Burton's political organization.[9] He had become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he, too, was close to the trial lawyers. "The public is better served when these groups are trying to mend rather than tear the fabric of society," Lockyer explained at the time.[10]


Brown entered the negotiations when the issues became sticky, haranguing the lobbyists when necessary or shutting them away together in his ornate cloakroom just off the Assembly floor. This time the issue was liability laws, but Brown's modus operandi was the same whether it was for negotiations over the state budget, tax laws, the workers compensation system, or education reform. He had used the same method in his earlier career as a civil rights lawyer mediating the sit-in at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel.

Typically, Brown shuttled between warring parties, relaying ideas and proposals but also mastering the details himself and searching for the weaknesses that could provide him with leverage over each participant. In the end, Brown made everyone believe they faced destruction in the Legislature or at the ballot box unless they knuckled under to compromises. "He tells everybody that," said John Mockler, a former Brown aide turned education lobbyist. "You never know, right?"[11]

Brown was a master at retail politics, picking off one vote and one issue at a time. "There are very few people who are going to be able to outdo [me]," Brown boasted.[12] "I'm always interested in negotiating with anybody. You know that. I'm the ultimate negotiator, period ."

But his was a genius that worked best within a narrow set of players; he defined the public interest as the sum total of the interests of all the players sitting around the negotiating table. "I would hope," he once remarked, "I could develop a close relationship with every voter, every potential voter, every pool of voters in the state of California, whether they be [the California Teachers Association] or the Broadcasters Association or the reporters or the lawyers, doctors, or the truckers, or whatever group of people are out there."[13] To Brown, the voters were an amalgam of interest groups that could be pulled, pushed, cajoled, prodded, and won over. To the extent that was true, Brown succeeded. To the extent that voters were something more, he failed.

Brown was not a good wholesale politician; he was weakest at articulating a broad vision to a wide audience. In the television age he was an anachronism. He was a master at the techniques of television and computers to get his candidates elected, but he did poorly on television himself. His was the world of old-fashioned backroom politics. For him democracy worked with compromises carefully built one on top of another. But to those left out, the napkin deal had an undemocratic, almost sinister feel. "The Legislature gave away its authority over laws to some special interest groups," complained Snyder for the Consumers Union.[14]

And in fact the narrowness of the participation in the napkin deal brought a narrow result. Consumer groups vowed to get even, and they did so with the successful passage a year later of Proposition 103, a tangled web of regulations and mandatory rate rollbacks imposed on insurance companies that was far more drastic than anything under consideration in the Legislature at the time of the napkin deal.


Brown's strength was also his weakness. His focus was almost entirely on the inner workings of the Legislature; consolidating power and mastering the intricacies of that narrow world became his all-consuming pursuit. He resisted any and all campaign reforms designed to break his grip on campaign contributions. His repeated torpedoing of reasonable measures resulted in 1990 in the overwhelming success of Proposition 140, an extreme measure that imposed term limits on all state officeholders and contributed to his ultimate fall as Speaker five years later. Term limits, many believed, were directly aimed at removing Brown from power.

Brown's mediation over liability laws came just as the Gang of Five rebellion was building steam. One of reasons he reacted so vengefully was that he viewed them as interfering with his negotiations over tort reform. Brown had been criticized repeatedly for not producing any legislation of any note while Speaker, and now he had a chance. The rebellion seemed to confirm his worst fear, namely, that once he would try to exert leadership on a knotty policy issue, he would end by alienating a major segment of his caucus.

The Gang of Five rebellion, however, also proved what he could get away with. In the years ahead Brown became more emboldened to take policy positions, to use his power for something besides just keeping power. After the Gang of Five battle, Brown steered back to the middle. When Pete Wilson became governor, the two found numerous openings to help each other, particularly with business-oriented legislation. The business break bills reached a fever pitch in 1994, with Brown backing AB 1313, a measure to grant the Taco Bell fast-food chain a tax break. Brown's work on the bill alarmed liberals, but in Brown's view he was taking a traditional liberal position by using government to create jobs.

Brown branched out of the Legislature and used his talents to mediate between teachers and the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1993. With teachers threatening to strike, Brown cajoled both sides, and once an agreement was reached, he coaxed them into lowering their weapons. Brown talked frequently with Helen Bernstein, the explosive head of the teachers union, whenever she felt slighted or betrayed by some detail, and he talked with representatives of the school district when they believed Bernstein was reneging. "It's every week. Every goddamned week," Brown exclaimed after interruption by a phone call from Bernstein. "That is the worst run operation I have ever seen. The world has got no clue. Got no clue."[15]

The agreement prevented what could have been a calamitous strike for Los Angeles that would have turned 641,000 children and teenagers onto the streets with nothing to do. However, the agreement came under attack within hours because parents, rank-and-file teachers, and administrators had been left out.[16]

Brown forced the teachers union to accept a 10 percent pay cut. He pulled other state leaders, especially state Democratic Controller Gray Davis, into


the talks and found an additional $36 million for the financially strapped district to finance the agreement and help it fill a $400 million deficit in its $3.9 billion budget.[17] He succeeded where Republican Governor Pete Wilson stood no chance of success. The key for Brown was his relationship with the teachers union, and that relationship was built on a foundation of campaign money.

Throughout Willie Brown's tenure as Speaker the perception reigned that those invited to the negotiating table were those who provided the most money for his election coffers. It was a perception Brown tried to shake but never very convincingly. "The person who comes to my attention gets the attention," he said in an interview with California Journal . "And one of the ways in which I know you is that I know if you have given a contribution some place and I send you a thank you note. I also know you if you come and ask for an appointment to see me and tell me your troubles. And I respond."[18]

By the mid-1980s his work in the Legislature and his work in the private world began to blur. Even as he wielded power as Assembly Speaker, he maintained his San Francisco law practice. Brown's ethics were repeatedly called into question throughout his years as Speaker, and he was investigated by the State Bar of California, the Fair Political Practices Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sacramento-based reporters steadily wrote stories highlighting his private deals and the connections to his public office. Sacramento Bee pundit Dan Walters, whose column was syndicated in many California newspapers, was the most unrelenting, and the enmity between the two grew.

Journalists also highlighted Brown's representation of the Southern Pacific Development Company and its Mission Bay development plan on the San Francisco waterfront. In the late 1980s Brown served as Southern Pacific's lawyer while the development company was lobbying in Sacramento on twenty-nine separate pieces of legislation. The company paid Brown's law firm $58,000 in 1987 alone, but Brown denied there were any trade-offs.[19] Eventually Southern Pacific split up, and Brown remained lawyer for the development firm under its new rubric as Catellus Incorporated.

It looked all too obvious that wealthy developers were hiring him not for his legal expertise but for his political connections. The clearest example came when he represented Underwater World, a $1.3 million aquarium on Pier 39 proposed by a New Zealand firm that had successfully built a similar tourist center in Auckland. Brown was paid more than $10,000 in 1988 by Underwater World developers as they worked their way through City Hall getting permits. When the nonprofit Stienhart Aquarium and the California Academy of Sciences objected to the commercial project, Brown neutralized the opposition by sponsoring AB 1580 to get the nonprofits a $2 million subsidy for their own development plans. Complaints were lodged with the state bar association against Brown, but the bar concluded there was no conflict of interest.


"I did not know of any business my clients had before the Legislature," Brown testily replied when pressed by reporters. "When I do, I disqualify myself. There is no way to ask everybody."[20]

The Underwater World developers' political connections went beyond just Willie Brown. One of the investors, Fort Worth billionaire Robert Bass, and his brothers were clients of the San Francisco investment firm owned by Richard Blum, the husband of Mayor Feinstein. Feinstein endorsed the project in 1987, and her support helped speed the project on its way.[21] Although they were conservative Republicans, the Bass brothers gave to Feinstein's 1990 Democratic gubernatorial campaign.

Despite his years in the public eye, Brown was remarkably thin-skinned about journalistic scrutiny, lashing out at reporters as "scumbags" and even calling a few "racists" for questioning his business deals. In his view the press had turned a blind eye to white politicians amassing wealth on the side but were now questioning him for doing the same thing. Brown failed to appreciate that a new generation of journalists had arrived in Sacramento; they had never known Jesse Unruh or any of the white politicians who had grown rich while holding public office. The new reporters considered themselves equal-opportunity muckrakers, and Brown's position at the pinnacle of power made him the most inviting target.

Brown finally blew up at the Capitol press corps. He tried to circumvent the resident reporters by contracting with a cable television company in 1991 to start live broadcasts of Assembly sessions. Brown then removed newspaper reporters and commercial television news crews from the floor of the Assembly. For decades the press had worked at desks, assigned by seniority, along the aisles on the floor of the Assembly. Reporters could come and go as they pleased with almost full privileges of the floor. Brown, simmering over reporters digging into his private business deals, ordered the desks removed, and he consigned the reporters to the back of the Assembly in a gallery reserved for staff and visitors. Reporters still had more access to the floor than their counterparts covering Congress, but the insult was clear.

The press corps and Brown faced off at a press conference in February 1991. Everyone acted ugly. Brown said he was clearing his house of "clutter," especially "despicable" underdressed reporters and photographers.

"You are in the back where you belong," Brown declared.[22]

The reporters lashed back that with their salaries, they could not afford to buy Brioni suits.

The feud simmered, and in April it blew up again. Reporters had redoubled their digging into Brown's private law practice.

"The process of inspecting Willie Brown defies description," Brown complained at a press conference that soon spun out of control. "That is absolute bullshit."[23]

Reporters pressed him about a stock option he held in a medical supply company, and Brown lashed back: "You spend full-time trying to denigrate


Mrs. [Minnie] Boyd's oldest son," he declared. "Most of you have a level of racism that is so subtle that visits itself every day of my life upon me and other black Americans."

Reporters questioned him about what he meant, only further infuriating him.

"It's tough being black, mister," he snarled at a reporter for the Los Angeles Times .

Asked if he would have escaped scrutiny if he had not been black, Brown replied, "Maybe the title of Speaker prompts it. But in part you and I know it has something to do with the color of my skin and the success which I allegedly enjoy."

Brown might have saved himself much grief if he had hired a strong press secretary and had listened to him or her. But Brown went through a succession of press secretaries, burning them out. It was widely acknowledged in the Capitol that one of the worst staff jobs in the building was serving as Willie Brown's press secretary. Only toward the end of his speakership was a tacit détente reached with the press corps, and only then did the job of Brown's press secretary become bearable.

Brown generally had an easier time with San Francisco Bay Area newspapers, even getting paid for promotional advertisements for the San Francisco Chronicle . The one exception in his hometown was the weekly Bay Guardian , which consistently ran hard-hitting and original pieces about his private business practices and his public duties.[24]

Brown came under heavy scrutiny in the press for his campaign fund-raising practices. The numbers spoke for themselves. As the tort wars raged during the first six years he was Speaker, Brown received a total of $215,056 in campaign contributions from the California Trial Lawyers Association.[25] In addition, the trial lawyers organization gave a total of $652,032 to Brown's Democratic Assembly colleagues while giving only $84,050 to Republicans during the same period. The trial lawyers enjoyed a special relationship with Brown, and he repeatedly protected them from the more drastic proposals floating in the Legislature to trim liability laws. The lawyers, however, were victims of their own success, and they came under attack at the ballot box because of initiatives sponsored by their economic rivals. "They've been so selfish in expanding liability, expanding damages and making a profit from the misfortune of others, that they're going to lose all that they've jealously protected," predicted Assembly Republican leader Patrick Nolan in 1986.[26]

Sensing that Nolan was right, Brown moved to force the lawyers into accepting the concessions in the napkin deal. At the same time Brown defended his relationship with the lawyers: "If the doctors who contribute to me almost as handsomely as the trial lawyers, and if they have an issue that's without merit, their contributions would have no effect on how I vote or may not vote. . . . I don't think any contributor anticipates having any influence.


I think what most contributors would anticipate is having a fair hearing and having access in helping to elect people who exhibit those qualities."[27]

Asked at the time if he excluded from participation those who gave nothing, like consumer groups, Brown defensively replied, "We don't expect anybody to give money to be heard. You may."

Many of those close to Brown said he was well aware of who was donating and who was not. John Mockler, who had met Brown during the Auto Row protests in San Francisco, said Brown was "very cognizant of money." But, Mockler insisted, "Willie Brown can't be bought because everybody's in there. He's not 'if you give me money, I'll do something.'"[28]

There was a degree of cynicism in Brown's contribution-gathering. He took from one and all—tobacco companies, teachers, lawyers, health care organizations, bankers, oil companies, trash haulers—anyone who paid. For the most part, who they were and what they stood for never seemed to matter. "Whether you're on the side of Citibank or the Bank of America on interstate banking—who cares?" said Mockler, reflecting the view that permeated Brown's political operation. "It's a bunch of fat white guys spending a lot of money wrestling with each other where nobody ever wins or loses. A lot of issues in the Legislature that the public and press think are 'corrupt' are really simply economic interests fighting for advantage with each other. The results don't matter one way or another."[29] The lobbyists and their clients, of course, took another view.

In Mockler's view Brown did his finest work when money, politics, and his deepest held beliefs converged. A few issues did matter to Brown, and among the few was education. Brown was the chief political protector of the California Teachers Association, the largest labor union in the state, with 250,000 members. In turn the CTA showered Brown and his allies with millions of dollars in campaign contributions and consistently provided him with armies of precinct workers during elections.

But Brown's relations with the teachers had not always been so strong. Pivotal to that relationship was the CTA's 1984 hiring of Alice Huffman as the union's political director. The CTA made a shrewd choice: Huffman was a former legislative aide to Maxine Waters and doubled as president of the Black American Political Association of California, an organization founded by Willie Brown in 1979.

Within three months of her appointment, Brown called her to ask for a meeting at a private office to talk about an upcoming political fund-raiser.[30] When she arrived, other lobbyists were awaiting their turn. When she was finally ushered inside, Brown got to the point.

"I need $25,000 from CTA and I want it by a certain time. Can you help me?"

"Well," she replied, "I'm kind of new but I'll call over and see what I can do."


When Huffman called her bosses at CTA headquarters in Burlingame, she got a quick response. "We can get the money, but it has conditions," she was told.

The condition was simple: Brown had to come and pick up a check for $25,000 himself. Huffman then relayed the request to someone on Brown's staff, who balked.

Two days before his fund-raiser, Brown called Huffman:

"Alice Huffman, where's the money I asked you for?"

"You didn't get my message?"

"What's the message?" Brown replied.

"That you pick it up. I think I've called your office ten times and I've been told you can't come," she told him.


Brown immediately told her he would pick up the check at CTA head-quarters. And he gave her a piece of advice: "Don't ever take a 'No' from me unless you are talking to me personally."

Brown's relationship with CTA was solidified in the 1986 elections. Over-whelmed with requests for campaign contributions form state lawmakers, Huffman turned to Democratic Assemblyman Richard Floyd, a blunt-speaking Democrat who was tight with labor unions.

"You really want to do something smart?" Floyd told her. "Then go and talk to Willie about it. And let Willie direct you. Empower Willie."

She arranged a meeting with Brown, who jumped at the chance to channel the CTA's campaign contributions.

"He said, 'I'll educate you.' And he did. He got his staff and he told me about all the races and which ones he thought he could win and where they were putting their resources and where they weren't putting them. This was highly confidential stuff," Huffman recalled. The CTA became an integral part of Brown's election machine. As it would turn out, the CTA's relationship with Willie Brown became crucial when a new governor came to town.

Pete Wilson and Willie Brown never much cared for each other. Their antagonism went back to when they were colleagues in the Assembly twenty years earlier. Both had reasons for distrusting the other.

Brown had helped San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein in her race for governor in 1990 against Wilson, and indeed went far above and beyond the call of partisanship. Brown helped convince her to stay in the race when she was close to dropping out in the Democratic primary, and he then provided her with squads of his top staff to brief her on California issues.[31] She won the Democratic primary and came close to beating Wilson in the general election.


Brown's motives in helping Feinstein were more than just fealty to an old political friend from San Francisco. Brown was tired of hearing that he had squandered his powerful position on nothing. He wanted solid legislative accomplishments of his own, and as he saw it, his best chance at moving his own agenda was in having a Democratic governor. The 1990 election was possibly his last opportunity to become a policy Speaker like Jesse Unruh or Leo McCarthy.

"I tried everything I could to get Dianne Feinstein elected governor," Brown explained a few years later. "Can you imagine going all of these years living under Republican governors? Just think of how many friends I'd have currently as judges in this state. Just think of how many people who would have performed the regulatory functions that they perform. The power of Willie Brown is really rooted ultimately in his associates—his extended family—and a Democratic governor would afford me the opportunity to do what fourteen years of holding this job should have [afforded]. I should be able to die and go to my grave with folks still holding office somewhere with whom I have a chit. That's not the case. I want a Democratic governor desperately."[32]

Not only did Feinstein lose, but the voters approved Proposition 140, imposing term limits on legislators and statewide elected officials. The measure was aimed directly at doing what Republicans had failed to do: end Willie Brown's speakership. The new reality hit legislators like a slap on the face that November. All sitting Assembly members would have to leave office no later than 1996. Most unforgivable for Willie Brown, Pete Wilson had endorsed Proposition 140.

And now Wilson was coming to Willie Brown's town. Wilson had hardly set foot in Sacramento since leaving in 1971 to become mayor of San Diego and then to enter the U.S. Senate in 1982. The chemistry between the two was not promising.

Wilson and Brown could hardly have been more unalike if they had been born on different planets. Wilson was reared in Illinois, and knew only comfort his entire life. His father was a successful advertising executive who dabbled in local politics. Wilson had the finest education money could buy: Yale University and then the prestigious Boalt Hall law school at the University of California, Berkeley, institutions that in his day were closed to Willie Brown.

Wilson had none of the flamboyance of Willie Brown, nor the genteelness of George Deukmejian. Wilson's idea of a good time was singing show tunes around the piano with friends, sipping single-malt Scotch, smoking a good cigar, and telling dialect jokes. Wilson did not care for the rough-and-tumble of legislative politics, with all its oily deals and boozy personalities. He preferred sterile position papers, and he calculated everything in terms of how it would advance his own career.


After a stint in the Marine Corps, Wilson got his start in politics as an eager young advance man for Richard Nixon, carrying his bags and opening car doors for him. Wilson considered the brooding Nixon his political mentor, and he and Bob Dole were the only two politicians giving eulogies at Nixon's graveside. Wilson then came under the wing of Herb Klein, Nixon's communications director, who, when not serving Nixon, ran the conservative Copley Newspapers in San Diego. Klein convinced Wilson to set up base in San Diego, and groomed him for political office. Wilson was elected to the Assembly, and then mayor of San Diego. Wilson ran for governor in 1978 but fared poorly. He wanted to run for governor again, but party leaders convinced him to run for the U.S. Senate in 1982, and he won, beating Jerry Brown for the job.

But Wilson was a lackluster senator. He was junior to Democrat Alan Cranston, and he was in the minority party. Nor was Wilson much of a legislator by temperament; he preferred the role of the executive. To a constituent complaining about one of his votes he wrote, "To hell with you."[33] As a campaigner, however, Wilson was formidable. He kept the same team with him for most of his career, and they were intensely loyal in return. Bob White, his chief of staff, remained a bachelor, devoting his life to Wilson's career. Otto Bos, a former newspaper reporter, shaped Wilson's image, giving him a human dimension that hid his jagged edges. Self-effacing, Bos joked that he told his children bedtime stories about Pete Wilson. The third leg of Wilson's team was George Gorton, his master campaign strategist who stuck with him through every election. When Leo McCarthy challenged him in 1988 for the U.S. Senate, Wilson and his team blew McCarthy off the political map.

Wilson's chief strength was in striking a pragmatic political course in keeping with the tradition of his mentor, Nixon. Wilson was hawkish on foreign policy and tenacious in bringing defense contracts to California, although he did not need much help with Ronald Reagan in the White House. On domestic policy, Wilson mirrored his state: he voted for environmental protection bills opposed by most Republicans and was pro-choice on abortion.[34]

Two years after Wilson had won reelection to the Senate, Governor Deukmejian announced he would retire and not seek a third term. Party leaders turned to Wilson and asked him to leave his Senate seat and run for governor. Their reasons were simple: they wanted to prevent another Phil Burton–style Democratic gerrymander in the 1991 reapportionment. The key was in holding the governor's veto pen over whatever remap bill was engineered by Willie Brown and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Right-wing Republicans were aghast at making Wilson governor, but pragmatic party leaders understood that the only way to keep the governor's office out of the hands of the Democrats was with a moderate.


Wilson, who had barely caught his breath from his 1988 campaign, again stumped the state furiously, capitalizing on the popularity of Proposition 140, the term limit initiative, and narrowly beat Feinstein to become governor.

During his inaugural celebrations in January 1991, Wilson tried to extend an olive branch to legislators. He hosted a dinner for them and brought with him songwriter–political satirist Mark Russell for entertainment.[35] The Sacramento politicians roared their approval at being lampooned by the national punster. "I've been on a tour of state legislatures," Russell equipped from his piano. "Mostly they are a bunch of fat white guys pretending to hurt each other." Willie Brown laughed loudest of all. He sat with the new governor at the head table. As the evening wore on, each offered toasts to the success of the other. The evening was a smashing hit.

But the first private meetings between the new governor and the veteran Assembly Speaker were rocky. Brown tried to signal cooperation by telling the governor, "I won't orchestrate against you," on one of Wilson's first policy initiatives, SB 92. The bill established a $700,000 fund for welfare case management, allowing the state to claim federal matching funds of $13 million.[36] But Wilson was wary of Brown and other legislative leaders. He was used to dominating the San Diego city council and expected legislators to show him the same deference the council members did. Wilson also had major trouble within his own party, and he was soon frustrated by Ross Johnson, the blustering Assembly Republican leader. Johnson opposed nearly everything Wilson put on the table that did not cut government and taxes. Senate Democratic President Pro Tem David Roberti was not much easier during meetings in the governor's office. Roberti was testy about his position and was always looking over his shoulder at Willie Brown. The only legislator for whom Wilson had any affinity was Ken Maddy, the wealthy Senate Republican leader who was married to Norma Foster, owner of the San Joaquin Valley chicken empire bearing her name.

Wilson was preachy in meetings with Brown and other legislative leaders. "We need to get serious and the conference [committee] is not serious," he hectored at the start of the May 14, 1991 meeting.[37] In the view of the legislators, Wilson had an infuriating tendency to bring up new issues just as a deal seemed imminent. During budget negotiations in 1991, Wilson agreed to $7.7 billion in tax increases in his first budget.[38] His agreement on taxes came relatively easily. But then at the behest of Kirk West and William Campbell, the powerful heads of two business trade associations, Wilson demanded last-minute changes in the workers compensation system as his price for signing the budget bill. The 1991 budget was held up for sixteen days into the new fiscal year until Brown and Roberti agreed to minor concessions, and Wilson backed away from a major revision of workers compensation.

Wilson was never comfortable sharing the stage with Brown, and he did not seem to understand Deukmejian's principle of sharing equal credit with the Assembly Speaker. Brown felt snubbed, and he repaid the insult tenfold:


he once hovered in a Capitol hallway chatting with a young blond woman within view of reporters and the governor's press aides although he was late for a meeting with the governor. The news of his socializing duly got back to the governor.

As Wilson took office, he was confronted with a huge budget deficit. The California economy had taken a sharp downturn, and revenues were plummeting through the floor. Deukmejian had tried to get legislators to agree to massive budget cuts before he left office, but he would not agree to their demands for tax increases. As a candidate Wilson avoided committing himself to a no-tax pledge, and legislators correctly surmised they could make a better deal with him than with Deukmejian, and one that would avoid the most drastic cuts to schools and welfare programs.

Despite the personality differences, Wilson and legislative leaders agreed to roughly equal parts cuts and tax increases in the 1991–92 budget. The $7.7 billion tax hikes were the largest in state history, and Wilson had a tough time winning enough Republican votes to get the two-thirds majority necessary for passage. Brown and Roberti delivered nearly all of their Democratic members. The fifty-fourth vote in the Assembly came from Republican Paul Horcher after a phone call from Wilson. Horcher saved Wilson's first budget, but he was repaid with hostility from his fellow Assembly Republicans.

The problem was that the $7.7 billion in tax increases did not balance the budget. The recession was the worst in sixty years, and the California economy went into free fall. The federal spending for military bases and in the defense industry that had fueled the California economy throughout the Reagan years was shrinking. California had had more than its share of such federal largesse, and the recession that came after was deeper in the state than in the rest of the country. As legislators and the governor began their annual budget negotiations in 1992, they faced a mind-boggling $10.7 billion hole in the $57 billion state budget.[39] A major part of the problem was in the basic structure of the budget itself.

Most of California's budget was locked before lawmakers and the governor ever got a crack at allocating it.[40] Half of the budget automatically went to schools because of Proposition 98, a ballot measure approved by voters and backed by the California Teachers Association to give schools (and teachers) a minimal level of financial support. Health and welfare accounted for another one-third of the budget, and that spending was also automatic, driven by caseloads and entitlements. Without changes in law, legislators and the governor had little real discretion in making cuts. Wilson pointed out that he could fire every state employee and it still would not come close to filling the state's budget hole. He proposed cutting $2.6 billion from schools.[41] Wilson said he would "break arms if it's necessary" to get his budget.[42]

The California Teachers Association's cultivation of Willie Brown soon bore its richest fruit. The teachers were alarmed at Wilson's proposed cuts,


and Huffman asked Brown to block them. Not even Huffman realized how far Brown and the Assembly Democrats were willing to go to stymie Wilson's plan. Although the Senate voted for the cuts, the Brown-led Assembly refused to pass Wilson's proposed budget. The constitutional deadline for passing a budget came and went, and still the Assembly would not vote. The new fiscal year began on July 1, and still the Assembly would not vote.

"I think there was a belief that they could somehow get past public education, and, particularly, Willie Brown," the Speaker once told reporters who gathered outside the governor's office every day waiting for his arrival. "What I've got to avoid in this thing is becoming Pete Wilson's Willie Horton. I'm not going to let it be Wilson versus Brown. That's where he would like to get it."[43]

Brown's comments notwithstanding, the battle was soon reduced to Wilson versus Brown. Both men took it there.

Through the heat of a scorching summer, the Assembly sat doing nothing, and Brown and Wilson faced off with ever angrier insults. California was technically bankrupt, unable to pay its bills, and the stalemate ranked as the longest and worst fiscal crisis of any state in American history. Wilson prognosticated that the Democrats would oust Brown as Speaker because they would become fed up with the impasse.

"People who have preached my demise have more bleached bones occupying cemeteries," Brown replied.[44]

Both Brown and Wilson missed their respective party national conventions that summer. For Wilson it was bigger loss. As the governor of California, Wilson could have been a major player in Houston. As it was, the Republican convention took on a harsh, right-wing tone. Moderate voices such as Wilson's were missing. As for Willie Brown, his son, Michael, played host for him at a New York party—again called "Oh, What A Night!" It marked his son's debut in a new role in Brown's political life.

As Wilson continued to lambaste Brown, he only solidified the Democratic caucus. Wilson became the common enemy. "He's nuts," pronounced Assemblyman Steve Peace, one of the Gang of Five now firmly back in the fold with Brown.[45]

Wilson began to lose the war for public opinion. He stumbled badly with a proposal to cut the budget by making a generation of five-year-olds wait a year before starting kindergarten. The teachers union moved quickly to capitalize on the coldness of his idea by organizing a group of five-year-olds to show up at Wilson's Capitol office and protest, posing of course for television and newspaper cameras. Wilson quickly dropped the proposal, but the damage from such a half-baked idea cast him permanently as the Uncle Scrooge of California.

Finally, sixty-four days into the impasse, Wilson gave up and dropped his proposed school cuts. For Brown's supporters it was his finest moment as


Speaker. "People understood what we were fighting about," said Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz of Los Angeles.[46]

Wilson, however, continued to assert that the Democrats would oust Brown as Speaker following the November election, thus proving his position on the budget had been right all along. "I didn't know the governor had a vote in that," said Katz. "I don't see Pete Wilson dumping Willie Brown. Pete may want to believe all his problems are wrapped up in Willie being Speaker, but I think Pete's problems go a lot deeper than who is Speaker."

Vindication for Brown and his caucus on the budget impasse came in November 1992 when the Democrats increased their majority by one seat to forty-seven in the eighty-member Assembly. Wilson's approval ratings in the polls plummeted to the lowest ever recorded for a California governor. Wilson had badly misread the resolve of the Assembly and personalized it into an argument with Willie Brown. He failed to understand that Brown gave his Democratic members, and even some Republicans, cover from the political heat until a compromise could be arranged that protected schools from deep cuts. Once the compromise was in place, Brown cajoled his colleagues and produced the required fifty-four votes—a two-thirds majority—to adopt the budget.

"I spent more time explaining Wilson to my caucus and keeping them from going off the deep end," Brown explained shortly after the fight was over. "My members wanted me full-time to destroy him. They wanted me to attack him. They wanted me to draw the line. They wanted me to tell him where he could get off. And I wouldn't do it."[47]

Brown played a complicated, multilevel role during the budget stalemate. It was exactly the same role he played when as a lawyer he negotiated a settlement with civil rights demonstrators and the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in 1964, and later when he negotiated between Governor Ronald Reagan and Senator Randolph Collier on perks and parks in the state budget in the 1970s. During the 1992 budget stalemate Brown let his Democratic colleagues vent their anger but he kept their wilder ideas in check. At the same time he impressed upon the Republican governor that he could not win on a number of issues, especially cutting the school budget.

"People want to point to a Wilson-Brown engagement. It wasn't," said Peace. "The Speaker ultimately had to prevail on members to vote contrary to what they really wanted to do to get the fifty-four votes out. Part of what leadership is all about is having some sense about when to negotiate and when to hold fast. He ultimately made those calls."[48]

But by gambling everything on protecting the schools from deep cuts, Brown took a huge risk that summer. He could not foresee that he would maintain his majority in November, or even that his Democrats would hold fast long enough to break Wilson. Was it just the teachers, their money, and partisan politics that motivated Brown to block Wilson's proposed education


cuts? Those closest to Brown, including Alice Huffman and John Mockler, believed there was something more at work: a convergence of politics and Brown's inner convictions. It is doubtful that Brown would have blocked passage of the state budget for as long as he did, with all the enormous political risks, for other political patrons no matter how well staked financially they were with him. "His instinct is with education as the only positive salvation," said Mockler, who advised Brown throughout the crisis on education issues. "I think that both politics and instinct meet there."[49]

To Alice Huffman, Brown was motivated as much in the summer of 1992 by his bitter remembrance of "the gap that he had in his background" in a small, rural, racially segregated school in Mineola, Texas. His bleak school had no indoor plumbing, the books were discards from the white high school, and the children were frequently forced to miss school to pick cotton. "Most African Americans should be strong advocates for public education. The one way we can help our community is by helping schools," Huffman reflected.[50]

Brown's legislative record as Speaker was, on its face, skimpy. He did not carry many bills of his own; there were so few that it was always noticed and was always embarrassing when one of his bills was defeated regardless of how minor the issue. When he pushed through a 1985 bill requiring motorists to wear seatbelts, he boasted that it was his greatest legislative accomplishment. Brown's claim was hardly the stuff of history books.

Brown suffered by his propensity to live in the present and scheme for the future. He was curiously unable to engage in much critical introspection. No matter how many times he was asked about his legacy, or his chief accomplishment, he could not come up with much of an answer, or even a canned answer.

He did, in fact, have a legacy. For nearly fifteen years Brown was the central figure blocking Republican efforts to repeal core Democratic programs. The Republicans in the Assembly despised him for it, considering him the major impediment to their conservative agenda of downsizing government and imposing up-by-the-bootstraps economics. They were right; he was their major impediment, and he was proud of it. When he finally departed Sacramento in 1996, Republican bills began winning speedy passage in the Assembly.

Willie Brown's chief policy accomplishment as Assembly Speaker was in saving education from worse damage than it might otherwise have suffered at the hands of Republican governors. He could not boast, like Jesse Unruh, that he had built a state, but he could boast that he had saved the schools from being even worse than they were. Brown protected his core constituencies—poor people and teachers—and in the schools the interests


of both constituencies converged. But while he kept education and welfare money flowing, he did nothing to shake up systems that were gradually crumbling and badly in need of reform.

For better or worse, Brown also protected the welfare system from radical cuts and overhauls. He allowed a modest workfare bill, GAIN, to win passage under Deukmejian. Both Deukmejian and Wilson proposed drastic cuts in welfare payments to single mothers and their children and in Medical benefits to the aged. The trims came, but they were always smaller than proposed by the Republican governors, and always because of Willie Brown.[51]

He also worked on behalf of his black constituency. He was an ardent defender of affirmative action, and he pushed bills through to Deukmejian's desk giving minorities and women a percentage of all state contracts. He helped Republican Patrick Nolan win passage of enterprise zone bills giving preferential tax treatment to businesses in slums. The enterprise zone bills represented a convergence of liberal and conservative ideology, but they also attracted the attention of the FBI. It was one such bill, drafted for a dummy company, that was used as bait in the federal investigation of corruption in the Capitol.

Brown's best work was in negotiating legislative deals for others. His agenda was generally clear: expand liberal Democratic programs where he could, and soften the blows when a program seemed headed for certain extinction at the hands of moderates and conservatives. In a few cases the results were beneficial to all.

Sometimes Brown switched sides. After years of blocking any changes in the workers compensation system, which rewarded corrupt doctors and lawyers and cheated employers and injured workers out of benefits, Brown rammed through a series of reforms to Wilson's desk. Brown did so by running over some of his top campaign contributors, particularly lawyers. The bills bore the names of legislators other than Brown. He worked best when others could share in the credit, a lesson he learned from Jesse Unruh. Someone else's name was usually on the bills.

"I'm seldom, if ever, asked about what they should or should not do. I'm usually asked about how should they do it," he explained once. "Maybe I say 'yes' to my membership too often."[52]

Brown was sometimes his own worst enemy, and not just for saying yes to his members. He looked sleazy, for example, when he sponsored a bill in 1990 to delay for two years imposition of a recycling fee on glass container manufacturers.[53] Brown carried the measure, AB 4298, at the behest of the Glass Packaging Institute of Washington, D.C., which had given $8,000 to Brown's campaign funds. Brown's bill ran headlong into another measure, AB 1490, authored by Assemblyman Byron Sher, who was Brown's chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and was the Assembly's leading environmentalist. Sher's bill would have closed a loophole in the recycling law


and imposed the fees on the glass industry. The bills arrived the same day in the Senate Appropriations Committee, resulting in an embarrassing display of differences between Brown and a key member of his caucus. Sher wisely avoided a public confrontation, and Brown dropped his bill.

Even if Brown was not a convinced environmentalist, one of his most lasting legacies was in protecting the environment. During the 1980s the California Legislature approved the most far-reaching environmental legislation in the nation. The state adopted a Clean Air Act that was far more stringent than the federal law.[50] The 1988 California law required phasing out smog-causing automobile emissions early in the twenty-first century and gave strong enforcement authority to local air districts. Nolan hated the bill and opposed it at every turn, but Deukmejian signed it. Legislation cleaning up rivers and underground water supplies also won passage. The most important environmental bills for two decades were signed by governors Deukmejian and Wilson and were authored by Democratic legislators Byron Sher of Palo Alto and Burt Margolin of Los Angeles. There could be little doubt who made such successes possible: Willie Brown. In the end, it was his role as the "Members' Speaker" that set him apart from his predecessors.

"I would like to be remembered for two or three things," he told an interviewer from California Journal in 1986, at the height of his power. "One, I'd like to be remembered as one of the best and most effective persons to ever hold this position. I'd like to be remembered by every member who served with me, both in my capacity as a member of the Assembly and as their Speaker. I'd like to frankly be thought of positively by all of those guys and women. I'd want them forever to have me as a friend. And then, finally, I'd really like to have the columnist at the end write that I somehow brought dignity to the job. That's what the headstone should say."[51]


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