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Aces of the Assembly

Two speakers ruled a chamber with an iron hand. Why did they crave power and how did they use it?


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

On the night of July 30, 1963, the Democratic speaker of the California Assembly, Jesse Unruh, did something that his closest advisers had warned him not to do. He locked the Republican minority members in the chamber and left them there all night. He said the Republicans had promised him a vote on the state budget, and he didn't want to let them go until they had cast it. They said they wouldn't vote until they saw the details of a state school finance formula that the speaker had worked out.

The crisis didn't last long. By noon the next day, the Republicans had found out what they wanted to know, cast their votes, and the budget became law.

But virtually everything Unruh had been warned about came to pass. Already known throughout the state as "Big Daddy," a 280-pound autocrat who liked to play rough, Unruh acquired a reputation as something worse -- an irrational, egomaniacal bully. That reputation was to plague him throughout his remaining quarter-century in California politics; it probably cost him any real chance to defeat Ronald Reagan for the governorship in 1970.

Largely overlooked in the lockdown controversy, however, was the reason why Unruh refused to show the Republicans the school finance formula. He didn't want them to see it because it shifted large amounts of money from relatively prosperous districts to impoverished urban ones. The speaker considered this as something close to a moral imperative. And he feared that any publicity about the numbers could wreck the deal he had put together to enact the entire budget.

The story of the lockdown is as good a parable on the uses of political power as one is likely to find. Jesse Unruh was trying to promote a desirable end. He felt he was justified in using extraordinary means to accomplish it. As things turned out, the means he chose were so clumsy and distasteful that he himself was the ultimate victim. But the larger question remains: When is it appropriate for a legislative leader to bend the rules for what he personally considers a good cause? When is he using power merely to demonstrate that he has it? And where do we begin to draw the line?

At the time of the Sacramento lockdown, a young black Democrat named Willie Brown was launching his campaign for a seat in the chamber that Jesse Unruh ruled with an iron hand. It was to prove successful. On the day of his swearing in, Brown did something unusual and by conventional standards, unwise: He voted against Unruh's reelection as speaker, in retaliation for Unruh's refusal to back him in the campaign just concluded. As a result of Brown's gesture of defiance, he was given a tiny office outside the cafeteria and a seat in the chamber next to the most notorious racist in the legislature.

But Brown didn't stay estranged from his leader for very long. In fact, he came to idolize Unruh and emulate him. He studied every trick in the speaker's repertoire, and vowed to use power Unruh's way -- in the public interest. He wanted to run the Assembly himself one day and exceed Unruh's eight-year tenure holding the gavel.

By 1980, Brown was running the Assembly. By the time he left to campaign for mayor of San Francisco, he had been speaker for nearly 15 years. As long as term limits are in place in California, it will be impossible for anyone to match that.

By any standard you might wish to impose, Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown are two of the most compelling characters in modern legislative history, and two of the most sophisticated students of political power. By coincidence, two books about them have appeared in print in just the past few weeks. One is "Big Daddy," a provocative biography of Unruh by Bill Boyarsky, who covered him for years as a reporter for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. The other is "Basic Brown," a collection of Willie Brown's memories and insights dictated by him and organized into book form by a veteran San Francisco newspaper columnist, P.J. Corkery.

Odd as it may seem, the two politicians have some important things in common. Both grew up in rural poverty in Texas and arrived in Southern California as teenagers, burning with drive and nursing resentment against the elites they feared might stand in the way of their ambition. As legislators, both had a weakness for women and nightlife, although they presented themselves in different ways: Brown taught himself to become a bon vivant, possessor of an immense and stylish wardrobe and a connoisseur of fine food and wine. Unruh, a charming man when he wanted to be, never quite lost -- or wanted to lose -- the rural Texas crudeness that Brown spent his adult life seeking to erase.

Both men took it as a fundamental goal to improve life for those they considered deprived of a fair chance to rise in California society. Both were invariably sharper than anybody they happened to be debating on any given day. And both were willing -- eager, sometimes -- to bend the rules of the Assembly in order to push through what they wanted.

The interesting question, decades after the fact, is this: As these two politicians accumulated power, did they remember what it was they had promised to use it for? Or did they turn cynical and merely begin using it for its own sake?

Many of the best stories in Boyarsky's book on Unruh seem in the end to revolve around a similar theme: borderline tactics, all invoked in the interest of a discernible moral purpose.

In 1959, as chairman of the Assembly's Ways and Means Committee, Unruh was determined to secure passage of a strong civil rights bill -- no small decision for a man who represented an overwhelmingly white blue-collar district in Los Angeles. The Assembly passed the legislation, but the more conservative Senate refused to budge. As the session ground to a close, Unruh threatened to strike every Senate bill from his committee's hearing schedule, forcing the legislature into chaos.

It was, by the standards of the time, an ungentlemanly political act. But the Senate blinked, and the Unruh Civil Rights Act became law, banning racial discrimination against customers "in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever." At the time, it was the strongest state law of its kind in the country.

Then there was the question of legislators' pay. Unruh wanted to create a full-time, well-compensated legislature in which members were less susceptible to the financial enticements of oil, tobacco and liquor lobbyists. He wrote a provision allowing the legislators to set (and thus steadily increase) their own salaries. But that provision had to meet voter scrutiny, and appearing on a ballot all by itself, it would never be approved. So Unruh hid it in a much larger package of broad constitutional revisions.

The only problem was that the state attorney general, Tom Lynch, decided to label the entire package as "a measure to raise legislative salaries." Unruh called Lynch and explained: "If you let it stand ... you're not going to get anything out of this legislature as long as I'm around here." Lynch changed the wording. The measure was approved, and creation of the full-time legislature was ready to begin. There is room for disagreement on whether this was a good or bad thing. But it defines the spirit of Jesse Unruh rather precisely: He believed the ends justify the means. But he always knew what the ends were supposed to be.

One turns to the memoirs of Willie Brown, Unruh's protege, expecting political sagas of a similar stripe. Given that Brown dictated the book himself, one expects tales glorifying Brown's achievements as a public servant. They aren't there.

Willie Brown goes into voluminous and enthusiastic detail about how he schemed to acquire power, maintain power, reward his friends, punish his enemies and keep his party caucus in control. He did all these things with a tactical brilliance that Jesse Unruh, were he alive, could only admire.

In 1980, when Democrats held a clear majority and two other candidates were fighting for the speakership on equal terms, Brown started prospecting for votes among the minority Republicans, co-opted a handful of friendly Democrats, and squeezed into the office in a surprise attack. Fifteen years later, when Republicans had won a 41-to-39 majority and everyone expected Brown to be deposed, he pulled a remarkably similar move. He persuaded one Republican renegade to back him, ruled from the chair that another GOP member was ineligible to vote, and became speaker of the Assembly for the eighth and final time.

But what did all the cleverness and instinct for power produce? Brown is embarrassingly weak on that score. He devotes one 12-page chapter in his 350-page book to substantive accomplishment, focusing on gay rights, public school funding and disinvestment in South Africa's apartheid regime. But it's pretty thin stuff. In each case, Brown's own words suggest that others did most of the heavy lifting; he stepped in to close the final deal.

Brown is aware of the perennial criticism that his only interests were process and power, not lasting accomplishment. "Some have criticized my years as speaker has having been without an agenda," Brown admits in his book. He considers this criticism unfair. Yet it's hard to reach the end of the book without suspecting that the criticism was basically accurate.

As a politician, Willie Brown was a brilliant student. He learned many of his predecessor's most valuable lessons. He just didn't learn all of them.

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