The Unsinkable Willie Brown

By Weintraub, Daniel M. | State Legislatures, March 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Unsinkable Willie Brown

Weintraub, Daniel M., State Legislatures

Willie L. Brown Jr. has done it again.

Brown, the wily wizard who has presided over the California Assembly since 1980, won his record eighth term as speaker in the wee hours of the morning of Jan. 24.

Despite having lost his longtime Democratic majority in the November elections, Brown, a San Francisco Democrat, outmaneuvered less experienced Republican leaders to snatch back the leadership job he once seemed certain to lose. Using first finesse and then the legislative equivalent of brute force, Brown, 60, won over a single Republican before expelling another to open the way to victory.

Then, having fought like the dickens to win the job, Brown proceeded to say that the top post had been so weakened in the process that he hardly even wanted it. But he refused to say when he might step down.

Two weeks into his new term, Brown in early February appeared to be living up to his pledge to run the house on a far more bipartisan basis than has been his custom in recent years.

"You're looking at a totally different speaker," Brown told reporters. "This office will never be the same."

Brown's coup came after seven weeks of negotiations among Democratic and Republican leaders failed to resolve the leadership deadlock that had paralyzed the house since Dec. 5 when Assemblyman Paul Horcher abandoned the Republicans, declared himself an independent and voted for Brown. Horcher's defection erased a 41-39 Republican majority and produced a 40-40 tie for the speakership between Brown and Republican Leader Jim Brulte.

At the time, Democrats also tried to oust Richard Mountjoy, who through a quirk in the political calendar had been re-elected to the Assembly and elected to the Senate at the same time. Democrats, despite an attorney general's opinion to the contrary, held that Mountjoy had forfeited his right to serve in the Assembly by being elected to the Senate and participating informally in the organization of the Republican caucus in the upper house. But a Brown protege, chief clerk Dotson Wilson, issued repeated parliamentary rulings against his mentor, making it impossible for the Democrats to seize control.

Wilson, though, fell ill and, following the rules of the Assembly, passed the gavel to the house's senior member: Willie Brown. Brown waited until the night of Jan. 23, when the two parties seemed on the verge of agreement, to use his position as presiding officer to role that the motion to expel Mountjoy was in order. Mountjoy, his eligibility in question, was not allowed to vote, making the result a foregone conclusion: 39 Democrats and the newly independent Horcher voted to oust Mountjoy; 39 Republicans voted to seat him. With Mountjoy gone, Brown was elected speaker on an identical 40-39 vote a few minutes past midnight on the morning of Jan.

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