Behindthe electronically controlled door to his corner office in the state capitol, Willie Lewis Brown Jr. slouched low in his executive's chair, fidgeting with a wad of telephone messages. Brown's secretary had written his phone messages in extra-large print on low-glare yellow paper because he has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that he's suffered in secret for years. A collection of African art was on displayto his right, and an oversize computer screen partly blocked the view of sloping, lush green grass through the window to his left.
As Speaker of the California Assembly, Brownis one of the most powerful politicians in the country. But he is also marked for extinction. Three years ago, California voters, enraged by economic recession and political corruption, focused on Brown and his Sacramento cronies as the cause of their pain and passed a radical term-limits measure. After one more session, the man who once referred to himself as the "Ayatollah" of the legislature and has boasted that his only politicalambition was to be Speaker for Life will be pushed out of the institution he's served for more than thirty years--along with the entire legislative leadership.
I spent a few weeks in Sacramento at the end of the 1993 legislative term, talkingto Brown and observing the effects of term limits on one stage government. Term limits are a fad these days, and in some form or another have been imposed on some fifteen state legislatures; active campaigns to impose them exist in seven more states.
During the time Iwatched him, Brown went purposefully about the business of adding to his legacy, as if to show the voters just who it was they had cast off. But there was evidence of a fraying temper, as I noticed when Phil Schott and Richard Robinson, two powerful lobbyists for California-based insurance companies, stopped byto try to talk Brown into changing a piece of worker's-compensation-reform legislation that Brown considered his crowning achievement in1993.
"We want to do some persuasion," Schott said smoothly as he entered the office.
"You can try. It ain't going to work!" Brown snapped, motioning the two of them to seats at his conference table.
Schott and Robinson cleared their throats, smoothed their color-coordinated green ties, and pressed their clients' case anyway: insurance companies in California had been placed at a disadvantage in relation to national firms, theyargued, by "an ambiguity" in the law. "Look, the legislation was designed to getthe consumer the best possible deal," said Brown, moving toward an angry crescendo, the consummate insider delivering a populist performance in the presence of a reporter. "I'm telling you now not to fuck around with workers' compensation. That's what I'm telling you! Don't fuck with me on it!" he barked.
After the two lobbyists had departed, Brown said, "You know, there areno term limits for lobbyists."
Sacramento, set gleaming on a dry, brown wedge of floodplain where the Sacramento and American rivers con-join, was the fourth choice for California's capital. It stands remote from the state's power centers.Ringed by pear orchards and cornfields, it used to be primarily a farming town, but it now is assuredly a government town, swarming with bureaucrats and lobbyists. For the last twelve years, to get anything done here you had to go through Willie Brown.
An up-by-the-bootstrapsmigrant from a poor family in Mineola, Texas, Brown was a trial lawyer in San Francisco before being elected to the Assembly in 1964. Despite his credentials as a Great Society liberal, he won the speakership in 1980 by cutting a backdoor deal with Republicans. Second inpower only to the governor, Speaker Brown has a hand in regulating the affairs of 31 million people and managing the eighth-largest economy in the world, a -billion-a-year enterprise. His style is comic opera, full of quick-witted wisecracks and bold poses. It played well when he was a maverick, speakingup for the under-represented, but it has worn thin during the prolonged, painful decline of California's economy and highly publicized corruption probes that reached into Brown's circle.
California is stillinthe throes of an economic panic. The unemployment rate is the highest among industrial states. Nearly one in five jobs lost during the national recession vanished in California; one in five disappeared from Los Angeles County alone. So, spurred on byan organization led by former Los Angeles County supervisor Pete Schabarum, voters here did the natural thing--they blamed their elected representatives.
Few in Sacramento doubt that the Speaker was the chief target of Proposition 140. "If Willie Brown had not been Speaker in 1990, term limits would not have passed," Jim Brulte, the lumbering Republican Assembly leader, told me shortly after I watched him conferring amiably with Brown on the Assembly floor. "WillieBrown is a very, very visible, colorful, and controversial figure who evokes great passion in people. Because he is so controversial and so visible, it was easy to lump all the ills of the legislaturein his suit pocket--and then blame him."
If you say "term limits" in his presence, even sotto voce, the Speaker snaps to attention. "Terrible! Terrible! Terrible!" Brown said during one of our first interviews, shrugging his shoulders in rhythm with the exclamation points. "God-awful!" Brown's is the standard anti-term limits litany: termlimits are undemocratic because they force individual voters in particular districts to change representation when they ought to have the right to re-elect incumbents unto death (as they often do); and term limits shift powerfrom the people's representatives to the governor as well as lobbyists, who never have to stand for election.
"I still can't believe it happened here," Brown said, the gnomelike grin long gone."Participating in the electoral process is no longer a career option. It is simply a temporary way station, to be occupied by either those who are marginal or those who are extremely wealthy and idle."
Brown's dour prediction could be sloughed off as the self-serving bleatof an expiring politician. He's a dealmaker, a power broker, a convener of interests--in short, the living definition of the career politician so thoroughly out of favor with the public these days. By passing the measure, the legislature has temporarily appeased the public's anger. But California voters not only vanquished Willie Brown; they also did away with his office, devaluing the legislature as a whole andensuring that no other Speaker of his stature will emerge again. And it is by no means clear that this is a positive development.
Elsewhere in Sacramento, I found the mood more somber, if anything, than it was in Brown's office. "The word around here is |terminals.' That's what we're called," Senator Gary Hartof Santa Barbara grumbled over breakfast early one morning. We had met in a sleepy cafe a few blocks from the capitol so that Hart, an archetypal good-government type and a member of the legislature for twenty years, could get to a committee meeting on time. Hart, a tall man who lookslike the Hollywood stereotype of a politician, seemed tired, discomfited. He picked at this pancakes. "|Terminal,'" he repeated, narrowing his eyes. "That'sa very harsh word. People don't want to be known as terminals, as you can imagine. It's a sign of political impotence."
Even term-limit supporters are finding the legislature inhospitable. In fact, the measure's most vocal advocate, a scrub-faced Republican from Stockton named Dean Andal, is leaving the legislature before he's forced out. Andal is a likable former Eagle Scout, a Reaganite supply-sider whose surprise election ina Democratic district often put him at odds with Willie Brown. One afternoonduring a break between sessions, Andal leaned away from the desk in his cramped office, fingered his square-framed eyeglasses, and mused about the long-range effects of term limits. An autographed photo of George Bush was mounted on the wall to his left. "I liked him," Andal said, "but he sure was disappointing." Term limits will benefit his party, he said, because businesspeople who want a brief break from their careers will be more likely to run for office than wonkswho see public policy as a career in itself. (Those people tend to be teachers, social workers, union members, andlawyers--and disproportionately Democrats.)
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