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Willie Brown Is NOT Kidding
In 1988 I had been speaker -- Ayatollah -- of the assembly for eight years. I would go on to serve seven more years as speaker. I would still be speaker today were it not for term limits, a destructive idea introduced by mean-spirited wretches from Southern California who sought to deprive the people of San Francisco of the right to reelect me as their assemblyman. You know, even Ronald Reagan opposed term limits. He and Nancy Reagan wrote a letter that was to have been used in the ballot campaign against term limits. But due to the indolence of Democratic colleagues of mine in the California State Senate, the letter wasn't mailed out to the voters, and I and scores of other legislators were "termed-out" because the voters never learned of the Reagans' opposition to the idea.
Back in 1988, however, I was unchallenged as speaker until suddenly a handful of members of the assembly decided it was time for me to go. They became known as the "Gang of Five." Their story shows that while the use of power can be elegant (at least when Willie Brown is wielding it), politics itself ain't pretty.
You already know one of the Gang of Five: Gary Condit, who in 2003 lost reelection to his seat in the U.S. Congress after having become involved in the scandal around the disappearance and murder of his congressional intern, Chandra Levy. Condit was not implicated in Ms. Levy's brutal slaying, but in denying that he had had an intimate relationship with her, he lied to her family, the press, and investigators. That finished his career. Back then, in 1988, he was an assemblyman from the San Joaquin Valley, the massive agricultural heart of California.
With four cohorts in the assembly -- Jerry Eaves, Rusty Areias, Chuck Calderon, and Steve Peace -- Condit attempted to oust me from the speakership, even though I had been generous to them, appointing them to powerful committee chairmanships and providing them with campaign funds and perks galore. Indeed, I had been training them to one day succeed me in the ranks of the powerful in the assembly. They got pushy, though.
Without revealing their agenda, they asked one day to meet with me. Assembly members always came first with me, so I stopped what I was doing, brought them to my inner office, and served them coffee. They came right to the point.
"We think it's time," said Condit, "for you to give us your exit date." They said, you know, we really love you, you've set the record, you're going to go down in history: you've been speaker for seven and half years, longer than anyone else, and you're the first black speaker, but we want to take over. I was surprised but not fazed.
I said, "You young fellows, you really impress me with your skills and your ability. Each of you is the chair of a major committee, each of you holds an important position, so when people like you say something like this, I have to listen. But, oh boy, this is not something we can decide easily -- there are a lot of ramifications. So let me go cancel all my other appointments for this afternoon and we'll talk about this in depth." I stepped out of my office.
Whew. Now, a challenge to a speaker's hold on his chair can never be unexpected. In fact, in California challenges to previous speakers were common. As speaker you're holding a job that not only has no built-in tenure, but your job security depends on your constantly pleasing a majority of the membership. Politics and ambition being what they are, somebody is always unhappy. Somebody is always thinking of toppling you.
But you don't expect a coup attempt from your own side, especially from members to whom you had given chances for advancement. What was it my mentor, Machiavelli, said? "Lavish your allies and underlings with honors and opportunities, and they shall not desire to change princes"? Well, Machiavelli never lived with my legislature. My mistake with the Gang of Five now attempting to oust me was to have shown them, by appointing them to leadership posts, that I thought they themselves might one day make fine speakers of the assembly. They showed their gratitude by telling me to quit.
Their demeanor fascinated me. They wanted me to acknowledge publicly that they were my masters and that they had decided to move things around. They behaved as if they were being charitable towards me by allowing me to be awarded with the record of having been the longest-serving speaker in the history of the California Assembly! And by being the first black speaker. One of them said it looked good on my résumé! I was supposed to be impressed that they were concerned about my record and my future career.
I knew, though, that their coup would not succeed. They had only their five votes -- with perhaps a few more members lurking in the shadows. I, however, had more backup, including Republicans as well as Democrats. So while the Gang of Five had a handful of the eighty members of the assembly, when you counted up the numbers (as I did a few times every day), I had over forty-one. And that's all it takes to stay in power. The Gang of Five could not win.
Nonetheless, these five had to be punished for their temerity and ingratitude. So when I left them behind in my office, ostensibly to tell my secretary to cancel my appointments for the rest of the day, I actually told her to get the chairman of the Rules Committee, the late Lou Papan, on the phone.
Lou was a guy who loved dropping bombs. And as chairman of the Rules Committee -- my chairman of my Rules Committee -- he was in charge of all the other chairmen and chairwomen, and of the political housekeeping in the assembly.
The message I told my secretary to give Lou Papan was this: "I am immediately removing Condit, Peace, Calderon, Eaves, and Areias from their committee chairmanships, but I'm not stopping with just strippin' them of their titles. I want you to evict them from their offices. I want you to fire all the staff they hired for their committees. And I want you to put their furniture out in the hall."
Even then I planned (as I eventually did) to reassign the five ingrates to lesser positions -- I never cut any one out entirely. They might be renegades today, but I regarded myself as in competition for their votes in the future. At that moment, however, they had to be punished.
"And tell Lou," I said to my secretary, "I want it done within an hour. That's as long as I am going to stay in a room with these disloyal bastards.... As soon as you tell Lou what I want done, he'll understand what maneuver these five have just tried to pull."
She called Lou, who was deeeelighted to invoke the eviction process without notice to these renegades. And I knew my characterization of the Gang as "these disloyal bastards" would be repeated all around the capitol, and to the press corps, within the same hour.
I went back into my office where the renegades were sitting with sick smiles. I didn't tell them I had just denuded them of the robes of power, their offices, even their parking spaces. I told them nothing. I went deadpan. I sat down and listened to them shine me on. After about an hour I knew that Lou had had enough time to carry out the executions. Then I said to the Gang of Five: "Listen, guys, can I have overnight? Let me think about what you've said overnight." And they said, "Oh, yeah, that's easy."
They must have really thought I was chastened by them, hit as a human being because one of them then said, "Why don't you have dinner with us tonight?" I said, "Absolutely. No problem at all. We'll have dinner." They didn't know they were already toast. I got up to signal the end of the session and said, "Why don't you guys go out that side door? More confidential." Sure.
Of course, that side door led right into the microphones, cameras, and notebooks of the waiting press. Every statehouse reporter and camera crew from every TV station from San Diego to Los Angeles to Sacramento and San Francisco -- and national TV crews as well -- was there. The statehouse scribes had seen all their furniture suddenly being moved out of their offices. They were getting signals from Lou Papan. They knew something was up. As soon as that door to my office opened, the TV reporters were right in the faces of the treacherous five. The members of the Gang were shocked and sickened as the reporters began shouting questions like, "Mr. Condit, how does it feel to no longer be chairman?" "Mr. Calderon, how does it feel to have been stripped of your staff and office?"
The traitors tried to retreat back into my office. I didn't let them in. I let them experience what it was like to run into a real shark. "Guys," I said. "Hey, treachery is fair play. Old age and treachery will always outdo youth and skill. And that's what you just experienced." I sent them back to face the lions of the media. Because eventually I reassigned them to lesser posts in the assembly, I saved them from total abjection -- a shrewd use of power.
Anyway, you never need to thoroughly terminate bad actors.
Let the cosmos handle them. Indeed, bad karma followed the Gang of Five for decades. Jerry Eaves was eventually convicted of taking a bribe. Chuck Calderon was fined heavily for violation of campaign funding laws. Rusty Areias, who had been acclaimed in a magazine for being a young guy who had made a million before he was thirty-five, lost everything. He was in the farming business, but the bank took his farm, his dairy, and everything else, and he ended up living for a time in that small, spare Sacramento apartment on N Street that Jerry Brown used as his plebeian version of a governor's mansion.
The two who suffered the worst were Steve Peace and Gary Condit. Steve Peace became the author of energy deregulation in California, a move that was supposed to have resulted in huge savings for Californians, but which actually cost the consumers and the state billions as energy producers and distributors exploited the new legislation. Although billions of dollars were eventually repaid to the customers, Peace's political career never recovered from the deregulation debacle.
These days, I have lunch with Rusty Areias a few times a month. And Chuck Calderon, whose campaign literature mentions nothing of his fines, has just been reelected, after a long absence, to the assembly. But the moral still stands: don't cross Willie Brown, don't spit in the fountain of favors, because he certainly has more votes and moves than you do. And there's always that bad old karma out there. The story of the Gang of Five is still told wherever legislators gather.
So when people ask me if I'm kidding, I tell them this story.
Copyright © 2008 by Willie Brown