Posts Tagged ‘Willie Brown’

Mr. Speaker John Perez: All Cattle, No Hat

Monday, January 4th, 2010

perezbrownAs the Legislature returns this week, John Perez is poised to become the new Speaker of the Assembly, assuming the office with  ambitious reform notions –- and few of the institutional political tools needed to achieve them.

If Willie Brown was the Assembly’s Ayatollah, Perez is inheriting a speakership whose powers more closely resemble those invested in the  King of the Belgians. Despite the steep decline in influence of what once was the second most powerful office in California, Perez said in an interview that as Speaker he intends to tackle a host of reforms, from revamping the tax code (including a re-examination of Proposition 13) to seeking an escape from the straight jacket of term limits (and an out-of-control  initiative system).

“This is not a small task,” Perez told Calbuzz. “The challenges are monumental. If we fail to engage fully, the problems will only be pushed onto future generations.”

Brown wielded extraordinary power during his generation-long speakership, the last undiluted by the impact of term limits. More transactional than transformative, however, Brown’s actions most often focused on doing deals, refereeing economic battles between big special interests and reaping massive amounts of campaign cash on behalf of Democrats in the bargain. By contrast, Perez now seeks to accomplish big, substantive policy changes, at a time when the Speaker’s power to reward, punish and instill fear has been sapped since Brown left town in 1996.

In an interview a few days before New Year’s, Perez said that although the intractable budget fight will necessarily be his top priority, he intends to take on and “struggle with these big structural issues.”

gordian knotRefusing to take a position on major reform initiatives already being pushed by California Forward and the Bay Area Council, Perez suggested state lawmakers should pursue their own efforts to cut the Gordian knot of dead-end, deadlock politics that has dominated the Capitol in the post-Brown era: “The Legislature never intended to abdicate its responsibility” on such issues, he said.

“The most fundamental difference (between now and Brown’s tenure) is that there’s no ability for people to work with each other over time,” he added, acknowledging the difficulty of achieving political success amid the Capitol’s gridlock and every-member-for-him/herself environment. He insisted – despite the massive weight of evidence to the contrary – that he can “find Republicans who want to do what’s in the best interest of the state, not drive it off the cliff.”

A former union organizer from L.A., the 40-year old Perez as Speaker will become the highest-ranking, out-of-the-closet gay person in California history. As he completed his first Assembly term in December, he prevailed in a very public Democratic political brawl, overcoming a challenge from fellow Latino Assemblyman Kevin DeLeon, after Speaker Karen Bass abdicated amid constant rumors of an impending coup.


Mindful of lingering political sensitivities and the need to mend fences, Perez nervously objected when Calbuzz addressed him as “Mr. Speaker-elect” – “I’m not Speaker-elect yet” – a small but endearing display of modesty and humility that bodes well for his ability to massage the outsize egos of his constituency of 80 members. Perez strikes us as very intelligent if overly earnest, as he melds policy speak with New Age psychobabble that made us wonder if the disembodied aura of John Vasconcellos was lurking around the next corner of the Capitol.

“My job is to create a space where it’s safe for members to do their jobs and have an honest discussion of the impact” of policy decisions, he said. “The majority of members of both parties really care.”

Here’s a look at what he said on key issues:

Taxes: Perez bashed the Parsky Commission for coming up with a “political proposal” that would tilt California’s tax structure to favor rich people, instead of developing a “policy driven discussion” that presented a set of well-crafted options to put before elected decision makers. He said the Legislature should pursue its own rewrite of the tax code, a process in which “everything is on the table” – including Prop. 13.

Term limits: Perez pointed to term limits as the most fundamental factor underlying the dysfunction of Sacramento. With at least one initiative on term limits headed for the ballot, he said the current system encourages lawmakers to make policy choices without regard to their future impact and should be “eliminated any way we can do that.”

Reform proposals: Perez ducked questions about his views on both the constitutional convention initiative package backed by the Bay Area Council, and Cal Forward’s more incremental reform initiative. “Both are well-intentioned,” he said, “both need more public hearing and discussion.”

Working with Republicans: Perez called the temporary budget fix passed last June a “tremendous display of bipartisanship.” While favoring the repeal of the two-thirds budget vote requirement, he insisted “a large number” of GOP Assembly members are “not ideologues (and) really care about having an honest discussion of the impact” of budget cuts.

gay_marriage_210Gay marriage: The state’s first gay Speaker said that while public opinion is steadily if slowly shifting in favor of same sex marriage, an effort to pass a new initiative in 2010, just two years after the Prop. 8 ban on it, would be a serious tactical error, would likely lose and set back the cause for years.

Calbuzz Bottom Line: Like Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, Perez appears to be a very sharp guy. As with Steinberg, the key question will be whether he has the requisite ruthlessness and resourcefulness to make real change from a position of institutional weakness. In any case, we applaud him for trying and wish him all the luck in the world. He’ll need it.

Why California “Leaders” Can’t Make a Deal

Monday, July 6th, 2009

kittenThe constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass a budget is clearly the single most important reason why the Capitol is in a state of near-permanent political gridlock. But the two-thirds rule has been around since the New Deal and budgets used to get passed. So what’s the hang-up?

Power: Nobody’s got it.

The governor and the Legislature fulminate and flounder simply because no one in the Capitol in 2009 has the stature, clout or influence to cut a deal like Ronnie and Jesse or Pete and Willie once did.

Strip away all the policy wonkery, weed whacking and egghead analysis  and you find that a combination of term limits and politically-safe, gerrymandered legislative seats has created a political atmosphere in which every legislator is an army of one – and none of them fears the governor, the speaker or any other leader in the Legislature.

mousey“It’s difficult to deliver anything when every member of the legislature is looking over their shoulder,” says Steve Maviglio, former chief spokesman for the Assembly Speaker’s Office and before that for Gov. Gray Davis. “They’re worried about what they’re going to run for and who’s running against them – and that’s within their own caucus. Sometimes, they’re preparing to run against their own seatmates.”

Contrast this year’s with the budget meltdown of 1992, the last time California issued IOUs. Although many of the same conditions applied, the big difference was that both Gov. Pete Wilson and Speaker Willie Brown wielded enough political authority to sit down in a room and cut a deal: Wilson took responsibility for rounding up Republican votes for tax increases and Brown for putting a lid on Democratic caterwauling over program cuts.

Lou Cannon, the Ronald Reagan biographer who covered the Gipper when he was in Sacramento for the San Jose Mercury News, recalls that Reagan and Speaker Bob Moretti negotiated “for 10 straight days” over a budget that eventually included the largest tax increase for any state in history at that time.

Today, says Cannon, “There’s an awful lot of posturing and not much negotiating…these guys are negotiating in the newspapers, the ones that are left anyway, and it doesn’t seem like a real negotiation.”

We have the spectacle of a girlie man governor who flaps his arms and threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue but whom majority Democrats simply cannot trust or count on to deliver a single Republican vote for a deal to which he agrees.

“There’s a massive leadership void,” says one senior Capitol insider. “(Speaker Karen) Bass does everything by consensus. (Senate President Darrell) Steinberg is a rookie and Schwarzenegger can’t deliver any Republican votes and he’s lost interest, if he ever had any.”

Bass, a short-timer like every other speaker since term limits, has truncated authority as an enforcer, as was shown when Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno recently peeled off and went his own way. Add to that the endless series of special elections that leave her a vote or two shy of her total and she lacks standing.

In the Senate, Steinberg has been indefatigable in playing the statesman, but all for naught. Although he’s held his troops together, the Reps simply thumb their noses at him, knowing that their political survival depends, not on results, but simply on the most right-wing stances, which they can sell to win partisan primaries in partisan districts.

The budget becomes a kind of Political World of Warcraft, with taxes on business and slashes to programs for poor people as stand-ins for the armies of the undead and the necromantic power of the plague.

Term limits that hobble political leadership and gerrymandered districts that reward the wing nuts of their respective parties have made compromise nearly impossible.

“The combination of term limits and the lopsided redistricting have made these guys even more remote from the people and their constituents,” says Cannon. “All legislators live in some kind of parallel universe, but these people live in another galaxy.”

A galaxy where the center cannot hold.

— By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine

We’ll Always Have Paris: Willie Brown Bonds with Le Maire

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

By Calbuzzer Gale Kaufman

Bernard Delanoe, the elegant mayor of Paris, warmly welcomed Willie Brown and his 120-member posse to a private reception marking the Speaker’s 75th birthday on Friday at Hotel de Ville, as the City Hall is called.

The city’s first openly gay maire, Delanoe presented Willie with a beautiful pair of cuff links and told him that Paris would always welcome him. Mr. Speaker returned the favor, giving him an old book of San Francisco photos. The mayor’s formal office is a spectacular room with Baccarat crystal chandeliers that replicates the long corridor of Versailles. Needless to say, Willie looked quite at home.

We were all in formal wear and black tie for the birthday dinner that followed, at a private chateau called Pavillon de Musique de la Comtesse du Barr, which had extraordinary views of the city from almost every window.

After dinner, the servers brought out an ice sculpture of the Eiffel Tower etched with “Willie Brown 75th Brithday” with several cakes on either side of it. Amid the round of toasts, the only time Willie looked alarmed was when his older sister – “Baby Doll” – got up, but she said only nice things, to his obvious relief.

He told me afterwards that everyone should do something like this once or twice in his life – gather best friends and family together and celebrate in a spectacular fashion. Boy, does this man know how to throw a party.

Gale Kaufman is a Democratic consultant based in Sacramento.

Buzzcard: Live at Willie’s 75th in Paris

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

By Calbuzzer Gale Kaufman

PARIS – Willie Brown invited 120 of his closest friends to join him in the City of Lights to celebrate his 75th birthday and we all toasted Mr. Speaker last night while sailing the Seine on a private yacht. Dining fine and sipping wine, at 10 p.m. we passed the Eiffel Tower, whose lights obligingly blinked on and off for us.

Willie looked great in a khaki baseball cap with his signature stitched on – we all got a copy, of course – and a matching khaki coat, surrounded by family and friends, as always drinking and partying until the wee hours.

When Steve and I arrived yesterday, folks told us the weather has been horrible but it cleared up for the big bash. It made me think of how the sun burst through a storm just in time for Willie’s GOTV to crank in his first mayor’s race. Da Mayor, of course, claimed it was divine intervention.

On the yacht, any number of us remarked how nice it will be to just make it to 75, let alone celebrate it in “Willie Brown style.” Tomorrow: drinks with the mayor of Paris. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Gale Kaufman is a Democratic consultant in Sacramento