Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From Where Schwarzenegger Gets His Good Ideas

Review of “Basic Brown” by Willie Brown

This is the autobiography of Willie Brown, who spent 14 years as a powerful Speaker of the California House of Representatives. The implementation of legislative term limits would force him to leave office for the lesser important office of Mayor of San Francisco. While the last sentence was mostly facetious, it is interesting to note that many would rather have a long term career being a legislative leader over being a big city Mayor. As Willie Brown puts it, “I would still be Speaker today were it not for term limits, a destructive idea introduced by the mean-spirited wretches from Southern California who sought to deprive the people of San Francisco the right to reelect me as their Assemblyman.” In a further irony, the “Gang of Five” state legislators who successfully fought to implement term limits included Gary Condit, who would be elected to Congress only to lose reelection over the scandal involving the an affair with his intern and Jerry Eaves who would later be convicted for taking bribes.

A chance meeting made the difference in Brown’s political life. By standing in alphabetical order at Air Force ROTC brought Brown standing next to, and befriending, John Burton. Burton, himself later a U.S. Representative, was the brother of Phil Burton, a powerful San Francisco politician. Phil helped Willie Brown run for office. Brown lost his first state legislative election in 1962 by 900 votes out of 31,000 votes cast. Brown kept campaigning and was elected in 1964. Ironically, he would vote against Jess Unruh, his future ally, for Speaker.

Willie Brown admittedly is a colorful politician. One of his political adages was “old age and treachery will always outdo youth and skill.” He claims he still speaks with Governor Schwarzenegger once a week, even though they are of different political parties. Brown has a strong knowledge of politics. He even got Governor Ronald Reagan to sign some of the country’s most liberal legislation, including one that decriminalized abortion.

Brown’s advice to people interested in politics is to get as inside the system as possible to be effective. To be effective, one also needs to be reliable. People who can’t be trusted won’t go far. He further advises to never put up with corruption and to uphold the image of your institution.

Speakers Unruh and Bob Moretti became impressed with Brown’s knowledge and use of parliamentary procedure and of legislation. Brown studied and learned the details of every bill facing the Assembly. In 1974, when Speaker Moretti ran for Governor, Brown ran for Speaker and was the presumptive heir apparent to the Speakership only to lose by one vote to Leo McCarthy. McCarthy gave the Rules Committee Chairmanship to a key Brown ally, who was also Brown’s roommate, who switched sides to assist McCarthy’s race. McCarthy took all power away from Brown and assigned him a small office which could not fit chairs for visitors, requiring them to sit in the hall.

Brown believes McCarthy surrounded himself with dishonest and unskilled people and was a poor Speaker. Brown continued serving his San Francisco constituents despite his reduced powers. He earned a footnote in history by being the last person to meet with Mayor George Moscone before Moscone’s murder by Dan White.

Brown dealt with Republican members by giving Republicans five committee chairmanships in return for votes in returning as Speaker. Brown eliminated another political opponent, Howard Berman, by redistricting a Congressional district that successfully enticed him to leave for Congress.

Willie Brown notes he raised $100 million in political contributions which he believes is the most any person ever raised in state politics. He notes he has never been accused of doing anything dishonest in his fundraising. Further, he often voted and worked against the interests of contributors. Brown writes he learned from Jess Unruh that a contribution buys nothing and there should never be a situation where a contributor should expect a quid pro quo for the donation. He recommends acting in professional life as if the other person is wearing a wire

Brown continued Unruh’s system where political contributions went to the lead person in a caucus, which then was him when he was Speaker. That way no other member could be criticized for possible conflicts of interests due to contributions. He would then decide which where funds should be spent on which key races. He allocated according to helping Democrats keep the majority and not according to political favoritism. It should also be noted that, back then, legislative campaigns were far less costly than today and often relied more upon individual campaigning within districts.

Brown had to leave the legislature due to the enactment of term limits. Brown believes term limits are a mistake as members don’t have the time to learn the duties of serving in leadership. Brown left the legislature and was elected Mayor of San Francisco. As Mayor, he is proud of the work he accomplished for homeless and for extending mass transit. He jokes that the 1989 earthquake literally shook up City Hall, as $500,000 of damage occurred to the building.

Brown advises to be respectful in victory and to allow the defeated their dignities. In politics, one may need to work in the future those defeated now. They will better appreciate you then if you appreciate them now.