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Keeping the grip on power.

Willie Brown is about to leave the California Assembly, but his clout is as great as ever.

California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown stepped aside last month after nearly 15 years as leader of the Legislature's lower house, then stunned opposition Republicans by hand-picking his successor - from within their ranks - and installing her as the first woman speaker in the state's history.

Brown's choice for the job, Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Orange County, used her vote and those of 39 Democrats to take the post despite the bitter objections of her 38 Republican colleagues, who all supported Republican Leader Jim Brulte. As part of the deal, Allen voted with Democrats on a series of rule changes designed to bolster Brown's power even as Democrats lost their majority status for the first time in a quarter century. Brown became minority leader with the newly created, but so far ceremonial, title of speaker emeritus.

Allen's gambit shocked Republicans across the state. Some in her own district immediately launched an attempt to recall her from office. Fellow Republicans in the Assembly vowed "war" against her. Republican Governor Pete Wilson, whose forceful stand on the 1991 redistricting led to the GOP takeover, declined to congratulate Allen on her victory.

But by the end of her first week at the helm, Allen, 59, a former real estate broker, appeared to be consolidating her grip on the job. She banished Brulte from the leadership, announced plans to punish a handful of other rivals and began courting a few Republicans who decided that it would be better to accept her status and try to work with her than to seek to undercut her.

Allen's ascension was the latest twist in a convoluted plot that has unfolded since November when Republicans gained a majority in the Assembly for the first time since 1970. Since November, one Republican member - Paul Horcher - has defected to the Democrats and was later recalled from office, while another - Richard Mountjoy - was thrown out of the Assembly by Democrats in a bold power play that preserved Brown's speakership for another few months. The evenly divided house has been operating under a power-sharing agreement, implemented unilaterally by Democrats, that divides committee membership, chairmanships and resources down the middle.

Much of this tumult is a product of term limits adopted by voters in 1990 and scheduled to take full effect next year. Though no Assembly member has been forced out yet by the three-term cap, dozens have left earlier than they otherwise would have, hoping to find soft landings in politics or business before the new law requires them to quit. Brown himself has announced plans to run for mayor of San Francisco and, if he wins, would leave the Assembly in December after 31 years in office.

Until her rise to the speakership, Allen was little known outside her Orange County district, which she has represented since 1982, when she beat an incumbent Democrat. Her 13 years of service make her the senior Republican in the Assembly, but until this year she has never held a leadership post nor chaired a committee and has generally been out of the legislative limelight.

A native of Missouri, Allen is an avid equestrian who rides regularly at a stable near Sacramento, She boasts of besting two male colleagues in an exhibition harness race a few years back and has won five silver belt buckles penning cows in the annual legislators' rodeo.

That experience herding cattle might prove to be valuable in her new post, where she must somehow find a way not only to unite her own fractious caucus but also to reach common ground with Democrats on the many issues, including the state budget, which requires a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature to become law.

Allen said her desire to build consensus was one reason she agreed to the rule changes that accompanied her election to the speaker's chair. Those rules leave all Assembly committees split evenly along partisan lines even though Republicans now hold a 40-39 edge in the house. If Republicans capture the remaining vacant seat and reach an absolute majority of 41 later this summer, as expected, they will get control of all the policy committees, but Democrats will continue to have parity on the Rules Committee as well as on the Appropriations and Budget panels.

"These rules give Willie Brown more power as minority leader than he had as speaker," complained Senator Ross Johnson of Orange County, an Allen rival who was elevated to the upper house in May. "He controls all of his party's appointments and resources, and a speaker he installed without a single Republican vote controls the Republican appointments and resources."

Brown said he knows from experience that a speaker elected with the help of the opposition party can quickly concentrate power He did it himself in 1980 after Republicans, sensing he was the weaker candidate, installed him as speaker over the opposition of majority Democrats.

"Don't underestimate the strength of the new speaker," Brown said.

Daniel M. Weintraub covers the California Legislature for the Orange County Register.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Title Annotation:California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown
Author:Weintraub, Daniel M.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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