Dan Walters

Sometimes there are political fireworks when Legislature convenes

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the Assembly Speaker Willie Brown were sometimes friendly rivals as they negotiated budgets and other legislation during the later stages of Brown’s Assembly reign.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the Assembly Speaker Willie Brown were sometimes friendly rivals as they negotiated budgets and other legislation during the later stages of Brown’s Assembly reign. Sacramento Bee file

Forty-four years ago, as part of a procedural overhaul, the Legislature began convening its biennial sessions on the first Monday in December of even-numbered years.

Voters were told that by organizing themselves in December, legislators could introduce bills, the 30-day mandatory waiting period could begin running, and they could get right to work when they returned in January.

Practice has not exactly comported with theory. They introduce some bills, but the notion that they would return in January and immediately begin legislating has proved fallacious.

That said, some December sessions have been noteworthy.

On Dec. 1, 1980, Assembly Democrats squared off to settle their yearlong squabble over who would be speaker of the house.

After months of nasty infighting between then-Speaker Leo McCarthy and challenger Howard Berman, the latter emerged from the November election with a majority of Democrats and seemingly, therefore, the speakership.

However, at the last moment, McCarthy supporters cut a deal with Republicans to elect Willie Brown as speaker, and he served 14-plus years as the Capitol’s self-proclaimed “ayatollah.”

As it turned out, the Senate’s Democrats were simultaneously experiencing a much quieter internal battle, sparked by serious losses of seats to Republicans. As Brown was winning the speakership Dec. 1, senators were dumping their long-time leader, James Mills, and installing David Roberti as president pro tem.

It was quite a day, but only two years later, another December organizing session created more legislative lore.

Democrats had passed a blatantly partisan gerrymander of legislative and congressional districts after the 1980 census, Republicans challenged it via referendum, and in 1982, voters rejected Democrats’ maps.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was just weeks away from ceding the governorship to Republican George Deukmejian when the Legislature convened Dec. 6, and Democratic leaders hustled through a new redistricting plan so Brown could still sign it.

The 1994 organizing session was easily recent history’s most chaotic.

Republicans had won a 41-39 Assembly majority in that year’s elections, but when they tried to claim the speakership Dec. 5, one disgruntled GOP member, Paul Horcher, jumped ship and voted for Willie Brown, creating a 40-40 tie.

The tie was broken many weeks later when Brown’s faction ousted Republican Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy, who had been elected to the Senate, giving Brown a 40-39 re-election whose legality is still debated by Capitol insiders.

Republicans retaliated by getting Horcher recalled, and Brown lasted only a few more months.

As the Legislature convenes this first Monday in December, nothing as noteworthy as those three sessions is likely.

There had been some buzz about a postelection session to pass a financing plan for transportation, but political leaders could not put together a deal.

This Monday’s initial session will, therefore, be more like the first day of elementary school than a political dust-up.

  Comments