This partly concerns events that happened quite long ago.
But nothing they show about the role emotion and quotidian detail play in political life, or about the central importance to it of the arcane, mundane mechanics of redistricting or the scheduling of legislation, has altered much since then.
But the game of politics he had not
learned (and never did learn): the deal;
the nature of combinations; easy fellowship;
compromise; the slipperiness of logic; humor;
patience; generosity; the ready smile...
Robert Penn Warren
Howard Berman, who has, over his 40-year career, learned the game of politics very well indeed, is suddenly in the news again. This year, after his 14 terms of relatively uneventful re-election (by healthy margins) to the United States Congress, the theoretically non-partisan redistricting process that eliminated both his current district and the adjacent district of fellow Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman has thrown the two of them into a close and bitter contest — a contest that's been described in CalBuzz, admittedly uncharitably, as involving "a legend versus a schlemiel." The lawmakers are competing for the claim to a new San Fernando Valley district cobbled together predominantly from parts of the districts each has represented up until now — a stressful situation stemming from the passage of the 2008 ballot initiative in which Californians were persuaded (ironically, via funding, largely by Republicans, that played on voters' reflexive and usually delusionary preference for anything labeled "political reform") to substitute an appointed "citizens' commission" for the control over the redistricting process that traditionally had been exercised by whichever party (for the last three censuses it happens to have been the Democrats) was in the majority in Sacramento at census time. The impact of the change up to this point resembles nothing so much as the one resulting from the 1990 California ballot proposition that imposed term limits on state officeholders — another vote precipitated by reformist instincts — which is generally held to have been a disaster, and in fact, was largely rescinded by the voters in 2010.
Howard, who was first elected to the California Assembly in 1972, talks sometimes about "the legitimacy of strokes." Political strokes, he means — the smile, yes, and the handclasp, and the promptly returned call; the "How's it goin'?" with the answer listened to; the articulations of gratitude; “Thanks," and "Couldn't have worked it without you," and "Hey, you did a great job." He believes in the legitimacy of these things, which is to say he sees them not just as motions that have to be gone through, but as possessing some intrinsic validity to them; and he believes openly in the legitimacy of the rest of the game. This makes him something of an anomaly, and always has: a liberal politician with an intellectual bent endorsing these views over decades in which the preferred public attitude about this kind of political mechanics resided, for the liberal intelligentsia, somewhere between sanctimoniousness and scorn. Here, for instance, is the New York Times’ Adam Clymer in 1980, on a former aide to third-party presidential candidate John Anderson: “He always thought his old chief had suffered for immersing himself in public service, and not ‘throwing his arm around his colleagues' shoulders and trading favors. […]' The interesting thing about this year is that this quality has gotten across to the public and they found it refreshing." Right.
Of course, Howard doesn't just throw his arm and trade favors (in fact, he doesn't go in for much literal backslapping). He also raises and distributes a great deal of campaign money (a fair amount of it from what he forthrightly refers to as special interests), and he believes in the election of Democrats — Democrats in general, without much regard to ideological coloration or freedom from taint — with a partisan zeal that, given contemporary liberal sensibilities, has continued to appear if not unseemly, then downright bizarre.
From the time of his 1972 Assembly election up until 1979 it was rare to read anything about Howard Berman at all, except for routine newspaper items about elections won and legislation sponsored — which says something about the sort of politicians we consider interesting and those we don't. But in December of the latter year, Howard (D-Los Angeles), who as majority leader of the Assembly had been widely perceived as heir apparent to the speakership of Leo McCarthy (D-San Francisco), suddenly jumped the gun and challenged the sitting Speaker in the middle of his third term.
The ensuing fight — which for an entire year was neither won nor precisely lost, and for that reason, among others, would end with fellow-Democrat Willie Brown (also of San Francisco, who thus became the first African-American to head a state legislature anywhere in the United States) bringing off a last-minute coup in collaboration with Assembly Republicans and securing the job himself — put Howard into the spotlight. Now, transformed once more by the current contest into a properly dramatic figure, we can take another look at him.
And we can take a closer look at the speakership contest, too. Because, at its heart, what that fight — not unlike the one now underway — was most fundamentally about was the complicated interconnection between public service and politicalness; about differing ways of defining these things; about the role of partisanship in how an institution functions; about divergent approaches to commonly held goals (Leo and Howard, as Howard and Brad do, had virtually indistinguishable voting records); about the whole reticulated methodology of putting into practice one's beliefs. Also about unfulfilled longings, resentments not yet quenched — oh, such a tangled skein of things! a mingled yarn! — some of them hidden, some of them clear as glass. And about ambition, certainly, and pettiness. And campaign money, and toilet paper, and the specific texture of living in Sacramento, and census figures, and the dynamics of archetypal family relationships, and before long — for once the fight had been launched, of course, it soon outstripped the immediate issues that had generated it — a whole host of other elements as well.
So in some ways this account was never simply a story about Howard — rather, it shows Howard against the backdrop of an action that was at once atypical of him and yet at the same time characteristic, in the deepest sense, of the political game and him as a quintessential player of it; an action of such intricate, intermingled multiplicity of impetus and motive, with (as these things always have) so many contradictory overlapping threads and components, so much that appears at first one way and turns out another, that it can function for us as a kind of paradigm, a working schematic of the complex circuitry of legislative life.
"Better than sex!" says Howard sardonically, rolling his eyes and letting his tongue loll out. Airplane, an April afternoon, 1980, an L.A.-Sacramento flight. (Howard has taken a 7 a.m. flight down for morning meetings; California legislators at critical points in their careers need to be airborne a lot.) The image of Howard as a cold-blooded, ambitious hustler ("The shiny lure of power," as the L.A. Times memorably put it early on, the lure he's pantomiming being transfixed by now, "had always dangled before his eyes") has become so prevalent that by this time it's practically engraved. The speakership battle was one of the most exciting things to have hit Sacramento in years, and like all high drama it demanded a set of larger-than-life stock figures: if not a hero and a villain, then at least a sorely set-upon leader and his assailant. It could, of course, just as easily have been cast with the identities of a complacent chief and his plucky challenger. But the issues involved were elusive and subtle, unless you took them seriously, which most of the people covering the fight did not — it seemed inconceivable that concern for Democratic election prospects could be anything more than an excuse for a naked power grab or that the secondary grievances had any respectable significance at all. And since the mise-en-scène lent itself particularly neatly to stabbed-in-the-back, Brutus-and-Caesar metaphors (aided in no small part by Leo's cries of "betrayed by my trusted lieutenant, my friend"), the simplified scenario took hold early on. Howard has learned to live with it.
Howard, at this juncture, is 39 years old. He is droll and low-key and — to put it quite bluntly — fairly homely-looking, as well as being one of the few people in California politics with whom it's possible to hold a sustained conversation on multiple abstract topics. He has a baby daughter named Lindsey (“Probably from a nurse's nametag… It took us so long to decide that we thought of calling her ‘Danish,’ as in coffee and Danish") whose 2 a.m. feedings — Howard on bottle duty — punctuated the early months of the brouhaha; a politically astute second wife named Janis, who has a resemblance to the singer Anne Murray and a disarming manner ("You don't have any trouble accepting what I said? To me it could just be bullshit "); a 9-year-old stepdaughter named Brindley, whose school drawings he carries around in his pocket; a younger brother named Michael, whose abilities as a campaign consultant are legendary and whose mention in public print is invariably accompanied by the adjective "ruthless" (although one longtime Los Angeles Democratic political activist, the wife of a moderate Assembly member, calls him "a pussycat"); a shaggy, mustachioed administrative aide and right-hand-man named Jack Mayesh, who went to UCLA with him and is known around Sacramento as the 81st legislator; and a record that includes an impressive amount of key liberal legislation, both the traditional kind (farm labor, collective bargaining, bail reform) and the kind that would qualify as the nouvelle variety (women's credit, pregnancy leave, Santa Monica Mountains preservation and the like).
The bare bones of his 1979 notoriety are these: On Monday, December 11th, Howard holds a press conference at the statehouse, during the course of which he asserts that although Leo is a decent, honorable man of great integrity, his efforts in pursuit of higher office (McCarthy has been actively and publicly gearing up for a campaign for either governor or senator in 1982) have been diverting energy, attention, and money from the upcoming 1980 legislative races, as well as impairing his performance as Speaker; he reveals that an 11-hour meeting between the two of them the day before has failed to produce any compromise redistribution of responsibilities; and announces that he, Howard, is therefore resigning as majority leader and putting forward his own candidacy for the speakership. "I welcome any questions you might have. "
Pandemonium ensues. (No one within memory has seriously attempted to unseat an incumbent Speaker in mid-term, and in any case, people don't usually formally announce for the job, they just run, generally for a couple of years behind the scenes.) And then, starting in January, following upon the initial pandemonium and increasing it, there occur months of ongoing skirmishes. There are repeated Democratic caucus votes, with Howard getting repeated majorities but with Leo mounting a strategic defense based on the now-familiar Rule of 41 — a rule which holds that although traditionally a majority of the majority party has been sufficient to elect a Speaker, technically a majority of the whole Assembly, which comprises 80 members, is required. There is the sustaining of Leo in this defense — the Republicans, predictably pleased by the disarray, sit on their hands — by the clump of liberal Democratic votes delivered to him by Willie Brown, whose own speakership contest with McCarthy in 1974, when Bob Moretti (Willie had been his majority leader) stepped down as Speaker, has been scuttled by Howard's delivery of an almost identically sized group of liberals to Leo. ("There's a certain good symmetry there," says Howard drily. "There's a sense of art. ") There are removals of various Berman supporters from various committee posts (most are later restored); there are blandishments of jurisdictions and chairmanships offered to various other Bermanites; and there is the appointment of Willie as the new majority leader — Leo, meanwhile, making the after-work rounds at Frank Fats' and David's and the Torch in a born-again effort to counteract impressions of his remoteness. There are furious strategy sessions, lasting until all hours, held by members of both camps (a member of the governor’s staff recalls looking up at lighted windows at midnight and thinking it was almost as if each side were trying to demonstrate to the other they were still there). There is finally a motion, joined by four original Berman supporters, now turned officially neutral, to suspend the caucus voting, which succeeds; there is an attempt at reconciliation spearheaded by McCarthy supporter John Vasconcellos, an Assembly veteran of the Human Potential Movement, which does not. And eventually matters are left in a kind of limbo of lingering bitterness, initially with the thought that the June legislative primaries (in which each side — the ultimate escalation! — fields competing candidates) will decide things (the score-card shows an approximate stand-off; so much for that), and then with the emphasis placed on the November results, awaiting a vote — Leo now agreeing to abide by the tradition of caucus majority — on what will thus technically become a vacant speakership at the start of the new legislative session in January of 1981.
"There's no doubt in my mind," says Howard on the airplane, this April morning, "that there's been tremendous bitterness over what I've done. There's also no doubt in my mind" — he says this slowly, thoughtfully, almost pensively — "that I have … no remorse over what I've done. I think Leo did wrong" — a rising intonation, with some intensity:
He acted selfishly, he broke commitments, he didn't hear criticism. It's true that the criticism could have been more forcefully, more repeatedly made than it was, and to some extent, y'know, I — that was my fault. And I could also argue, well, who knows: If the thing doesn't turn out right eventually, maybe I made the wrong decision — y'know, I made politically the wrong decision. But in terms of…ah… the relationship — I'll let you analyze if I'm justifying what I feel, or if maybe if I'm developing the feeling to justify what I did. I don't think so. We're all grown-ups and responsible for our actions. And the ultimate validation for me was that the majority of the Democrats went along with me... I mean, when you subtract from Leo's group the people that Willie brought to Leo on a purely political operational thing, where he thought he could — that combination of paying me back for not going with him and more importantly, probably, thinking he could pick up the pieces afterwards by letting Leo hang on, wounded — and you subtract the people who weren't running again, and therefore had no real stake in what happened in the 1980 elections, the difference is much larger than the majority he won. And — and to me that's enough test that there was something goin' on wrong, that I wasn't just copping something to justify seizing…acting on the lure of power, or whatever it is.
In many respects, except for the lurking presence of Michael, Howard is an unlikely figure to have generated such a firestorm. Unflappable Howard, with his rapid-fire, Jewish-shrug speech patterns, his smudged aviator glasses and Brillo-like mop of hair; with his good therapist's habit of intuiting the ends to people's unfinished sentences, and getting them right; Howard with the bright-kid absentmindedness that has Pat and Paula and Cleata and his other Sacramento staff people constantly tucking in the pocket-flaps of his jacket and reminding him to check to see if he's got his briefcase and to get his paycheck cashed. Although — “I want to be accurate about this," says Howard. "My first Assembly race I jumped into at the last minute, I kind of carpetbagged it, and spent a lot of money and got people mad when I did that."
In the Assembly itself, though, up until 1979, his reputation had primarily consisted of a kind of muscularly benign efficaciousness. "Howard is that rare combination of idealism and competency," said Gray Davis, then Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, shortly after the fight began. "I've learned since I've been up here that there are people who can get things done, and then there are people who are known for their principled positions. Howard is both principled — he's got a coherent belief system, unlike a lot of legislators, he's not just careening from issue to issue — and effective. That balance is his strength."
The way in which he's effective — the way that, as Gray put it, "if you need an author to carry a piece of progressive but difficult legislation, Howard automatically means five or ten votes more than the same bill carried by a lesser author" — is distinctive, has an individual style, like a flourish or a signature. Non-buffs find the actual legislative process less than riveting: after all, these guys aren't conducting symphonies or writing novels or anything, it's not creative — but when it's done really well, it's an art form of its own. One can talk about technique.
In Howard's case this involves a sort of pincer effect. His intelligence is a membership-acknowledged quality; he knows his subject better than anyone else does, usually, and always knows — he's a labor lawyer, and his legal background helps here — what's in his own bills, a rarer attribute than one might imagine, so he almost never misleads anyone, except on purpose, and the people on his side have confidence in that. And then there are the personal relationships to call on. Here's where the strokes come in — because, as Jack puts it:
On most issues, unless they're real visible and real controversial, most of the guys don't have tremendous feelings one way or the other. Y'know, it doesn't affect them, it doesn't affect their districts all that much — and so if you can do a favor, and it seems to be reasonable and rational and not a bad thing to do, then you can be inclined to give a vote.
Howard has a firm base, in other words, for coaxing and cajoling, and he mixes this up with a particularly acute talent for coalition spotting (the nature of combinations), so that pretty consistently, when he is working a bill on the floor — putting a call (a temporary hold) on the vote and then walking the aisles; kneeling by desks; talking earnestly to one member and then chuckling an aside to the next; chasing down people into bathrooms and cornering them in the members' lounge; going on like this for a couple of hours, and then lifting the call — pretty consistently he can take something that started with, say, 25 votes, and take it over the top. "It is real exciting to watch him go from 21 to 44 votes," says Jack, with proprietary hype, to be sure, but echoing sentiments expressed elsewhere. "I mean, people sit there gawking. It's a show."
These things have their own intricate patterns, grave as prosody, and to see them exercised on behalf of good-guy bills is compelling. The bail reform bill, for instance, a bill that lowered the amount of bail required in relation to the other restrictions intended to prevent flight — a bill that had sat around for a number of years, its previous author unable to get a second on it in his own committee. "That's what makes Howard so interesting to work for," says a former staffer. "I've worked for some other members up here you can get really revved-up about things, but they have no chance in hell of getting the bill carried, so in the end it doesn't matter how enthusiastic you make them."
Liberal legislation has generic problems, but individual pieces of it have specialized pitfalls, too. In this instance, the tactical difficulty was that the black and Latino members, who were the logical people to vote for the bill, and whose constituents stood the most to benefit from it, were the same members who have traditionally gotten a good deal of their campaign financing from the people opposing the bill: the bail bondsmen. ("I mean," says Jack, "what institutions do the black legislators have that they can raise money from? They don't have fancy West L.A. parties that they can do, they've only got a few groups that contribute, and you had all the bail bondsmen in the world up there for the vote…Very, very interesting problem.") Clearly, an extra degree of courage was required, and also a united front: no one wanted to go on the line and antagonize a powerful special interest group unless everyone was going to be on the line together.
As another complicating nuance, there are, in these years — this is no secret — eddies and currents of intramural animosity within the black caucus: Teresa Hughes and Maxine Waters in particular, for example, don't get along. So here was Howard plying his lightly comical guilt-trip number — I mean, who'm I doing this for, Teresa, the Beverly Hills housewives in my district or the poor shlubs in yours, they're the ones who get thrown into jail, they have no recourse — and Terry Hughes finally agreeing she'll go on the bill, but only if that flaming liberal Maxine Waters goes on it first, and Howard pinning her down... Okay, if I get 30, you'll be 31... "Yeah, but it's got to be her" — that kind of thing.
And on this bill, as he habitually does, displaying a particular, delicate sensitivity to people with marginal seats, members who are more progressive than their districts, going to them as insurance votes and thereby being able to use them as leverage, to progress on to someone with no district problem and say, Hey, look, I got Larry Kapiloff — he's gonna vote for this thing, but I don't want to hang him out to dry. Why can't you give him a courtesy vote? What's the problem, does it affect you? You have a philosophical problem with it? Let's talk about it... "And on that basis," elaborates Jack, in his own lightly self-mocking sing-song:
He creates a kind of collective spirit of the gang, y'know, and 'Why hang this guy out, he's gonna do it anyway, 'cause he really believes in it' and 'Damn, Lou Papan, you can get away with it, you're never gonna have a reelection problem — you probably believe in it anyway, but you want to be the tough guy.’ He plays on that stuff. And it works, it works.
Of course, it's not all sweet reasonableness and team spirit, either. There are teeth in this. Howard also gets votes, starkly put, because members are obligated to him for the help he’s already given or might be likely to give to their election campaigns. If a legislator is on the board of a local hospital, say, and the hospital industry is opposing — as it did in 1979 — AB 1050, Howard's health planning bill, which would have switched the burden of proof for initiating the construction of new facilities onto the healthcare provider, instead of leaving it up to the state to make the case that the facilities aren't needed, then that legislator, despite his affiliation, remembering how heavily Howard was involved in his original election, may well vote for Howard's bill. Good, old-fashioned political indebtedness can be very helpful.
And here's part of the confusing overlap, the intermingling, and one of the reasons, perhaps, for the simplified speakership fight scenarios: one of the ways Howard has given his coherent belief system concrete legislative form is by participating, full-tilt, with no visible distaste or reluctance, in activities that have very little to do with ideological coherence — maintaining himself as a force in the morally neutral, philosophically uninflected world of partisan elections.
Howard has a machine — the by-now-well-known, remarkably successful Waxman-Berman political machine (Waxman as in UCLA classmate, former Assembly confrère and current U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman) — that provides campaign assistance in the form of voter analysis, and precinct organization, and direct mail supervision, and computer expertise (Michael's specialty) and most importantly, let us face it, hard cold cash to people not only in Assembly races, but in state senate and in congressional contests as well. And not only to the pure-hearted. Howard, with his campaign committee and his protean fundraising capability, has moved into the category of the trial lawyers and the real estate brokers and the California Medical Association — and the bail bondsmen. That is to say, he himself has become a variety of special interest, and though he has preferred to support people with whom he is ideologically compatible, he sees no reason (he says this quite unabashedly) not to compete with the other special interests — especially during the period of the speakership fight, but in fact as a matter of ongoing policy — for the allegiance of viable candidates with whose overall philosophies he may have almost nothing in common.
There's more. Howard, in defiance of "this general poli-sci-textbook notion that gerrymandering is bad," can make an animated defense of the process, a defense in which the phrase “a good, firm, partisan redistricting” rings as though it were “motherhood and apple pie.” (A prescient view, as it will turn out.) Howard, in fact, straightforwardly regards reapportionment as a procedure to be manipulated as elaborately and as cleverly as possible, with any kind of political reform subordinated to preserving maximum Democratic flexibility and protecting Democratic party strength. ("I mean, one can do some political reform at the same time as one is protecting Democratic party interests, but ...") One of Howard's principal beefs with Leo, about which he could still wax supremely indignant a year later, concerned Leo's willingness to take a more relaxed, bipartisan, reformist approach to reapportionment questions, in particular his actions on a 1979 bill that would have quietly restored some partisan flexibility that the Democrats had inadvertently let slip away: "We were all set to go, and then we needed Leo to come to closure on a few Republicans who had key positions in the house and therefore had some obligations to go along with us, and Leo did not exercise that power. In fact, on the contrary, he gave passes" — he says this with incredulous annoyance —
He gave passes on the last night of session to two guys who wanted to be elsewhere, two Republicans who were logical people to vote for it, who were committed to voting for it — he gave 'em passes. Now, either he did it on purpose, because he didn't want to be embarrassed by press comment on this, or he wasn't even thinking along these lines...
Howard can talk about these things without making even ritual gestures towards piety or euphemism. (Leo, by contrast, particularly in the last several years of his speakership, had been much at pains to maintain an image of rectitude and correctness, the legislature's and his own.)
In short, Howard is — oh, no! — a politician; he is openly, blatantly a politician — a term that for some reason, in a number of Sacramento circles (including a number of ostensibly hard-boiled journalistic ones) where one would expect it to have achieved the status of a simple descriptive, instead is pronounced with a sort of pejorative little ping, uttered with the kind of disdain and vaguely sinister undertones that the last holdouts in amateur tennis might use in talking about people who have turned pro. Always with a posited antitheticalness to it, a dichotomy implied — a variation on the theme of virgin/whore. As if anything more than a peripheral involvement with the nuts and bolts aspect, with what one Sacramento reporter, his voice dripping scorn, witheringly describes as "winning… winning power, winning elections, tactical skirmishes, fundraising, that whole routine " — sputtering — "demographics, computer-runs, mailing lists, the whole minutiae of political technology” precluded, by its very nature, any serious concern with legislative issues or matters of public policy; that if you're occupied with one you can't — Q.E.D — be genuinely concerned with the other.
Howard, of course, holds precisely the opposite view:
To me, it's taking it all the more seriously, to be a hurly-burly, election-oriented politician. I mean, basically the notion that you're above the day-to-day politics, the vote trading — I tend to think that’s a person who doesn't care very much. So he can kind of luxuriate in his own nobility and he isn't going to stoop to the childish kind of relationships and the base politics around him… It may be that nothing he's pushing ever gets through, but he sits there noble and detached. And that's not what's needed — what's needed is more people who jump into the fray.
In any case, though, it's more the attitude than the actual involvement that seems to offend. A strange, schizophrenic prudery about the subject obtains in Sacramento, particularly among the press corps: there's a kind of macho admiration for proficiency in this area, respect for people who are good at it and scorn for people who are soft — i.e., who don't win ("Berman couldn't put it together, could he?" sniffs this same reporter dismissively after the outcome. "What else is there to say?") — but at the same time, some display of reluctance is required; an impression of regarding these things as a necessary evil. Leo, the former seminarian, the San Francisco Irish Catholic, with his straight-arrowness, his attention to appearances, met the requirements; he gave the impression of being — and perhaps, who knows, genuinely was — conflicted about these kinds of quotidian partisan chores. (Although he was certainly no stranger to gladhanding — more conventional in this way than Howard himself: on Saint Patrick's Day in 1980, one could watch Leo gliding around the fluorescent-lit temporary Assembly chamber, with its yellow tweed carpeting and its rows of schoolboy-looking desks and its floor bouncing as if it had been built over water, passing out green felt stick-on shamrocks with all the enthusiasm of a Rotarian; during a break in the final committee hearings on the Peripheral Canal bill the same year, one could watch Leo wander in and out, massaging the neck of Rueben Ayala [D-Modesto], chunky in his electric-blue suit, sitting at the testimony table.) Howard and his cohorts — a whiff here of “those pushy, vulgar Jews” — are clearly not conflicted in the least; and it's almost as if the nakedness of their absorption were itself the breach of the code.
Thus one could hear throughout the year, in Sacramento, the same phrases echoing back and forth like a catechism, the communicants apparently forgetting, in the gratifying simplicity of this fix on things, that Howard was someone many of them had habitually gone to for issues analysis, while Leo's own superior prowess at the crass mechanics of getting other people elected, whatever conflictedness it may have caused him, had been one of the decisive factors in his original victory over Willie, who at that point had had no political organization and little orientation towards the election of others — one could hear that Howard "views politics as an end unto itself," whereas "Leo is committed to politics as a means to the end of government. " Truly remarkable, the vehement, verbatim wording of the certitudes. One could hear that "Leo believes in legislation for its own sake" — politics did not concern this man — whereas Howard — the ultimate indictment! — “Howard breathed politics from the day he was born, I swear to God … Young Democrats" — what could be more pernicious? — “and everything. Michael Berman's a political animal, that's all he thinks about, and as for Dick Robinson …"
Not only Dick Robinson, actually, but Rick Lehman, and Bill Lockyer and Walter Ingalls, as well. For Howard had aligned himself with, and relied on, in the speakership fight, in addition to the Waxman-Berman crowd, this group of conservative legislators from the Central Valley, all of them, in fact, rather narrowly-focused, pure political types (a young, bumptious crew exuding a certain truculent, boisterous horseplay style; they have bowl haircuts, most of them, and a number of them are short, so when they stand up to be introduced at Howard's fundraising dinners they look as if they’re members of the same family) — people about whom it could accurately be said (Howard himself does say it) that their interest in issues is something less than profound.
And he'd brought them in deliberately. "I wanted them with me," says Howard calmly. "They're elections-oriented and politics-oriented and so am I"; although by fall, the months of aspersiveness drumming away at him, he is ready to point out with a kind of plaintive urgency, “Look at the others who came with me” — the straightest-arrow liberals, Gary Hart from Santa Barbara, Tom Banes from Marin, the most left guys up there … Which is, of course, one of the reasons he needed the Robinson-Lehman crew: the caveat percolating under the general consensus that he would be Leo's successor — assuming, of course, that the Democrats kept control of the Assembly, doubts about which, as we shall see, were part of what was at stake — was that, as the California Journal put it in an article titled "The Next Speaker? Probably Howard Berman," that appeared a month before the challenge, "Berman's chief liability is his liberal philosophical bent."
Liberal/conservative, though, was not the point. (That kind of coalition-building is considered more acceptable — the man most often cited as epitomizing the "statesmanlike" character of Leo's contingent was Alister McAlister, a committed abortion foe; and while Howard's group, with its United Farm Workers' support, for instance, was on the whole slightly more liberal than Leo's — as Howard himself was slightly more liberal than Leo — Southern versus Northern Californian, urban versus rural, younger versus older were considered more salient distinctions. And in any case, once the challenge had been launched, people chose up sides for an astonishingly motley array of reasons, the simple personal grudge factor looming large among the outer ring of supporters in both camps.) No, “operators" was the word with the curl of the lip to it, "hustlers" — the prejudice against the style of overt politicalness so deeply ingrained that it can admit no validity or complexity of motive; everything's tainted by the association.
Thus one could hear, apropos the challenge itself, that what it was really about was Dick Robinson's lust for control of the Finance, Insurance and Commerce Committee (a committee that, as it deals with banking and insurance and trucking legislation, has traditionally been a plum spot for the soliciting of campaign contributions from the Third House, as the Sacramento lobbyist corps is known); and one could hear that what it was really about was Leo’s practice of going home to San Francisco for dinner with his family every night (he had his priorities straight), rather than staying around to socialize. The general perception that emerged, in other words, was that Howard and a bunch of greedy amoral technocrats were out to wrest power from good grey Leo McCarthy, whose primary failing was that he didn't stroke their egos enough or throw enough campaign money, that unspeakable stuff, their way.
And to add another layer of complication, there is — the extremity of both sets of characterizations aside — a good deal of truth to this reasoning. "It's all of those," says Janis at the beginning of the uproar, when she is even more blunt and matter-of-fact than Howard himself (though as the year wears on, her nerves frayed, she, too, will grow more guarded and defensive, combative even…):
It's all of those involved. Whether it's the insurance lobby or the savings and loans, these are the people who finance campaigns. That’s just the way it works. And, I mean, people like to be chairmen of FI&C because they get a lot of contributions and then they — it makes them more powerful and then they can hand the money out to other people and get even more powerful that way. So of course that’s a part of it … I don’t think it's the great major part, but it definitely all fits in.
And yes, Leo's five o'clock departures fit in, too: because the stroking and socializing are part of the job in a way that the disparaging intonation misses the point of, not so much in and of themselves — although even just going through the motions can knit and soothe — but for what they signify. ("I think Leo could have flown home every night to San Francisco just fine," says Howard, "if people had felt a little more accessible to him in some personal sense during the day.") They're part of the warp and woof, these things, tied to that most powerful and enabling ingredient of politics at all levels: the projection of personal concern. Leaders who count on cooperation ignore this ingredient at their peril. (The value of strokes was apparently being recognized in those days even by one of their most renowned non-practitioners: "The governor," says a message for Gray one evening, "wants you to call his father and be nice … ") And a Speaker, whose constituency, after all, is the entirety of his members, is no exception. Style is meaning, at a certain point, and taking the time to inquire about families and district problems and the resolution or non-resolution of hitches isn't some mere frivolous exercise in empty good fellowship; it's nothing more nor less than the emblematic acknowledgement of certain enduring emotional needs.
Overlap, interweave. The trouble with these explanations, though, even with the sneer removed from them, was not so much what they included, but what they left out. The real truth, and the problem with the whole "what-was-really-behind-it-all" approach, was that there wasn’t any one thing — which is why, apart from the prejudice against his style, and the presence of a press secretary and an assistant press secretary in the Speaker's office, which tended to tilt coverage to the advantage of the incumbent, Howard had so much difficulty making his public case. If the bitterness the challenge provoked was divorce-like, so was the complex synergy of what brought it about. They were like strands in a braid, the reasons and the dissatisfactions — the very intricacy of their relationship is part of what gives them resonance even now — and to pull out only one of them is to come up short.
For one thing, what the conspiratorial interpretation, with its reflexive cynicism, overlooked was the most bottom-line fact of all. It wasn't routine pre-campaign anxiety Howard was talking about in December of 1979 — rather, Assembly Democrats were coming off the positively disastrous elections of 1978, when, in the midst of a record-setting Democratic gubernatorial victory, they had lost seven seats. ("Seven seats!" says a longtime Sacramento observer. "Do you know the last time the Republicans made a bigger gain than that? Sixty years ago — 1918, 1920, back in there...") If the trend continued, and there was no reason, what with the rumblings of the new conservatism and the new Republican resurgence, to think that it wouldn't, it looked as the Democrats might actually lose their majority in the house — and lose it in a reapportionment year, which would then, by putting the Republicans in control of the redistricting process mandated by the new census figures, give the losses a chance to get etched into permanence, or, at the very least, into the decade to come.
There were, in short, in the Assembly "some ve-rrry frightened Democrats," as the Sacramento observer put it, who were in a panic about their prospects, who wanted something done, and who instead saw Leo, their titular leader — this issues-oriented, government-oriented man — off raising money (close to $500,000 in 1979) earmarked for a campaign of his own three years away, cutting into their own fundraising sources and increasingly too busy with his plans even to discuss theirs with them. What better definition of being hung out to dry?
These things ray out. It's a truism that the first priority of every politician is to get reelected ("The most important word in any of our vocabularies," says Paul Priolo, the former Assembly minority leader, "is 'I'"); what tends to get lost in the politics vs. government formulation is that people's security about their reelection chances has policy implications — is liberating, and in the context of the current climate, one of the few elements that can liberalize. One way that politics and government can intersect is by the use of the political party as a sort of protective umbrella, interposing money and resources and therefore courage between a legislator's unpopular or controversial decisions and the possible reaction of voters in his district. The fate of progressive legislation depends a great deal on this reassurance; Howard, with his acute sensitivity to bottom-line needs, his awareness that to be left standing alone vis-à-vis one's constituents — or one's contributors — is an exceedingly uncomfortable place to be, makes particular use of it. ("You talk about it in blatant political terms," says Jack. “‘I think this might cause you a problem, and if you end up voting for it — and I want you to vote for it — you're gonna have to cover these bases. Here are the people in your district who can help, here are the people in the state-wide organization that can integrate and help you …”) The involvement of a Democratic Speaker in amassing campaign funds and providing campaign assistance, especially in a weak-party state like California — an aspect of the job to which Leo in the past had paid diligent attention — can counter the influence of the special interests; it’s a large part of what makes a coherent Democratic program possible.
The removal of this security blanket can be devastating. Clearly, you can't have much of a Democratic program without a Democratic majority, but even a diminished majority — and the Democrats were already below the two-thirds then required for money bills — poses difficulties for legislation, for "governance": it's harder to impose party discipline when a legislator is feeling vulnerable to dislodgement, and a loss of seats takes away the leeway to let people with marginal districts off the hook. Reapportionment, too, rays out in a programmatic sense; is more than just politics. The demographic changes in California, with inner-city areas losing population and the suburbs gaining it, favor Republicans and conservatives in the congressional delegation as well as at the state level, and this has national implications for years into the future. The relinquishment of reapportionment control, or the weakening of it, means giving up one of the few ways to mitigate the trend — namely the partisan engineering (with all its unpleasant, unstatesmanlike connotations) of enough safe seats to give progressive coalitions a sufficient margin to take hold.
So that Leo, in his serene focus on his possible 1982 election, was doing more than reducing the size of the potential warchests available to a few restless political operatives, or depriving a craven membership of a little superficial hand-holding — he was also jeopardizing some loftier goals to which he was ostensibly deeply committed.
Howard, in his announcement of his candidacy and intermittently thereafter, attempted to make — did make — a number of these connections explicit; tried to call attention to the ramifications. The press, though, engrossed in its concentration on the blind ambition motif, and the sabotaged friendship motif (actually, as it happened, Howard and Leo weren't friends, in any personal, outside-the-office sense, a festering distance which was itself one of the hidden elements in the configuration: "They were allies," cries Janis, "they were business associates, we never socialized — never in five and a half years, not ever!"), and the titillating speculations about what other political figures might be involved (“I mean, obviously Ken Cory wants to eliminate Leo from the governor's race, see?” “Jerry got to Chavez, no doubt about it...”), and returning always, as if drawn by magnet, to the glinty-eyed hustlers refrain, favored these intricacies with a jaded disregard.
And of course there was raw self-interest involved; of course Robinson and Lehman weren't losing any sleep about the threat to progressive initiatives, and of course Carl D'Agostino was spending more time helping Michael Berman out with strategy than his boss, then-state controller Ken Cory, would have permitted if the idea of a blow to Leo's stature had been entirely displeasing to him. (But both Ken and Carl were also long-time, from-the-old-days, Waxman-Berman friends.) And of course Howard himself wasn't consumed by a pure-driven altruistic flame: He had counted on succeeding Leo in 1982, and he wanted to succeed Leo in 1982 and the loss of Democratic control would clearly put an end to his speakership chances. (Even a reduced majority would adversely affect them, since under the Rule of 41 it would take only a few defecting Democrats for the Republicans to call the shots, and Howard would thus be even more susceptible than Leo, who’d had his own brushes with coalition putsches — most notably those backed by Willie — to denial by coalition.) But Howard is also someone who, unprompted, in situations where he has nothing in particular to gain by it, will go on for 15 minutes at a time about "the Democratic agenda" and "the progressive agenda" and what in the next few years they should be; Howard is someone whom Gary Hart first got in touch with when he came to Sacramento because Al Lowenstein, who’d had a great deal of contact with him during the Democratic antiwar insurgency effort in 1968, had spoken of him so highly. ("Howard was one of the key people Al relied on in California — he seemed to be the most sensible and the most principled, and so when I had a chance to meet him, I, y'know, really took notice.”)
In other words, there are perhaps some reasons for believing the Howard who says, "Yeah, I wanted the job, but the reason I sought it then was not — my desire for that job at that particular time was not so passionate in me that I'd step over anyone to get it, do anything to get it;" the Howard who points out that "in fact, all kinds of factors argued against it for me at a personal level: having the baby, moving houses, all that stuff — from the personal point of view, it was the worst time … ah … to be seeking that job;" and the Howard who admits readily that "there was some sense that if I didn't do it then, if things continued to go the way they were, there might not be any job for me to have," but who then draws the link between that possibility and what it would also mean: "that the Democrats weren't gonna be controlling the Assembly… or their control would be so thin … that all the other things I cared about wouldn't be happening either."
Discounting that last concern, deciding it isn't genuine, is — never mind how unfair to Howard, it's unfair to us; it flattens the story out, drains it of modulation and coloration and whatever flickers of instructiveness it contains. Challenging someone with whom you have no ideological quarrel is such an interesting proposition anyway, and in this case it loomed so harshly — “So large," says Jack, "taking him on … I can only compare it to a child taking on a parent" — and gives us such a window into a world we rarely look at, that to dismiss it as a power trip is to leave the good stuff out. The intricacy and the admixture are the story, the sinuous entanglement of issues and self-interest.
And it was even more complicated than that.
Howard still sat, until August of 1980, when the legislature adjourned and the warriors on each side dispersed to concentrate their energies on the legislative races that were supposed to decide the outcome of the contest, in his old majority leader's suite of offices in the capitol, four doors down the hall from the Speaker's office, that warren of hidden-away rooms with its massive carved wooden doors opening to a high-ceilinged reception area, like a miniature replica of the governor's office three floors below. That Howard wasn't ousted from his old office in the immediate aftermath of the unseating attempt did as much to attest to his continuing status as a major force in the Assembly — the size and solidity of his contingent — as did his routine inclusion, in a kind of ex officio capacity throughout the year, at the sort of informal leadership strategy sessions from which even in his post as Democratic caucus chairman he could just as easily have been frozen out. The disposition of office assignments (which is a prerogative of the Speaker's) bears witness to shifts in power in the Assembly in the same way that the outcome of various events in the movie business is reflected in the painting in and out of names on the parking spaces of studio lots. Also, Howard still had a large office Xerox machine. In the middle of the spring, Willie Brown — who, ironically enough, by virtue of his promotion to majority leader had been moved from the small, second-floor office to which he'd been exiled as the defeated candidate in the prior speakership contest up to a spacious fifth-floor suite that he actually found less convenient — was having trouble getting his Xerox machine delivered (and was spending a fair amount of time in the Democratic lounge chivvying people ... “Where's my goddamned Xerox machine, you son-of-a-bitch? " ... about it).
Xerox machines are very important in the Assembly, and so is the whole business of office space and the number of committee consultants, and the size of people's staffs, and district communications budgets, and the creation of committees, and the number of seats on committees, and the time of day sessions are called for — all the technical housekeeping details that seem minor, but that trail out in unsuspectedly ramifying ways, and about which (especially when other things aren't going well) people can grow downright obsessional, conversations on loftier topics blossoming suddenly into welters of unnervingly detailed concreteness. ("I mean," says Willie, "when Moretti was here, you didn't have to prove you needed a Xerox machine by volume, by the number of uses you were makin' on the cooperative Xerox machine in the hall... See, everybody has an individual key, so they know whether or not you're usin' 500 copies a day versus 100 copies a day …" And so on.)
"My sense," reflects John Vasconcellos wearily one evening,
is that we're a lot up here like everybody else, the things we do here are the same things other people do elsewhere, except that we're in the fishbowl and it magnifies every scratch. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the fight between Leo and Howard wasn't, I don't think, too different from a struggle for labor union leadership, or for a university presidency, or for a bishopric in the church, or for the head of General Motors
— and he's right, in a way, but there was enormous particularity to it, too. In fact it's not much of an exaggeration to say that, in the total scheme of things, Xerox machines, not entirely metaphorically speaking, are as basic to an understanding of what happened and why as anything about the operations of the Waxman-Berman political machine.
Because so much of what eventually erupted centered on — or was at the least critically exacerbated by — just these mundane, day-to-day technical operations of the house, and Leo's management of them, which had an autocratic, centralized, straight-and-narrow flavor that sat especially irksomely after the laissez-faire Moretti and Jesse Unruh days, and about which nobody was inclined to be more vociferous than — even in his new position — Willie himself: Willie, opining in his outrageous, bad-ass squeak, "It was strictly a Nazi-type operation… Leo thought he had to have sign-off authority on every sleeve of toilet paper that went in the bathrooms;" Willie, who rants about the indignities of the extent of Leo's personal control over the legislative calendar, "I don't care who chairs the committee if in fact — in fact! — to get my bill heard I got to go see the Speaker. There's something wrong with that;” Willie, who can get more worked-up than anybody about the dire results of inconsiderate scheduling:
One of the worst things a Speaker can do is to frame the time the house meets around his own goddamned schedule. Like on Thursday mornings, we ought to meet at 9:30, so every guy from Los Angeles can get back and get a head-start. Well, we used to meet at one o'clock, which means that those guys from Southern California are screwed — they don't get home until late Thursday night. You lose a half a day, and you lose that half a day too often, two years running, you end up losin' the election. And you don't just call a caucus meeting on a Tuesday when there's no session — supposing Boatright, for example, wished to go down to his district on Tuesday. He was chairman of Ways and Means, he couldn't be missing caucus — he's been down in his district all day and he has to come back here at three o'clock in the afternoon for a damned caucus — that's crazy! Where nothing happens inside the caucus anyway but a bunch of bullshit.
Willie. In some sense — in some very large sense — the speakership fight, and certainly its protractedness, was always every bit as much about Howard and Willie as it was about Leo and Howard, still the playing out of events from six years before. Willie, whose presence is so vivid, whose personal charisma is so intense that even during his years out of power he could exert influence on that basis alone; Willie, who is sitting in the Democratic lounge on this April morning of 1980 like a page out of Gentlemen's Quarterly, immaculate in his Wilkes-Bashford brown flannels, with a collar pin under his tie, and a discreet, luxurious, polka-dotted, maroon silk handkerchief peeping out of his pocket, and glossily shining shoes, and his ebony face carving the air, tossing wadded-up letters into a wastebasket halfway across the room.
Leo's dominance, for the most part, was from the beginning a function of his job, the stern rigidities of his performance. (The longtime Sacramento observer remembers being surprised when he emerged as Speaker: "He was such a colorless individual, no one expected it.") Willie and Howard are both presences, in their contrasting ways — Willie with his dramatic flair, Howard with his throw-away hyperactivity — whose impact derives from sheer personality and skill, irrespective, in both cases, of position per se; and they are bound, these two, in a web of mutual admiration and animosity next to which the ambivalences of Howard and Leo's relationship seem a pale fire. They are such whole people, such focuses for each other; their preoccupation with one another is so intense that they're like a previously married couple at the same party, circling and glancing, locked in the antagonists' bond. So that here is Willie, his bad-ass squeak alternating with his hypnotic, sonorous, chanting drone — the same Willie whose public excoriation of Howard has been more savage than practically anyone's; "Have you seen some of his quotes?" Howard asks, doing them in Willie's voice, “‘You can't turn your back on that guy, you better get it cash in ad-va-ance…’” (Oh, ironies abound) — here is Willie talking about Howard's "indescribable quality”:
You can't manufacture that quality, it's either there or it isn't. He has the ability to quickly grasp a situation; he has the ability to make people believe he understands it better than they do, in most cases; he has the ability to make people believe what he says is the proper response to whatever the situation happens to be — he 's always been a person who could advocate and make people believe and be entertainin' at the same time…
And here is Willie doing a threnodic riff on the halcyon days of Mice Milk, a weekly luncheon group they used to have, held in opposition to Moose Milk, the lobbyist-sponsored spread — eight or 10 of them, the really bright liberal guys, the best and the brightest, the happy few, they’d eat lunch, they’d play the dozens, you had to be sharp to be in the group, you had to be well-read, you had to trade wits, it formed them all as better legislators, cemented their independence, and Howard was one of them, along with Willie and John Burton and Henry Waxman and Alan Sieroty — not Leo, most definitely not Leo. And then Howard loosened it up, when Leo was elected, he began bringing in other people, and of course it fell apart, it lost its thrust...
And Howard — this is still the summer of 1980, before the fight is resolved — hears about this and laughs: "To me that's the ultimate in hypocrisy, Willie talking about ideologically pure." For it was Willie’s generally relaxed approach to ideological and ethical issues, the problematic relationship, for instance, between the clientele of his continuing private law practice in San Francisco, which included a large number of important retail interests, and his apparently untroubled representation of these clients’ views on various pieces of legislation, the faint aura of conflict-of-interest and conmanship that attached to him, that had been one of the main stumbling blocks to Howard and his group's endorsing him rather than Leo in 1974.
Howard says, with typical laconic deflation, "Mice Milk?... It was this little group we had, we used to sit around and eat sandwiches and make witty remarks. We had it the day before Moose Milk so that people could go to both, there was no policy to it…," and then, a moment later, he says gently, soberly: "See, that's Willie's thing from the old days, when Moretti was Speaker and Willie was runnin' things, that's his own personal sense of loss, I think, more than..."; and then, a few moments afterward, shaking his head admiringly, "Willie is one of the — he is the most talented person in the house, there's no question, in terms of quickness of mind and speech and … putting it well. He's tremendous, no doubt about it." And then still later, his voice soft with a kind of reminiscent regret:
See, the sad thing about Willie Brown is here's this brilliant, articulate, generally liberal black guy — too bad he's so … loose … because a guy like that could’ve really... I mean, you can see why I would have come up here always assuming I'd be for him for Speaker. Oh, the chance of getting someone like that!
And Michael Berman, in the summer, talking about Willie's "vibrancy," and he, too, talking about his talent, how he can control a committee hearing just by "dominating the floor, you know, a quip here, a quip there — I think he's one of the most talented people in the business;" Michael concocting an alternative scenario for Willie's initial decision this time around that carries with it not only the recognition of what a change it would have made in the outcome — for there was never any question but that if Willie had joined with Howard it would have been over and done with the next day, just as there was never a real thought that he would, the resentment about the past and the beckoning possibilities of stepping into the gap always being assumed to be too strong — not only that, but an elegiac wistfulness about the idea of Howard and Willie working together: "If Willie had just said, 'Ah, screw it,'" says Michael,
"All right, so you screwed me, fine. I like to talk to you more, you'll give me a role in the house, you're not a stuffed shirt, you're the only guy on the same intellectual level in the place, let bygones be bygones, Leo's got to go …" If he had just said that, "I want to take care of my guys, I've got a few guys, Waddie Deddeh and Jack Fenton and a couple of others, you take care of them… And let's just revamp this house, you do the politics, you do the stuff, give me some show stuff, y'know, so I can put on a show for my clients …" And Howard would have said, 'I can't give you policy or that stuff, but you can have your spokesmen for you on the floor, and this, and this,' and here would have been these two talents..."
Michael's voice trails off in the contemplation.
Does this connect to housekeeping? Yes, it does, in an entwined way. Of course, one could regard Leo’s style of management as a form of stiff-necked compulsiveness, or one could see it as responsible, frugal, good-government reformism (and in fact it had elements of both) — it had, in any case, a historically inevitable basis to it, related to the climate in which he took office. Leo had been elected Speaker in the midst of the full flowering of what one might call process-liberalism: Jerry Brown the gubernatorial nominee (in what was widely interpreted as a rejection of the old-style norms); the passage of Prop 9, the Fair Political Practices Act; Watergate coming to a head; a general mood of political puritanicalism and focus on procedure, and much deprecating talk about old pols and their ways of doing business. (Not yet then any nostalgic revisionism about Hubert Humphrey or Pat Brown.) In other words, Leo had a sort of perceived public mandate for tightening up on the school for scoundrels in the statehouse; it meshed with his personal inclinations, and he set about to do it.
And you can do these things — you can clean house and clamp down and cut back on perks, on travel budgets and staffing budgets and so forth — without provoking more than a little routine internal bitching and moaning, all the McCarthyites' knowing post-November commentary about the necessity of "goodies" notwithstanding. But real life is real life; there are contexts and trade-offs. The bald, fundamental job of the Speaker is to serve his members. You don't have a statewide constituency, realistically speaking; and you can affect public policy only through the process of keeping your constituency of members served — if not by making things convenient for them, then at least balancing it out by performing in the two other major areas involved: First, by keeping them politically protected — that is, secure about their re-election prospects … and secondly, by keeping in touch with them, paying them personal attention, lending the sympathetic ear, checking in regularly, explaining, making them feel cared for and appreciated — i.e., stroking.
This last had become even more important in those days, and in an expanded sense, than it had been in earlier times. There was a new emotional topography in Sacramento by then: the younger members, especially, were tending to live there, rather than back in the district, moving their families there. With young children, with wives working, a lot of them, with more divorces, they had developed, these younger legislators, in that half-generation's difference, an accustomedness to informality, to personal communication — and a need for these things that went beyond being one-of-the-boys. Coping with loneliness (it's a town that does get lonely), the families socialized with one another; there was an openness about problems. Sitting around together, drinking and playing hearts, they talked about marital troubles and kid troubles and money worries… The ability to ask for help and empathy, and the expectation of receiving it, had taken on an increased role.
Leo wasn't providing it — even by proxy, which is a way it can be done; a way that Howard, who himself had always tried not to schedule too much for evenings and was often enmeshed in legislation during the day, had learned to do it, through Jack. Jack, who in addition to his political daily rounds (an intelligence-gathering and -giving routine that included, if it were a slow morning and 45 people hadn't stopped in by noon, or at least checked in by phone, and for that reason he started to get antsy, had a set of physical perambulations in which the very hallways were personalized in his head … The fourth floor's a great floor for him, any kind of resource problem he goes there, he's got Dick Robinson and Mel Levine; he's got committee room 4202, which usually has a major hearing in it, members trickling in and out, this consultant or that one, lobbyists; he can stand there with his arms folded and someone's bound to cross his path, needing or importing something… it's right up the fire stairs. The second floor's good, too, three hearing rooms — 2107, 2113, and 2131 — nearly always something going on) — Jack, as Howard put it, "really sort of specializes in having these good personal relationships with every legislator, they go out to dinner, they do that stuff… And letting people know that Jack, who they can get to, gets them to me, allows me to get a lot more done during the day than I could otherwise."
Leo, who was in general less comfortable with delegating, didn't significantly use even Howard that way. Certainly no one on his staff had Jack's designated-hitter status — if you had something to discuss with Leo, you discussed it with him, making an appointment, usually, the way one would with a high-school principal, his stiffness discouraging the casual buttonhole chat. And the result of this administrative retentiveness, coupled with the stiffness and the getting-home-for-dinner-on-time constraints, this reluctance to parcel out responsibility for gripe-fielding and stroke-delivery and communication, meant these things were barely getting done at all.
Even this might have washed — as it did for the first four years or so, as long as the elections were being won. But in concert with the loss of seats and the apparent selfish hoarding of campaign funds, and now, with more of Leo’s focus directed toward his statewide plans, an ever-increased peremptoriness of manner ("When we approached some of those guys, after the outbreak," says Jack, "I swear it was like talking to emancipated slaves: 'Jeez, when I think about how he used to treat us… ' I mean, he would just call up and say what he wanted, he wouldn't listen; you could say something, but he wouldn't hear the words…"), it was bound to lead to trouble. A growing, pent-up hostility was the result, even among those who would decide to stick with Leo — there was very little compensation indeed, now, for the tight housekeeping reins; no cushion.
Unfortunately it was at this very point, whether with an eye to enhancing his statewide image (ironically, there was a need, so it seemed, as Leo became more interested in higher office, for him to appear less conventionally political) or in reaction to the mood of Prop 13 (the passage of which, as it happened, increased the legislative workload, and in addition, many members felt, could have been avoided in the first place if Leo had been willing to work more amicably with the state Senate to get a property tax relief measure out the year before) — it was at this point that Leo decided to intensify the housekeeping squeeze, instituting a new round of cuts on staff and consultants and the sergeant-at-arms' budget and allocations for district mailings (while at the same time starting a statewide mailing program of his own, which sat badly). The finespun balance was unraveling; the exercise of this sort of discipline was beginning to undermine the other sort, the policy kind. So that Howard, whose pragmatism on housekeeping questions more closely paralleled Moretti's and Unruh's — and Willie's ("Howard always felt that was sort of more form than substance," says Gary Hart, "that if you maybe had to buy somebody's vote on farm labor or tax policy by giving them an extra staff person, it was no big deal — I mean, that's putting it very starkly, but...") — Howard was finding, on issue after issue, that policy was being hurt, the legislative agenda eroded. A union security bill gets out, weakening the structure of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board — the ALRB! The McCarthy-Berman-Jerry Brown baby! Howard and Leo are both opposed to the bill, the leadership position is quite clear, but neither of them can round up the votes to stop it. Howard goes to guys like Walt Ingalls, for instance — Walt's conservative, but he doesn't have any major agricultural interests in his district; he's always been able to get Walt on a vote like this in the past, he could always get him. But now Walt's so pissed off about the staffing business and the newsletter cuts that he digs in his heels, and Howard just can't reach him, he can't do anything about it.
Yet at the same time, paradoxically, the strictness wasn't being used in any coherent, motivational way — as a tool in the Speaker's arsenal of power. This is the flip side of it, or can be — and there's a reservoir of tolerance, of admiration, even, for a Speaker who can be punitive in the pinches, who's prepared (here's more anomaly, more inside-outness) to be dictatorial in the progressive cause. Reform results achieved by non-reformist means — shunting off certain kinds of bills, for instance, to certain committees assured of being hostile to them, as Leo had consistently done with pesticide legislation, say, routinely routing it to Resources rather than the grower-dominated Ag Committee, in order to ensure more environmentally satisfactory outcomes. (That the Speaker's bill-assigning powers, which Leo throughout his tenure had made effective, impressive use of, and which he fought so hard to preserve during the various early skirmishes of the fight, would end up virtually disappearing via his eventual support of Willie, who, as one of his concessions in exchange for Republican backing, transferred that authority from the speakership to the six-member, bipartisan Rules Committee, would be another one of the major ironies of the January 1981 sorting-out.)
The pesticide efforts continued to go all right. But in the criminal justice area — a touchier field, since no member is exempt from district pressure on the subject, as he might be on, say, farm labor or pesticides — control was starting to slip, without Leo's being willing to take retaliatory action… the oppressiveness here not coming into play. There's less leeway about where to assign these bills (although the liberal Willie, in yet another irony of his ascendancy, would flirt with shutting down the Criminal Justice Committee altogether, leaving the more conservative Judiciary Committee as its only legislative heir) — there aren't too many places mandatory sentencing bills, for instance, however contortedly, can go. The ideological manipulation in this case had consisted of keeping the committee membership unrepresentationally liberal (Howard a continuing pressure on Leo to maintain it that way) and giving it a more or less explicit mandate to kill or keep bottled up the most extreme of the law-'n'-order bills, thereby taking the heat for the other members, and obviating the risk — most constituents not being too sensitive to details about constitutional safeguards or specific degrees of draconian-ness and tending to take a dim view of opposition to any measures labeled "anti-crime" — of having to vote against such bills on the floor.
A strong, issues-oriented Speaker protects a progressive coalition in this fashion, if he is liberally inclined — especially during the days when what Howard calls "keeping the criminal justice system reasonably sane and proportional" was still a respectable part of the liberal agenda. (Willie, who only a half-year before had been berating Howard for not doing enough in that direction, for being too conservative, would eventually, in a January about-face, solve his problem vis-à-vis the ideological coloration of the portion of the membership actually responsible for electing him by enlarging and de-liberalizing the committee and leaving it in place.) A strong Speaker can also beat down, if it comes to that, the only way to circumvent this method of protection, which is to carry a motion — two-thirds of the whole house required for passage — to withdraw the bills from committee (an effort that procedurally, of course, sounds like a good, transparent one) and get them to the floor for an open vote.
That these efforts even get made at all is something of an embarrassment to a Speaker; they reflect badly on his strength. But in the last 18 months before the challenge, not only were they being made — and made by Democrats, to boot — but they were carrying. "Lots and lots," says an appalled Criminal Justice staffer, "of successful motions to withdraw." And this same staff person, mild-mannered, "non-political," the very model of a good-government, puritanical type, asked what Leo could have done to prevent this, says approvingly, "There are lots of ways. You can take away a guy's consultant, you can stick him in a sixth floor office with no chairs." With relish: "There's all sorts of leverage a Speaker has to stop it." Instead, the puritanical gestures seemed to be getting made for their own sake only — the onus without the bonus, as one observer put it waggishly — functioning merely as irritants, not weapons.
So then why didn't Howard say something, why didn't he speak up? He would have protested, says Willie in the spring of 1980, and Leo would have been better served by it; he would have confronted McCarthy just the way he was, he said, currently, doing every day:
Every day! 'Hey, this is what ought to be done and these are the reasons it ought to be done, and people perceive you as a tight-ass, and I think they're right, for the following reasons: You don't smile, you don't associate with people, you keep your goddamned door closed, you keep your goddamned mind closed, you think you have to sign off on every sleeve of toilet paper…
And "This is right," says Howard, soberly. "This was a — a — weakness in my dealings with Leo, too much of a deference and a respectfulness towards him, that's a legitimate point." Then a chuckle, knowing, amused. "And Willie, of course, doesn't defer to anything or anybody…" Another chuckle, this time a yelp of delight. "Besides, Willie hates Leo" — whom Willie does, in fact, throughout this period continue to refer to as "the enemy" — “so he probably enjoys telling him off..." ("You're goddamned right," says Willie. "Much easier to talk to an enemy than to a friend.")
But Howard didn't hate Leo, and how could he help deferring to him? He had come into power so quickly: Here he was, majority leader at 33, after a mere year and a half in the Assembly — for all his involvement in Young Democrats and in various Waxman-Berman-assisted campaigns, the seat itself is his first crack at elective office. And here is Leo, 10 years older, this forceful, confident commander; not just any old authority figure either, but someone to genuinely admire; an honest, decent, hard-working, serious-minded guy…
Besides — this is the spiraling fallout from the past, its grip and consequences ("It's like this miniature world that we're in," says Howard, "all these little plots and subplots") — the straight-arrow qualities were precisely what had been responsible for Howard's going with Leo in the first place, in 1974, bringing his group along with him … the very reason he'd picked him over Willie, with whom he was, personally, infinitely more simpatico, and hypothetically, at least, more ideologically compatible. In addition, to be sure — Howard cheerfully admits this; he brings it up himself, with his customary matter-of-factness about the less lofty aspects of anything — to an awareness that he personally might stand to gain more in the process this way, that his support might mean more to Leo than it would to Willie, who had never formally solicited it. ("It was ‘Well, I assume I got Berman, so I don't have to talk to Berman’ — he never asked.” Light ironic chuckle. "He blew it. Of course, he lived to pay me back…")
"I thought Leo was the more honest," says Howard,
More progressive in the broadest sense of the word, less of a game-player, less of a con-man … and probably, at some subconscious level, I also thought that as one of the new guys in the Assembly I would maybe do better with him as Speaker. But I guess I'm a person who needs a lot of self-justification sometimes to pursue my own interests, and I really did believe that Leo would be better for the state generally, a better person and a better public official than Willie.
“For the record?” — this is fall, now, and he's anticipating Willie's spoiler potential. "For the record" — laughing, mock-declamatory — “I did not realize Willie Brown's greatness at the time. I was deluded into thinking Leo would be better…" Soberly again, quietly: "No. At the time, I did think Leo would be better."
And then, once he’s cast his lot in with Leo, there's the confusion in his own mind. At first he doesn't see the problems plain — in the beginning they're not as egregious anyway, the leadership's working well, quite a bit's getting accomplished — and what he does notice is blurred in a kind of mishmash of perception; he's not entirely clear himself about what's right to do. "I mean," says Howard, "Leo had all these moralisms, which were so much related to his own desire for a good self-image. And initially I thought, y'know, my God, isn't it refreshing to have this integrity to crack down on your own members for the good of everyone… And then later on I just concluded that what he was doing was stupid in so many ways, and silly, and had no purpose… "
The business about committees for instance — “It seems like the funniest thing now," says Howard, for during the period of the contest Leo had radically re-evaluated his stance, enlarging committees and creating a number of new ones:
‘We have to have fewer committees, the house will operate in more orderly fashion with fewer committees, this is an important goal’ — which of course deprives people of roles, and all that stuff. And 'This committee only heard 211 bills this year, therefore it should not be a 13-member committee, it should only be a nine-member committee' — and he'd kick people off, people who wanted to be on this committee. I mean, he had funny theories; he liked putting things in slots. If a committee heard fewer bills, it should be a smaller committee. I would argue just the opposite, and did: Hey, wait a second, if a committee hears a lot of bills, then it should be a smaller committee, so you can get done with the work faster, you don't have everybody talking on a whole bunch of bills — that's the one that should have fewer members…
But he doesn't argue about it all that much, about this or about anything (except about Criminal Justice, where he feels particularly strongly that a chain's only as strong as its weakest link, and he keeps pushing). Because there is something else.
We are in the realm here of quirk, and circumstance, and the wild card of personal chemistry and emotion — all these vicissitudes — and here we shall pretty much stay until the end. "If either of them had been just a little different," says Vasconcellos with back-lit, hindsight sadness, thinking about it:
If Leo had been — a little less — distant and, y'know, more open to Howard, Howard wouldn't have felt as disaffected. If Howard had been more open in expressing his disaffection, Leo would probably have responded, 'cause Leo can — I mean, I feel that it's just a tragic occurrence. ‘For want of a nail, the whole house came down.’ For want of just a little more communication the thing went in the soup.
The embarrassing truth of the matter is that Howard, who can talk easily to almost anyone, who can say to Jerry Brown, “You selfish pig!” when he thinks so, or, “That's the stupidest idea I ever heard,” becomes, in Leo's presence, somehow frozen-up, tongued-tied, inhibited (and feels predictably humiliated and resentful as a result). Something about Leo just has that effect on him. It's his manner — there's no give and take, no more so with Howard, his lieutenant, than with any other member, never an implied, “What do you think?” (Never a “Come on over this weekend and we'll talk about it.”) Leo will get a notion and want to go ahead with it, and whatever it is, he's so convinced that it’s right and smart, he's so intransigent in his convictions, that to express a doubt or an opinion is to start something new.
And for all the years they spend working together, despite the fact that Howard's put him into the speakership, for Christ's sake, so that his own position isn't properly a matter for gratitude, but one of entitlement — the most basic kind of quid pro quo — the effect doesn't dissipate; up until the time of the challenge itself, it doesn't go away.
So he keeps silent, equipoised among his reasons. And when Leo announces, to a leadership meeting in his office early in 1979 — a meeting with Howard and Art Agnos, who's caucus chairman that session, and Rick Lehman and Maxine Waters, who are the whips — that he's planning to spend the following year raising funds for himself for 1982, he keeps silent this time, too. And knows that he shouldn't have. What he should have done at that point, he knows, is to say, Leo. Yes, you deserve to — you've worked hard and everything, but you can't, you must not do that. Because everything in 1982 depends on what happens in 1980. This is the critical election, this is the reapportionment legislature, we just finished losing seven seats, it could happen again, we could lose another seven or 10 — every ounce of our financial efforts has to be put for the legislative races next year. Then once we've retained good control, taken care of reapportionment, we can go into fundraising for 1982…
But he doesn't say that.
Instead he goes back to his office with Rick Lehman after the meeting and he says to Lehman, "This is the pits." Because they're not going to be able to make up the difference, he says, the rest of them; none of them on their own can raise that kind of money for the legislative campaigns, especially with Leo hitting people up at the same time; there will be duplicated efforts, contributors annoyed at having to give twice.
He's a loyal member of the team, though, and he doesn't spread his dissatisfaction around, doesn't go bitching and moaning to anyone else. And, of course, part of him feels that maybe Leo really does deserve it — isn't that part of Howard’s particular stock-in-trade as a legislator, as a labor lawyer, the ability to see things from the other person's point of view? The guy works so hard, he thinks to himself, he puts so much energy into things, he gets so tight about whether everything’s gonna work out, maybe it's fair for him to get a head start after all. Far from fomenting rebellion, then, he spends the next six months as he has the last six (now, however, with the members’ frustration level mounting; Leo growing more and more brusque and abrupt; the housekeeping cutbacks stinging; increasing residual dissatisfaction about the failure to prevent Prop 13; Leo’s insistence that John Thurmond hire Leo's chief-of-staff Bob Tweegle's brother as a consultant to the Ag Committee, which Thurmond regards as an assault on his manhood; the fundraising squeeze becoming palpable as Leo's solicitations for his two individual events — $750-a-plate dinners in San Francisco and Los Angeles — start competing with the preliminary appeals for the legislative races)…
He spends them calming people down.
That there's a trace of complicity to his behavior makes it all the more fraught, gives a more galvanizing impact to what happens next. He has gone along, choked things back, done the mollifying, on the basis of certain understandings about his presumptive inheritance — or at least these understandings have helped to justify his timidity (which he's not proud of) and his reluctance to speak up. Now, all of a sudden, to find that the understandings have been false ones — to speak out, as he finally does, at the cost of some awkwardness and trepidation, and discover that the game plan has been altered, not only without consultation but without notice; Leo not acknowledging the expectations or apologizing for undercutting them, not conferring or including or even going through the ritual motions of inquiring how the change will affect him, but just casually tossing it out there, laying it on him. A new, incendiary element enters the equation: He is made to feel like a fool.
He has gone, finally, to have things out, sufficiently agitated to be pushed to it — waits for the recess in July of 1979, then drives over to see Leo in his office in the state building in San Francisco. And there he does voice some of it: He's terribly worried about the course they're headed on; reapportionment's coming up, and he doesn’t see Leo thinking about it; they've inadvertently put a stupid amendment on the ballot for June of 1980, which in mandating the preservation of a community's “geographical integrity” will reduce their options in redrawing seats. Even if they do stay in power, and he's scared to death about that — district after district looks like it could go Republican — there are other bills affecting the Democratic Party that Leo's not paying attention to, because he's off raising his money. And on a personal level, what are Leo’s future plans for the speakership, anyway? Howard's been around five years; he'd like to know where he stands … Is Leo in fact still planning to step down early in 1982, as he's said before? Because if they lose the seats that Howard's afraid might go down to defeat, Howard’s own speakership chances get thrown into shadow.
And Leo's position, according to Howard, is this: He wants to run for governor. Or senator. But he's a realist, and he'll take a poll in December of 1981, and then maybe he'll decide he can't make it, and then he won't run; in which case maybe he'll stick around as Speaker through 19'83 or '84, because of pensions and 15 years and all that.
"In other words, what he was saying," says Howard, "was, ‘All right, we have this alliance and this relationship, but here are all these items I want to pursue, and if one doesn't work out I want to have the flexibility to go on to the next one and the next one and the next.’” With Howard responsible for the safety net! Howard in charge of holding the margin, seeing to the fundraising and the other guys' races, with Leo imposing these handicaps on him — Mr. Patsy! — for the sake of a race he may not even choose to make...
Talk about betrayal: Not only is Leo violating a political contract — for a quite specific commitment that he spend as much time and money as possible to maintain a strong Democratic majority, as both a goal in itself and as a fulcrum for policy enforcement (in contrast to Willie's hitherto more relaxed views about fellow-Democrats' campaigns), had been another essential underpinning of Leo and Howard’s original coalition — he's jerking around the very guy he’s now asking to smooth the violations over for him; jerking him around in a real thoughtless, insensitive kind of way.
Well. The personal breach isn't enough to mount a challenge on — although eventually it will prove the most potent basis for Leo's counterattack (“Be-tra-a-yed!”… Art Agnos walking the halls on his behalf with tears streaming down his face…What Howard Berman has done!) — and later Howard will wonder if he hasn't made a mistake in keeping the private part of it played down.
But that doesn't seem the way to go. For one thing, he figures that aspect's purely his business and Leo's, there's a dignity consideration involved. And for another, not to put too lofty a gloss on this, it's not a realistic vote-getter — not from the challenger's side, at any rate. So he's taken this slap in the face, so what? It's not practical to expect other people to put themselves at risk for that.
I always felt that that was between Leo and me. I mean, I had these problems with Leo, but ultimately people weren't going to vote for me or against me on that; it was one of my reasons for running, but it wasn't a reason I was asking people to vote for me. So — ah — that never got developed. The result of my not articulating it was a perception, not really within the Assembly so much… oh, partially within the Assembly, but especially in terms of some of the reporting and the public commentary, this perception that I turned around and did in my friend. So in some sense that may have been a mistake. Oh, I dunno, who's to say what's a mistake and what's not?
Besides, it simply isn't his style. ("I mean," says Jack, "can you see Howard going up to people and saying — gasp — ‘Do you know how he treated me, for ei-g-ht months?’ That's just not who he is. I mean, you know Howard...") Howard's whole persona is so resoundingly low-key, so utterly unfervid and non-theatrical, so much of his time in the assembly's been spent defusing that kind of thing, deflating it, that he probably couldn't have sold it that way even if he’d tried.
And at this point he hasn't made up his mind yet, anyway. What this does, this conversation, with its emotional double-whammy of guilt at having let things go so far and indignation at having been disregarded, is to remove some constraints. And back in session, events remove more of them, replicating the slow, sad downward curve of a marriage going sour. The restrictive reapportionment amendment ends up not being rescinded — Howard does the round-up work, they're within a few votes, but in spite of their discussion, Leo waxes lackadaisical at the last moment and lets the two beholden Republicans off the hook. Leo welshes on the one gesture he's made to allay Howard's anxiety about the potential narrower margins of a 1982 Democratic caucus, his promise to change the Rule of 41 — which as Speaker he has unilateral power to do — thus codifying tradition by specifying that the majority of the majority party elects the Speaker (it's a change Howard and Jack have been after him to make for ages, for general stability's sake, long before any of this has come up); Leo welshes on his commitment, and neglects to even tell his trusted lieutenant why.
Howard takes Janis on a delayed honeymoon to Portugal, mulls things over there. He talks, when he returns, to Michael and to Henry Waxman; talks to Jack; starts talking to some of the guys who had been grousing to him, really hearing their complaints now, without feeling obligated to placate or defend. And taking Leo on, forcing the various issues, begins to seem like a real possibility; it gathers strength and dimension from being said out loud.
By November he's resolved to do it. He goes to arrange another meeting with Leo — "I think Berman popped a little prematurely," says one of the ubiquitously in-the-know Capital reporters about Howard’s December announcement of his candidacy, and this is the general morning line: the theory that Leo had already started to correct his behavior, so that Howard had to move early, or that Leo had flushed him out somehow. Why else give your opponent a month's head start to line up votes, especially when, as the smart money has it, by springing it on him you might successfully have carried off your plan?
But, in fact (and this is why the pitch and intensity of Leo's people's indignation will puzzle him later on — by his lights, after all, he's played it open and aboveboard; he's given fair notice; within the confines of his opposition he's acted like a gentleman), he's tried to tell him even earlier. The reason Leo doesn't find out until December is because he hasn't made himself available until then. Howard tries to set up an appointment for a conversation with him and it takes Leo four goddam weeks. ("You don't understand," Jack is telling Bob Tweegle daily, urgently, "they gotta meet!") Which, of course, increases Howard’s exasperation, as well as confirming his sense that he's doing the right thing.
And what he's doing, actually — this is something else that will get overlooked amid the cries of patricide and fratricide and divisiveness — what he's doing, when he does go to see Leo that Sunday in the capitol, is offering him a deal. A quite gentlemanly, honorable, face-saving proposal, with, its being a Berman proposal, some attractive, not to say impelling, elements to it as well. (Among the ironies of the following months is that in September 1980, Dave Roberti, Howard's state Senate counterpart, will challenge Senate President Jim Mills on almost identical grounds, and Mills, treated less forthrightly than Leo — he literally finds out in the newspapers — and offered much less in return, will choose not to fight it out, but simply to go ahead and step down.)
What Howard suggests is that the two of them trade positions. If Leo, he says, would be willing to switch places with him, they can reconstitute the post of majority leader so that it has more stature and dignity and more responsibility for policy. Howard, as Speaker, would then take over the housekeeping chores and would be able to add the speakership's stamp and clout to the legislative races — and, in addition, the resources of the Waxman-Berman organization would be put at Leo's disposal for 1982. (It's been driving him crazy, just from a professional standpoint, to watch how inefficiently Leo's been going about things — $120,000 overheads on his dinners, expertise not made use of, stuff like that.) Otherwise, the situation has become so untenable, Howard says, that he feels as if he has no other choice but to mount the challenge. He's pretty sure he has the votes…
It’s not only a reasonable deal, Howard thinks, but an appealing one — Ken Cory, after all, another Senate prospect for 1982, would ordinarily have a strong competing Waxman-Berman claim — as well as one that’s consonant with Leo's prestige and stature. And the most frustrating thing of all is that Leo almost accepts it. He gets to the point of scribbling down on a yellow legal pad what the precise arrangements would be, writing them down, repeating them … Michael comes into the room so he can tell him just what he'd be putting together for the '82 campaign. "It was not a warm kind of deal," concedes Howard. "It was more of a 'Wait a second. I'm in this situation — I might lose everything — and maybe I‘ll be getting something from all this, after all, ‘cause now I've got these guys firmly tied down in terms of support for '82. '"
But then the wild card comes into play again, chance and circumstance and the pivotal effect of the personal: Leo gets a phone call from Jacqui McCarthy, who's appalled when she hears what's going on — she thinks it's an affront to his dignity, the whole thing, urges him not even to consider making any commitments on the spot. He wants to go home, Leo tells them when he gets off the phone; he'll give Howard an answer in the morning. Art Agnos drives back into San Francisco with him, and the next morning he calls Howard to say he isn't going to accept the arrangement, and Howard goes out and makes his announcement.
And thinks naggingly, in retrospect, that maybe if he hadn't said, “Sure, go on home,” the outcome might have been different, the upheaval of the following year averted. Realistically, though, what could he have done? He could have balked, he supposes; he could have said, “‘Leo, I think we should put this to rest tonight. 'Cause it's too late, there's no chance … If you leave now, we're in a fight: by tomorrow the word will be out, by then you can't gracefully trade places, it'll look like you've been backed down ' — all of that. But in the end" — quietly — “the man did have the right to pick up his briefcase and go home." A wry, glancing smile. "We weren't going to hold him prisoner in his office."
- Continue to Part 2