A Veteran Lawmaker's Advice For California's Crisis

For decades, Willie Brown was California politics.

He spent more than 30 years in the California State Assembly, where he became the first black speaker. His 15 years in that position made him the longest-serving and most powerful. So much so that he dubbed himself the "Ayatollah of the Assembly." Then, he went on to become San Francisco's first black mayor.

Brown, now 75 and retired, is known for his political savvy, his larger-than-life personality and his sense of style — which includes lots of expensive hats and Italian suits.

And Brown knows California politics better than most. As the state struggles to pass a budget and close its $26 billion deficit, he says one thing that has gotten in the way is the state's term limits.

"In a democracy, it works best when people get to know each other, when people begin to respect each other and when people work together," he tells NPR's Madeleine Brand. "And in some cases, people with superior information and knowledge on certain subject matters are, in fact, looked to for advice and counsel. You don't have any of that in Sacramento."

Brown says the state requirement that budgets be approved by two-thirds of the legislature is another problem. It leaves "the tyranny of the process completely to an irresponsible third of the people, and that can be destructive," he says.

"Eliminate term limits, get rid of the initiatives, do something about the two-thirds, and you will not have the stalemate you currently have in the state Capitol," Brown says.

The term limits were put into place largely because of Brown's long tenure as Assembly speaker. And Brown contends he would still be speaker today if not for the term limits.

"There clearly were objections by some people to my longevity for whatever reason," Brown says. "There are many Republicans in the state of California who came to the conclusion that maybe we shouldn't have Willie Brown as speaker. Some Democrats had that same opinion. They couldn't beat me — simply because I did the job that you need to do, and my colleagues continuously re-elected me. You can only hold it if you please, every day, 40 other people or more ... I did that — better than anyone who had ever, ever been speaker. And probably as well as anyone who will do it in the future."

Another argument used for term limits is to cut down on possible cronyism and corruption — something Brown has been accused of by critics. But the FBI investigated Brown for several years, and he was never charged.

"I don't know of any other way to govern in a democracy except to build a consensus," Brown says. "And you build a consensus with those people who 1) Believe in you; 2) Follow your advocacy; and 3) Have the same commitment you have to doing what needs to be done to achieve a goal. Some people may call it cronyism. Some people may call it deal-making. Some people may call it working with your friends. Let me tell you, in a democracy, that's what you need to do."

As for what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature can do to move forward on the budget, Brown recommends they bring in an expert, like former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Warren Buffett or "some other equally talented or highly respected uninvolved person," to meet with the whole Assembly to give advice. But Brown is adamant it can't be him.

"Maybe coming out of that would be a resolution of the differences between the parties," Brown says. "But I think my sitting in the room with Speaker [Karen] Bass and the governor would end up being another unproductive meeting."

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