• U.S.

Jesse Jackson’s Alter Ego

5 minute read
Dan Goodgame/Sacramento

Politics seldom makes stranger bedfellows than Jesse Jackson and his campaign chairman, California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. They are Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside: a true believer with a provocative message advised by a hard- bitten political agnostic for whom election to office has become not a means but an end. While Jackson campaigns as champion of the dispossessed, the deliciously flamboyant Brown drapes himself in $1,500 Brioni suits, roars around Sacramento in a $100,000 crimson Ferrari and squires striking women half his age. This extravagant life-style is certainly not financed by his $37,105 state salary, but rather by the wealthy special interests whose influence Jackson regularly decries.

Whatever the outcome of the California primary between Jackson and Michael Dukakis, Brown will return to the national stage for the first time since the 1972 Democratic Convention. There, during a bitter credentials fight, he won TV celebrity by demanding, “Give me back my delegation!” This year in Atlanta, Brown will bargain for Jackson, pushing the party hard to the left on rules, platform and ticket. “If Jackson’s program is not made the hallmark of the Democratic platform,” he warns, “the new voters that Jackson brought out in the primaries will not be motivated in November.”

Brown, 54, is uniquely qualified for the role of power broker. He has reigned for a record seven years as speaker and self-described ayatullah of the California assembly. He is respected for a quick intelligence, a quicker tongue and long experience in mediating among competing interests. Says Jackson Campaign Manager Gerald Austin: “He’s one of those people who can walk into a room full of other strong-willed political people, and everybody knows he’s in charge.”

Jackson backers credit Brown with lending early prestige to the 1988 campaign, after declining to support it in 1984. This time he signed on only after the hiring of Austin, a respected pro, to bring order to the usual Jackson campaign chaos. Brown helped organize effective fund raising that targeted middle-class blacks and selected business interests, attracting more than $11 million to the Jackson coffers.

His Midas touch is the source of much of his power. In the 1986 election, he scared up a prodigious $5 million for his state Democratic allies. This charity begins at home: Brown accepted $161,000 last year in personal speaking fees, gifts and expenses, much of it from companies with business before the assembly. He also earned about $100,000 in retainers paid to his law firm, including some by businesses that deal with the state and local governments.

Like Jackson, Brown was born to aching poverty and prejudice; he grew up in a one-room shack in tiny Mineola, Texas, east of Dallas. He recalls shining white men’s shoes, then fishing the quarter tips from a spittoon. After high school, he fled to San Francisco, worked his way through college and law school and into local politics. Elected to the state assembly in 1964, he became known as a radical who applauded the Watts riots and demanded more state spending for the poor. But he also developed a reputation for mastery of legislative rules and budget arcana. Brown sometimes crossed the legendary speaker Jess Unruh, who nonetheless knew talent when he saw it. After an early speech by Brown, Unruh muttered, “It’s a good thing you aren’t white.” Why? Brown asked. “Because you’d own the place,” Unruh replied.

Brown eventually did, but not until he had shifted from radical to liberal to careerist. A failed bid for speaker in 1974 badly disillusioned him. “He became quite cynical after that,” recalls Morris Bernstein, a San Francisco businessman and longtime Brown supporter. “He began to think that to gain power he would have to give up many of his social concerns.”

Refocused, Brown won control of the assembly in 1980, with crucial Republican support. He defined himself as a “member’s speaker” who eschewed policy leadership to concentrate on doling out office space, staff, committee seats and, as always, campaign contributions. Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, a close Brown ally, points out that “big money comes in on both sides of most of these issues, so you can’t say it affects the speaker’s decisions.”

Perhaps. But it can prevent the assembly from making any decision. California’s most pressing issues — $1,800 car-insurance premiums, traffic gridlock, school funding — are increasingly debated not in the legislature but in a swarm of ballot initiatives. Los Angeles Councilwoman Gloria Molina, a former assemblywoman and staff deputy to Brown, observes that “Willie is so obsessed with raising money to defend his Democratic majority that he forgets all about the Democratic agenda.”

Even so, Brown’s Democrats lost three seats in 1986, reducing them to a majority of 44 to 36. Since then, a handful of moderate-to-conservati ve Democrats dubbed the “Gang of Five” have voted with Republicans to pass bills over Brown’s protest, providing capital punishment for child murderers, AIDS tests for prostitutes and wiretaps for suspected drug dealers. The gang considers Brown too autocratic and too liberal, but has been unable to unseat him because he maintains support from key Republicans.

Brown is not without legislative accomplishments. He’s particularly proud of bills mandating the use of seat belts and the testing of schoolchildren for physical or mental infirmities.

Friends wonder whether Brown is tiring of his feud with the Gang of Five, and with the assembly generally. He insists he is not. But Old Ally Bernstein thinks Brown would like to parlay the Jackson alliance into some national role, “maybe be the black Bob Strauss” (the Washington lawyer-lobbyist and elder statesman). Another California associate thinks Brown’s ambition is simpler: “Willie painfully remembers the Democratic Convention four years ago in San Francisco — his hometown — when he wandered around the back of the hall without a role. He’s determined that that will not happen this time in Atlanta.”

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