Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Walters: An Epic Capitol Power Struggle Recalled
dan_walters
By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 4 years ago on
December 11, 2019

Share

Exactly 40 years ago today, a political power struggle erupted in the California Assembly, one that lasted nearly a year and fundamentally altered the Capitol’s culture.
Many of today’s legislators weren’t even born when Assemblyman Howard Berman, the majority floor leader, abruptly demanded that Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy step down in his favor.


Dan Walters
Opinion
Berman alleged that McCarthy’s fundraising for a future U.S. Senate bid was “seriously endangering the Democratic Party’s future in the state Legislature” because Republicans could win control of the Assembly and thus control redrawing of legislative and congressional districts after the 1980 census.
McCarthy refused to cede the powerful position, saying of Berman, “ambition has overtaken the normally high standards of decency and scruples that have characterized Mr. Berman’s performance in the house and his relationship with me.”
It was not an ideological dispute since both were liberals. Partially, it was a regional rivalry — Berman from Los Angeles, McCarthy from San Francisco. Mostly, however, it was a cultural clash.
McCarthy was a somewhat formal, old-fashioned New Zealander-Irish politician while Berman, 11 years younger, typified the careerist politicians who had emerged after the Legislature became a full-time, professional body.

The Two Factions Then Tried to Unseat Each Other’s Backers With Primary Election Challenges

While Berman appeared initially to claim a majority of the Assembly’s Democrats, McCarthy’s rebuff made it a stalemate.
When the Legislature convened in January 1980, Berman would routinely make motions to vacate the speakership, but with Democrats divided and Republicans refusing to vote either way, nothing happened.
The two factions then tried to unseat each other’s backers with primary election challenges. Long-standing personal friendships and political alliances were shattered; one challenger to an incumbent was threatened with death, and an assemblywoman gave up her seat in response to threats to reveal sordid details of her sex life.
A few incumbents lost their seats in the June 1980, primary but the stalemate continued until the November election when Berman’s side won a clear majority of the 47 Democratic Assembly members.
That was not the end of it, however. When the Legislature convened in December 1980, 51 weeks after Berman had issued his first demand, McCarthy’s faction did a deal with Republicans to elect Willie Brown as speaker.
Republicans openly feared that if Berman became speaker, his brother, Michael, a genius at redistricting, would shrink their legislative and congressional seats, and decided Brown was a better bet.

The Scandal, in Turn, Fueled a 1990 Ballot Measure Imposing Term Limits on Legislators

Brown, however, quickly consolidated his position among Democrats, created congressional and state Senate seats for Berman and his most ardent backers, and limited Republican leverage.
Brown went on to become the Assembly’s longest-serving speaker, but the wheeler-dealer atmosphere he fostered in the 1980s led to an FBI corruption investigation that sent a number of legislators, legislative aides and lobbyists to prison.
The scandal, in turn, fueled a 1990 ballot measure imposing term limits on legislators, leading to a rapid turnover of membership that allowed an influx of women and non-white lawmakers.
McCarthy didn’t run for the U.S. Senate in 1982, despite his earlier fundraising. Instead, he won the first of three terms as lieutenant governor that year and died in 1995. Berman spent 30 years in Congress, but lost his seat to a fellow Democratic congressman in 2012 after redistricting threw them both into the same Southern California district.
Berman’s victorious opponent, Brad Sherman, received some financial support from San Francisco, generated by one of McCarthy’s close friends as retribution for what had happened 32 years earlier.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
[activecampaign form=31]

DON'T MISS

Biden Backs House’s Aid Package for Ukraine, Israel While Speaker Johnson Battles to Retain Position

DON'T MISS

Hot Rod Willys: Driven to Bake the Perfect Chicago-Style Pizza

DON'T MISS

Local Leaders Must Put Their Shoulders Into Making Fresno ‘Education City USA’

DON'T MISS

EdSource Welcomes Fresno News Veteran Jim Boren to Its Board

DON'T MISS

Senate Dismissed Two Articles of Impeachment, Ending Trial on Mayorkas

DON'T MISS

Netanyahu Dismisses Calls for Restraint, Says Israel Will Decide Iran Attack Response

DON'T MISS

New Study Calculates Climate Change’s Economic Bite Will Hit About $38 Trillion a Year by 2049

DON'T MISS

Biden Pledges to Block Japanese Takeover of US Steel and Promises Tariffs on Chinese Steel

DON'T MISS

Don Arax Talks About His New Football Job at Visalia’s Central Valley Christian

DON'T MISS

Dem House Challengers Salas, Gray Flex Fundraising Muscle

UP NEXT

Carbon Capture Isn’t Nearly as ‘Green’ as Fossil Fuel Promoters Make It Sound

UP NEXT

CA’s High Construction Costs Limit Housing. A Supreme Court Decision Might Help

UP NEXT

A Fresno Edition of Monopoly? That’s Capitalism at Work, Baby!

UP NEXT

Biden’s Embrace of Trump’s Tariffs Could Spell Trouble for His Reelection: Fareed Zakaria

UP NEXT

‘Digital Democracy’ Project Penetrates California’s Opaque Political Processes

UP NEXT

While California Politicians Skirmish Over Housing, the Shortage Keeps Growing

UP NEXT

As PG&E Bills Skyrocket, Will California Lawmakers Hold Anyone Accountable?

UP NEXT

Trustees Owe a Nationwide Superintendent Search to Fresno’s Children

UP NEXT

Taxes Are on the November Ballot in Monumental CA Showdown

UP NEXT

California Progressives Forced to Play Defense as State Faces Huge Budget Deficits

EdSource Welcomes Fresno News Veteran Jim Boren to Its Board

5 hours ago

Senate Dismissed Two Articles of Impeachment, Ending Trial on Mayorkas

5 hours ago

Netanyahu Dismisses Calls for Restraint, Says Israel Will Decide Iran Attack Response

6 hours ago

New Study Calculates Climate Change’s Economic Bite Will Hit About $38 Trillion a Year by 2049

6 hours ago

Biden Pledges to Block Japanese Takeover of US Steel and Promises Tariffs on Chinese Steel

6 hours ago

Don Arax Talks About His New Football Job at Visalia’s Central Valley Christian

6 hours ago

Dem House Challengers Salas, Gray Flex Fundraising Muscle

8 hours ago

Career-High Strike Outs for Ryan Weathers as Marlins Best Giants 6-3

8 hours ago

LeBron’s Lakers Top Pelicans in Play-in, Set up Playoff Rematch With Nuggets

8 hours ago

Storm Dumps Record Rain and Floods Dubai’s Airport

9 hours ago

Biden Backs House’s Aid Package for Ukraine, Israel While Speaker Johnson Battles to Retain Position

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he strongly supports a proposal from House Speaker Mike Johnson to provide aid to Ukrai...

3 hours ago

3 hours ago

Biden Backs House’s Aid Package for Ukraine, Israel While Speaker Johnson Battles to Retain Position

3 hours ago

Hot Rod Willys: Driven to Bake the Perfect Chicago-Style Pizza

4 hours ago

Local Leaders Must Put Their Shoulders Into Making Fresno ‘Education City USA’

5 hours ago

EdSource Welcomes Fresno News Veteran Jim Boren to Its Board

5 hours ago

Senate Dismissed Two Articles of Impeachment, Ending Trial on Mayorkas

6 hours ago

Netanyahu Dismisses Calls for Restraint, Says Israel Will Decide Iran Attack Response

6 hours ago

New Study Calculates Climate Change’s Economic Bite Will Hit About $38 Trillion a Year by 2049

6 hours ago

Biden Pledges to Block Japanese Takeover of US Steel and Promises Tariffs on Chinese Steel

MENU

CONNECT WITH US

Search

Send this to a friend