"I'm recommending to black folks in this state," the speaker said, "that they abandon the defense of busing. That issue destroyed the career of Yvonne Burke [the black former U.S. representative who lost successive races for state attorney general and Los Angeles supervisor] and Jim Corman [the veteran white U.S. representative defeated for reelection last fall by an anti-busing Republican member of the Los Angeles school board].
"I've recommended to Tom Bradley [the black mayor of Los Angeles] that if he wants to be elected governor next year, he make it clear right now that busing is not his issue."
The speaker in this case is the speaker of the California Assembly, the second most important job in the No. 1 state. The speaker is Willie L. Brown Jr., the 46-year-old black firebrand whose views are as surprising as the title he now holds.
Brown, a San Francisco lawyer with a taste for fast cars and fancy suits, had a reputation in the legislation, where he has served since he was 30, as a political maverick and battler for liberal causes. He gained a bit of national renown in 1972 as the leader of the challenged California delegation supporting George McGovern at the Democratic convention, pleading emotionally and successfully with the delegates not to oust him and his colleagues in favor of the Hubert Humphrey slate.
But here at home, Brown was always on the fringes of power, at odds with the leadership of his party in the Assembly and thwarted in his own bids to gain a leadership post.
Until this year. When the Assembly Democratic caucus was bitterly split in 1980 by the effort of Assemblyman Howard Berman of Los Angeles to replace Speaker Leo McCarthy of San Francisco, Brown organized a rump group of Democrats.
With the actie help of the Assembly's Republican minority, he put together a coalition victory for the speakership. More than half his vote came from the GOP side, and in turn he guaranteed the Republicans more procedural rights, consultation on committee appointments, more staff and facilities than they had previously enjoyed.
Four months after the coup, Brown is still struggling to regain the unified support of his own fellow Democrats and to assert the kind of authority exercised by his powerful predecessors in the job. But he has gained a national audience with his new title, and as he crisscrosses the country he is freely offering advice, not just on the busing issue but on a variety of questions facing blacks and other Democrats across America.
Brown is a one-time McGovern supporter who backed Ted Kennedy's bid to dump Jimmy Carter in 1980. Now he says he finds people like Kennedy and former vice president Fritz Mondale almost "irrelevant" to the Democratic Party's future. "They're still dealing with the racial minorities, the new rich and the labor leadership as the core of the party," he said, "and that combination has proven to be incapable of generating a majority of voters."
As for the "McGovern reforms" that made it possible for mavericks like himself to play dramatic roles in the nominating conventions, Willie Brown now says, "We've probably reformed too much . . . . The process of all these primaries is very destructive."
Brown says his advice to the racial minorities and feminists in the Democratic Party -- who have gained seats and influence at the nominating conbentions -- is to give back some of those seats to the Democratic officeholders and traditional power brokers who, he says, "can help elect a Democratic president."
"Winning is absolutely everything in politics," the speaker says. "You have no impact on policies, you can deliver nothing, unless you can produce a win."
That philosophy -- or, as his critics would have it, lack of philosophy -- brought Willie Brown from the outsider role in the California Assembly to a position with real power. He is still groping for the levers of leadership in the job he has won, while assuring those he calls "the idealists" that "you don't have to sell your soul to gain power."
What Willie Brown is selling is a down-to-earth and maybe even cynical view of the realities of political influence. The view is not new to our politics. But the speaker, in this case, is not the man from whose lips you would expect to be hearing this.