California kingpin shifts powerbase

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Los Angeles

Willie Brown, the powerful Democratic speaker of the California state assembly for 14 years, was crowned mayor of San Francisco this week. As choirs sang at his inauguration ceremony and newspapers speculated which of his many Italian suits he would wear, Mr Brown, in a characteristic display of arm-twisting, persuaded 75 of the city's best restaurants to distribute free meals to the homeless.

In Sacramento, two hours' drive away, the Republicans, who now control the assembly for the first time in 25 years, were dismantling his former seat of power. The new Speaker, Curt Pringle, a former drapery salesman, said he would sell Mr Brown's Cadillacs, "the three crown jewels of the imperial speakership"; he would confine himself to a state-issued 1991 Dodge.

The Republicans won a slim victory a year ago but the irrepressible Mr Brown, even as he geared up for the San Francisco mayoral race, persuaded two moderate Republicans in succession to jilt their party and take the Speaker's chair themselves with Democratic support.

Only when he left the scene could the Republicans unite and elect Mr Pringle to the second most powerful post in California after the governorship.

In San Francisco, Mr Brown told President Bill Clinton, who had called from wintry Washington to congratulate him in front of cheering crowds: "You should be here with us today. It is just incredible. There is no snow and no Republicans." The city is the centre of northern California's liberal Democratic heartland.

Mr Brown, the son of a maid and a station porter, excelled at milking corporate political donors in his 31 years in the assembly. Long divorced, the flamboyant black man is said to lead a busy romantic life.

In post-election interviews Mr Pringle spoke of tightening divorce laws to strengthen the family. His roots are in stretches of southern California - Orange County and San Diego - that are solidly conservative and mostly white. He has an anti-government agenda consisting of deregulation, tax cuts, school choice and an end to state-funded abortions.

Recent laws will make Mr Brown's reign impossible to repeat: Mr Pringle must leave office in two years' time.

The Republicans' first efforts included corporal punishment for graffiti vandals. A bill once blocked by Democrats but now passed out of committee would allow a judge to order a parent or bailiff to whack juveniles up to 10 times with a wooden paddle; teachers and civil-rights groups are furious.

Meanwhile, hundreds of bikers converged on the state capitol building as Republicans on their first day of business voted to repeal a law requiring helmets. Though the law was credited with cutting motorcycle deaths by 45 per cent, it was a personal-liberty issue dear to the party's right.

The Republicans won office on the first anniversary of Newt Gingrich's inauguration as Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington and, like him, they are intent on action after years in the wilderness. Though they must still deal with a Democrat-run state Senate, they dismissed an array of long-time committee staffers and brought former governor Ronald Reagan's portrait back.