The Horcher Affair

“The Horcher Affair” by Ron K. Unz
Unpublished, December 1994

If Californians had not already grown completely cynical and disgusted with their elected officials, the current battle for Assembly Speaker should achieve that result. But if cynicism and disgust lead to necessary political reform, California may yet benefit from such affairs.

The facts are quite simple. On Nov. 8th, the California’s local version of the nationwide Republican political tide swept 41 Republicans into the 80 member State Assembly, apparently ending the 14 year reign of Speaker Willie Brown, the state’s most powerful and longest-serving Democratic politician. Although Brown refused to admit defeat, a 41-39 vote to elect Republican Assembly leader Jim Brulte as Speaker seemed inevitable. After nearly three decades in the wilderness, Assembly Republicans eagerly awaited the fruits of political victory, such as nicer offices, larger staffs, control over lucrative patronage jobs, the lion’s share of PAC funding, and perhaps even an occasional opportunity to influence public policy.

But on Dec. 5th, the unexpected occurred. Assemblyman Paul Horcher, a moderate Republican from Diamond Bar, cast his vote for Democrat Brown rather than Republican Brulte, resulting in a 40-40 deadlocked vote. Immediately thereafter, a clever parliamentary maneuver by Brown to challenge the credentials of one of the other Republicans and thereby reelect himself Speaker on a 40-39 vote narrowly missed success.

Asked to justify his surprise vote for Brown, Horcher explained that the Republican Party caucus had been captured by the “extreme” right wing, and that his vote was motivated by his willingness to place the interests of ordinary Californians and of his own constituents over party loyalty. Although much of the press gave respectful attention to this yarn, the only constituents Horcher might have truthfully claimed to represent was a constituency of one, namely himself. Many members of the Assembly have similar “constituencies.”

Let us be candid. Except for the press and a few political junkies and party hacks, very few Californians have anything more than the vaguest notion of the character or policies of their local State Assemblyman or State Senator. Aside from voting for or against their incumbent, or voting along party lines, Californians cast their ballots based on campaign literature of various types, which is read and then quickly forgotten. Therefore, when Horcher’s recent campaign mailed out large quantities of such literature describing Willie Brown as “the worst thing to happen to California” and trumpeting the fact that “Paul Horcher has never voted to make Willie Brown speaker,” the voters in this heavily Republican district might have reasonably believed they were voting for a candidate who would oppose Brown’s reelection as Speaker. Horcher’s willingness to enlist Brulte’s fund-raising assistance, and his subsequent vote to reelect Brulte as leader of the Republican caucus hardly corroborates his alleged reasons for opposing Brulte’s speakership.

The real reasons are probably far more mundane. Willie Brown is one of California’s premier political fund-raisers, and provides generous financial aid to the campaigns of those who support him. Horcher had a large campaign debt of nearly $300,000, and most of this money was owed to himself, in the form of a personal campaign loan. Thus, any campaign contribution which Horcher receives may legally go into his own pocket, an aspect of current campaign law which would surely outrage ordinary citizens if only they were aware of it. It will be interesting to see whether Horcher’s personal loan to himself is soon paid off in this manner.

Also, since Horcher stands a reasonable chance of being recalled by his angry constituents (backed by the Republican Party), he may lose his well-paid job in the state legislature. Perhaps he will then be appointed by the Democrats to one of California’s many notorious $80,000 or $100,000 part-time patronage positions on a board or commission, thereby cushioning his reentry into the private sector.

The real issue raised by this incident is not a matter of Democrat versus Republican. Under other circumstances, the Republicans would have been just as eager to provide the PAC money to allow Horcher to rebuild his personal finances, or to have our bankrupt state foot the bill for his well-paid patronage retirement. With thirty years experience in the State Assembly, Willie Brown is simply the more skilled at this game. The question is whether a state with so many real problems, financial and social, should allow the continuation of a system in which elected officials may be legally bought for cash, and this, rather than elections, can determine the control of state government.

During the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Tom Hayden ran on a platform of political reform, accusing corrupt special interests of dominating Sacramento and the state legislature. It is ironic that the desperate efforts of his own party to retain control of the Assembly have now proven him right.

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