Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A fine whine

In vino veritas?

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Sebastiani Vineyards has been sold, ending a century-long era of family operation. Accompanying the news article was the smiling face of Don Sebastiani, grandson of the founder, who acknowledged that the feuding family members were not unanimously in favor of the sale. Naturally I had a sudden flashback to 1981 and thought of Jean Moorhead. You might, too, if you had been in Sacramento in those days.

In 1981, Jean Moorhead was in her second term as the assembly member from a northern California district that had been expected to elect a Democrat. Jean, however, was a moderate Republican who had upset the favored Democrat in 1978 and in 1980 demonstrated that her election had been no fluke. Don Sebastiani, scion of the famous wine family, had just been elected to his first term as a Republican assembly member from Sonoma. He was viewed by his party as a man with a future and had already become a key lieutenant for Carol Hallett, the state assembly's minority leader. Hallett intended to become California's first female speaker of the assembly. To that end, she had conspired with a liberal Democrat from San Francisco, Willie Brown, to deliver the Republican caucus's vote to make him speaker. The Democrats had a strong majority in the assembly, but it was badly split. Hallett backed the Democrat she expected to be the weakest in that office, thinking to use him as a pawn in constructing a future Republican majority.

Hallett wielded a strong hand as minority leader and expected her GOP colleagues to speak with one voice and act with one will. She pushed her caucus to adopt the “unit rule,” a scheme whereby each Republican assembly member was bound to vote on legislation in accordance with caucus decisions. That is, the GOP would meet in private chambers to vote on major bills pending before the lower house. Whichever way the majority of the Republicans voted, the GOP members on the losing side of the caucus vote would then be required to vote the majority position when the measure came to the assembly floor for a vote of the full membership of the house.

As a moderate from a swing district, Moorhead thought it was more important to represent the interests of her constituents than those of her GOP colleagues. The unit rule was anathema to her. She therefore voted her own way and cooperated with Democratic colleagues instead of treating them as enemies. Hallett was dismayed by Moorhead's independence. The Reagan revolution was under way and Hallett fully expected her colleagues to toe the line of the ascendant right-wing. She dispatched Sebastiani to explain some political realities to Moorhead.

The sophomore assemblywoman and freshman assemblyman met for lunch at a popular watering hole near the State Capitol. The ensuing conversation between Sebastiani and Moorhead was soon the talk of Sacramento. Interestingly enough, all of the rumors agreed on the gist of the discussion, whether the gossip came from Sebastiani's allies or Moorhead's. No one disagreed on what occurred. The later arguments were all about whether it had been wise.

Jean Moorhead tried to break the ice with an opening gambit:

“I hope I'm not in trouble, Don,” she said.

“Well, Jean, you know it's a problem. The caucus has agreed to the unit rule and it's important that we all act as one,” Sebastiani replied.

“But it puts me in conflict with the voters in my district. If I'm forced to follow the caucus on everything, you're going to have a Democrat replacing me in the next election. You can either have a Republican in the seat who votes with you most of the time, or you can trade for a Democrat who almost never does. Which do you prefer, Don?”

“That's not for me to decide, Jean. The caucus has made a decision and I'm here to tell you it's important that everyone recognize that.”

“What exactly does that mean, Don? So I don't always vote with the caucus. Am I a repeat offender? Does that mean I'm going to be punished somehow?”

Some reports say that Sebastiani leaned forward at that point and patted her hand:

“Don't you understand, Jean? You deserve to be punished. We have to make an example of you.”

Under the terms of her agreement with Speaker Brown, Hallett had the right to allocate staff, office space, and committee assignments among the members of the Republican caucus. Sebastiani had now made explicit the likelihood that Moorhead was about to be exiled to a broom closet with a single secretary for her legislative staff. The lunch concluded in an awkward silence, Sebastiani confident that his mission had been accomplished and Moorhead keeping her own counsel.

A few days later, Speaker Willie Brown was pleased to make a major announcement. He wanted to introduce California to the newest member of the Democratic caucus. He quipped that Jean Moorhead would be free to vote her conscience and that she would not be punished if she occasionally disagreed with the Democratic speaker of the assembly.

Jean Moorhead served the rest of her term as a Democrat and was elected twice more to represent her district as a candidate on the Democratic ticket. Willie Brown, of course, consolidated his position as speaker and was re-elected to the position at the end of 1982 with only Democratic votes; he ended up becoming the longest-serving assembly speaker of all time. Hallett, whose political instincts had played her false in supporting Willie Brown and putting pressure on Jean Moorhead, stepped down from her leadership position later in 1981 to prepare for a race for lieutenant governor; her defeat in the general election of 1982 put an end to her service in elective office. As for Sebastiani, he did not live up to his reputation as a rising star, failing even to get his party's nomination when he left the assembly to run for state controller in 1986.

Lessons unlearned

The Republican infighting in the California assembly in the 1980s prevented them from gaining a majority for more than a decade. And then, when they finally managed to outpoll the Democrats in the elections of 1994, it took several months more for them to dislodge Brown, who proved adept at peeling off individual Republican votes. Carol Hallett's eventual legacy was the election in 1995 of Doris Allen as the first woman, a Republican, to serve as speaker of the assembly—elected with a large majority of Democratic votes and repudiated by her own party's caucus. It was quite a mess for the Republicans, who promptly lost their short-lived and fractious majority in 1996 (and have yet to get it back).

The GOP is in disarray today, too, but this time on a national scale. In the wake of their thumping defeat in the 2008 general election, the survivors are wondering what to do. Some of the loudest voices want the Republican Party to purge itself of such RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) as John McCain, their most recent presidential nominee. Only hardcore neocons need apply. The example of Carol Hallett demonstrates the importance of ideological purity in an extremist party, especially if it wants to remain out of power for a long, long time. I say, let the show trials begin!


The Ridger, FCD said...

All right! Let's get underway here. The sooner the better.

The Brutal Gourmet said...

I guess I was not paying much attention to CA politics when I was eleven. I had thought this whole "you are with us or against us", loyalty oath demanding insanity was fairly new.

The Brutal Gourmet said...

By the way, Mr. Ridger...nice cat :)

The Brutal Gourmet said...

простите мне, Ms. Ridger...

Anonymous said...

So is there any relationship with Michael Sabastiani of Cathedral Ridge winery in Oregon?

Zeno said...

I believe that Michael Sebastiani is the adopted son of Sam Sebastiani (Don's brother).