The battle in the Republican congressional caucus over choosing a leader just might open an opportunity for a strategic, politically savvy Democrat to take a shot at the speakership. Very unlikely, certainly, but the situation in Washington must remind some Californians of the wily moves by Democratic Speaker Willie Brown to keep hold the reins of power in the Assembly a couple of decades ago even when Republicans seemed to take the majority.

A little history.

First, let’s go back to Willie Brown first taking the speaker’s gavel as a surprise candidate in 1980. Assemblyman Howard Berman challenged fellow Democrat, Speaker Leo McCarthy, for the post. With the split of the Democratic members over who should take the speaker’s gavel, Brown was able to cobble together a deal securing Republican minority votes along with less than half the Democratic Assembly members to become speaker. Brown promised to consider Republicans for committee chairmanships and vice-chairmanships and also offered a budget for Republicans to create a team working on the decennial redistricting effort, then controlled by the legislature.

At this stage, Brown was dealing with Democrats holding the majority power in the Assembly. But his shrewd move would echo fifteen years later when the Republicans grabbed the brass ring.

We should acknowledge that Brown mastered his feat with Republicans holding a bare majority, not the large majority Republicans enjoy in Congress today.

Brown, self-described as the “Ayatollah” of the Assembly, saw the end of his 15-year rein when Republicans won a one-seat majority in the November 1994 election.

That’s when the dealmaker in Brown re-surfaced to keep hold of power. Brown convinced dissatisfied Republican Paul Hocher to become an Independent and vote for him, keeping Brown in the speaker’s chair. Hocher was recalled from office for his action and later worked for Brown when he became Mayor of San Francisco.

With Hocher gone Republicans could name a speaker, right?

Not yet. Willie Brown had one more trick up his sleeve. He marshaled Democratic votes for Republican Assembly member Doris Allen. She voted along with the Democrats and became speaker, although Willie Brown was still clearly in control behind the scenes.

Allen served as speaker for only three months before resigning in the face of a recall that proved successful. She turned the gavel over to another dissatisfied Republican, Brian Setencich, also under Brown’s spell. Setencich survived in the speaker’s office only a few months until Brown left to become Mayor of San Francisco and a Republican, Curt Pringle, finally assumed the speaker’s chair.

Could this history or anything like it come into play because the Republican congressional caucus seemingly is at war with itself? Representative Kevin McCarthy’s decision to step away from becoming the Speaker of the House was a blow for California’s influence in the U.S. Capitol.

Within the chaos that has enveloped Washington can someone build a coalition of governing legislators in the middle to take the speaker’s chair? It would not be Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, another Californian.

The odds are overwhelming against something like that happening. But Willie Brown once made it work in California. Is there a Willie Brown in Congress?