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Roommates wrangle in Sacramento power play

Wednesday, Jun 16 1999
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Hertzberg, Kathleen Clark
Villaraigosa, Slobodan Dimitrov

It was one of those moments in which the shifting currents of power and allegiance were suddenly forced to the surface, and for those present, it signified a sea change in the Democrat-dominated state Assembly.

The scene unfolded at a meeting of the Appropriations Committee, chaired by Democrat Carol Migden. With the vigorous support of Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, the Community Reinvestment Act (AB 869), which would pressure insurance companies to invest their cash resources in commercial developments and businesses within low-income neighborhoods, was expected to pass quickly through the Appropriations Committee and move on to a floor vote.

Van Nuys Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg had other ideas. Despite serving on Villaraigosa’s leadership team and understanding that the Democrat-controlled Insurance Committee had put its stamp of approval on the bill after a raucous debate with industry lobbyists, Hertzberg abstained from the vote. With three other business-friendly Democrats following Hertzberg’s lead, the bill stalled.

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The next day, in a show of political muscle, Villaraigosa vowed, "I’ll jam it through," according to the Capitol newsletter Political Pulse. His solution: simply use his clout to remove the offending parties for a day, paving the way for a decisive vote. At a June 2 Appropriations Committee meeting, supportive legislators had been substituted for Hertzberg and crew, and the bill passed on to the Assembly floor. Party moderates were alienated by the speaker’s show of force, however, and rallied against the bill. Sensing the rebellion, the sponsors of AB 869 never brought it to a vote. In a meeting with insurance-industry lobbyists last Monday, sources present say, Villaraigosa was humbled, lacking the leverage of a majority to demand a compromise.

As Political Pulse put it, "Every lobbyist who was watching closely concluded, by the fate of this bill and others, that the power in the Assembly had shifted." Or as one of those lobbyists described it to the Weekly, "It was like the speaker’s power in the caucus was declining right in front of our eyes."

Despite presiding over dramatic gains for Assembly Democrats and the passage of billions of dollars in education bonds in last fall’s elections, Villaraigosa is under mounting pressure in the Capitol. He is contemplating a run for mayor of Los Angeles, prompting several rivals to vie for his job as speaker. Even were he to stay in Sacramento, Villaraigosa would be termed out by November of the year 2000, rendering him a lame-duck speaker in either the short or the midterm. The upshot: He’s having trouble passing legislation despite presiding over a significant majority in the Assembly.

Much of the heat is coming from a contingent of centrist Democrats on Villaraigosa’s ideological right flank. Besides AB 869, Villaraigosa failed to pass two other pieces of legislation he championed this month. One would have significantly raised the cap on awards in medical-malpractice suits; he was forced to settle for a minimal increase tied to the rate of inflation. The other, a high-profile measure authored by Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica to protect students from gay bashing, lost by a single vote. "The speaker is still fighting the good fight," said a progressive lobbyist, "but right now it’s not working."

Ironically, the Democratic moderates are being led by Hertzberg, an old friend of the speaker. Hertzberg, who refers to himself as Villaraigosa’s consigliere, served as treasurer in Villaraigosa’s first campaign and helped him win the speakership last year. The two men even share a house in Sacramento. But Hertzberg has made no secret of the fact that when Villaraigosa steps down as speaker, he intends to make a bid for the job.

Despite Villaraigosa’s recent setbacks, which some credit Hertzberg with orchestrating, both deny there is a rift in their relationship. "The speaker and Mr. Hertzberg continue to be good colleagues, friends and roommates," said Elena Stern, Villaraigosa’s director of communications. "Their personal friendship transcends political gossip."

The pair underscored their friendly relations by co-authoring an op-ed piece in the Times Monday, and Hertzberg plans to host Villaraigosa at a Valley function this weekend.

But according to high-ranking members of the Assembly, while Villaraigosa’s job is not in imminent danger, all is not rosy in the Statehouse. "Relations are not good at all between the speaker and Mr. Hertzberg," said a member of the Democratic leadership. A pol in Los Angeles says that Hertzberg said he and Villaraigosa were not speaking after Hertzberg was removed from the Appropriations Committee. Hertzberg denied the account and countered by listing a number of times the men have met recently, including a social occasion last weekend between the men’s families.

Of course, with all the jockeying for position, the comments of almost any member of the Assembly are colored by the politics of succession.

"Some people have an ax to grind," Hertzberg said in an interview. "They want to create public uncertainty in my relationship with the speaker to improve their own chances. It’s the nature of politics." Among those seeking consideration as speaker are Democrats Migden, Tony Cardenas of Panorama City and Fred Keeley of Boulder Creek.

But at such a heated political juncture, appearances count. Observers say that if Hertzberg and Villaraigosa are quietly feuding, the speaker should resign in the interest of the party. Villaraigosa’s interest is to hold on as long as possible, however, preserving a visible platform from which to stage his mayoral bid. Hertzberg, sources say, wants Villaraigosa out soon. "Hertzberg thought he has waited long enough to be speaker," says a leading Democrat in the Assembly. "Hertzberg thinks he has a better chance early, before his competitors get geared up."

Hertzberg, however, may have jumped the gun with his wildcat abstentions at the Appropriations Committee. "It was a disservice to one’s leadership job," a leading Democrat said. "It was definitely a disservice to the speaker." Hertzberg claims to have informed Villaraigosa and Migden in advance that he would not vote for the Reinvestment Act. "I thought it wasn’t thought through, and it wouldn’t work," Hertzberg said of the insurance-investment bill. On virtually every other vote, he says, he has supported the speaker.

Whatever the case, Hertzberg is carving out his own identity in the Legislature, one that is distinctly pro-business. Hertzberg’s longtime affinity with the insurance industry was on display in the thwarting of the Reinvestment Act, the defeat of which billionaire insurance magnate Eli Broad called his "top priority" in an April letter to Villaraigosa.

Moreover, many consider Hertzberg the nominal leader of a group of 15 or 16 Assembly moderates who refer to themselves as the Democratic Business Caucus. This clique is becoming a significant fund-raising arm of the party. Hertzberg himself raised $900,000 last year, second only to Villaraigosa.

Observers believe term limits are to blame for Villaraigosa’s troubles as much as any rivalry between the speaker and Hertzberg. "The day of an all-dominant speaker is gone," says Phil Giarrizzo, a Sacramento-based campaign consultant. "The way the speakership works now, it’s doomed from the beginning. People look for longer-term leadership the minute someone is elected to the job."

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