Interview with Wally Knox

WEEKLY: You’ve been in the Assembly five years now, you’re now up against term limits. What have been your most notable achievements in the legislature.

WALLY KNOX: Well, this last year was a remarkable culmination of a lot of work that I’ve been doing for five years in the State Legislature. And in this last year, I finally brought to fruition a project that’s been very important to me for the five years, and that is the eight hour day legislation. [A bill that mandated anything over eight hours in a day counted as overtime.] Literally, from the day I walked into the legislature, I started working on the eight hour day issue. I swore a blood oath with [then-state AFL-CIO leaders] Jack Henning and Tom Rankin that we would keep the issue alive year after year after year, that we would find a Democratic candidate who would pledge to restore the eight hour day if elected governor, get the candidate elected governor, and restore the eight hour day in statutory form so that no subsequent governor could ever repeal the eight hour day.

WEEKLY: And how had we gotten to the point where more than 8 hours was not considered overtime?

KNOX: Pete Wilson. California for 80 years had had one of the most progressive laws in the country that you got time and a half for working for any time you worked past eight hours a day in most instances. Pete Wilson repealed that. Last year, I drafted the bill and negotiated for about a month with the Governor [Gray Davis], and made the necessary compromises, and we restored the eight hour day. I have to say, looking back on a lifetime of representing working people as a lawyer, and then going to the State Legislature, to achieve something like making the eight hour day permanent law for the next century in California is an enormous source of personal satisfaction.

Last year was amazing, because projects I’d worked on for years came to fruition. In addition to the eight hour day, we got the Handgun Limitation Bill enacted, something Chief Parks and Sarah Brady asked me to start working on three years ago, thinking it was an impossible project.

WEEKLY: And what does the bill do?

KNOX: It limits handgun purchases to one per month. Chief Parks thinks it’ll cut the black market in weapons by somewhere between 30 and 50 percent by the end of this year. We do not know how many lives that will save, but it will be a lot. It’ll make it vastly more difficult for criminals to get a hold of weapons and for kids to get a hold of weapons. It doesn’t solve the problem overnight, but is a huge practical step forward. It is the most significant gun legislation the state has seen alongside the ban on assault weapons. And it took three years of slugging it out against the NRA.

WEEKLY: What kind of further gun control measures would you like to see come out of the Legislature at this point?

KNOX: Well, there’s going to be a multi-year fight on licensing and registration. And the two leaders on that are Kevin Shelly and Jack Scott, currently of the Assembly. I’m obviously strongly supportive of their efforts, but let’s be clear here: It’s unlikely that that will be done this year. Those are really tough, tough measures to get through. In the long term, though, what we need is definitely a licensure registration system.

WEEKLY: If there were no NRA, if there were no political limitations, if you were the philosopher king -- what kind of policy would you like to see on guns?

KNOX: I’ve never thought about that, because I live with the NRA every single day. But I do think we need a very carefully devised licensure and registration system. We simply don’t know where the weapons are, we don’t know really who has them. We have a good computerized tracking system in place now, but the laws aren’t plugged in to deal with that. So if we set up a good licensure system where people are licensed to carry weapons if they undergo proper training, have a clean felony record, all those kinds of things, you’re going to do a lot to start policing the possession of weapons in a society. If you follow that up with a registration program where each weapon is carefully registered and reregistered every year, you’re going to do a lot to clean up the number of weapons in society. The NRA, as a political force, has an existing base of support in the general community that it magnifies tremendously. So, I think, licensure and registration is where you’d ultimately end up if you didn’t have to deal with the NRA, because there still is a tremendous population out there that’s suspicious of any other kind of activity. And I think that’s the reasonable place to end up. But it could take another decade worth of work right there. And with the presence of the NRA, it’s just incredibly difficult to figure out how you can get it done.

WEEKLY: What other legislative accomplishments would you like to talk about?

KNOX: Last year we passed the Hate Crime Bill. I authored this bill three years ago, to make the murder of gays and lesbians simply because they were gays or lesbians a hate crime in California. It was a hate crime in fact, but it was not a hate crime in law. The murder of a Jew, like me, was a hate crime murder in the State of California, and would therefore carry a sentence of life without parole or the death penalty for that. I introduced legislation three years ago to equalize the penalties between gay and lesbian murders and other kinds of hate crime murders. We got it through this year without the death penalty and to the Governor’s desk and the Governor signed that bill. I’m glad that’s finally in place.

Then this year also there was the whole area code issue. [Knox succeeded in rolling back the necessity of 10-digit dialing for people in the 310 area code, and keeping it from coming to the 818 area code.] After realizing that we were being fed a bill of goods by the phone companies, I formed a kind of a media alliance with [Los Angeles Times columnist] Bob Scheer, your competitor. I just have to give Bob enormous credit. Without his constant coverage of what was going on, this dynamic relationship wouldn’t have been established between a legislator moving a bill in Sacramento and a community down here. Getting that communication going back and forth was absolutely key.

WEEKLY: What are the lessons of what you learned about public utilities from your battle with the phone companies?

KNOX: That they have a lot of power in the State government. They’re not happy with the fact that they were beaten. And the fact that we rewrote area code law last year is all well and good, but they’re not going to let it lie. They will be back in spring or summer of this year attempting to completely gut everything we achieved. They don’t like to be beaten.

WEEKLY: Was this a tough bill to get through?

KNOX: It was a fascinating fight. I mean, the bill died six different times and was resuscitated by a combination of artificial respiration and smoke and mirrors. We were beaten over and over again, and revived the bill over and over and over. On the last day of the legislative session, we dropped one bill, seized another bill, rewrote its entire text, rammed it through the Senate, brought it to the Assembly, and rammed it through the Assembly -- all in one day. That’s a classic example of how what you learn by being a legislator is absolutely crucial. I could not have done that in my first or second year in the State legislature. I wouldn’t have had a clue to take a bill that was dead, dead, dead, and somehow bring it back to life.

WEEKLY: Briefly, are their other things you’ve accomplished you’d like to call attention to?

KNOX: Well, the Holocaust Insurance Registry Bill was a really important one for the Jewish community. That took me two years. As a result, in April of this year, the insurance companies will be compelled to turn over information about the Holocaust policies they’ve had on their books hidden for fifty years.

WEEKLY: And this covers Holocaust victims who had life insurance that was never paid?

KNOX: Right. The commonest method of savings for middle class and working class people in Eastern Europe prior to World War II, were insurance policies. That was how people saved. And hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of family members of people who perished in the Holocaust went to the insurance companies and asked for payment on those policies and were denied. Sometimes, simply denied, sometimes, in some language that doesn’t deserve repeating. They were told things like, "Well, do you have a death certificate from Auschwitz?" "Do you have proof that the policy was taken out?" "Do you have a copy of the policy?" Delicate little things like that. It’s taken me two years, but I got the legislation through. And in April of this year, every company doing business in California will be compelled to turn over its list of Holocaust era policies to be made publicly available so that everyone can find out if a relative took out a policy.

In education, I began working on a program in 1989 to establish high school programs on community college campuses. That has turned out to be the most successful dropout prevention program in the State of California.

WEEKLY: And what is that program?

KNOX: In it, a high school campus is placed on a community college campus. The high school is drawn from the surrounding high schools. It removes some of the worst students in the surrounding high schools from those campuses, where they have been disruptive students, on the verge of dropping out, driving teachers crazy, preventing teachers from teaching other kids. We take 300 or 400 of some of the worst students possible and bring them together. I mean, you could imagine that could be a disaster. It doesn’t become a disaster, because what happens is those 300 kids are surrounded by thousands of community college students who are basically two, three, or four years older than them, not a lot. They come from exactly the same neighborhoods, the same block, everybody knows everybody. There’s just a big difference: the community college students are a self-selected group that are determined to move up in life and get ahead with their lives and succeed. The 300 kids we have put onto that high school have seemed determined to destroy their lives. They are flunking out of school. They are dropping out of school. They are the worst problems in their local high schools. For the first time in their lives, those kids are surrounded on all sides by a culture of success. They cannot escape it. We never link them with an official mentor, because I think that would be disastrous. It would be seen as, you know, the institutions linking you up to some flunky. But they are completely immersed in a culture of success. The result was beyond our wildest dreams. These schools have the lowest dropout rate of any institution in California education bar none.

WEEKLY: How many of these schools are there?

KNOX: There are about 12 at this junction. Governor Davis has authorized an expansion of a fairly significant nature. My hope would be that at the end of a decade, we would have created a system of about 30 of these throughout the State of California.

WEEKLY: Any last highlights of your time in the assembly before we move on to what you’d work on in the senate?

KNOX: Well, I should mention the transportation work, because that has been key. I began focusing on the 405/101 intersection as a way of drawing attention not just to the intersection, but to transportation issues in general. We’ve gone through a decade of these semi-utopian approaches to transportation issues, everything from subways to dedicated busways to maglev systems for I don’t know what, and I haven’t seen a lot of progress. And a tremendous amount of public anger and frustration has built up as the government can’t do some simple things it’s supposed to do like build a road. By focusing on the freeway issue, by focusing on doable projects, we can regain some public confidence that we can do something. And as we begin to do these projects. What we now need to do is fold into the freeway improvement projects a discussion of what we’re going to do about mass transit.

For instance, when the 405 and 101 freeways were built, they could have designed them to incorporate elements of mass transit, a space in which to do some kind of a heavy or light rail line. Something. They didn’t. So we now have these huge corridors that are well positioned for mass transit but are unusable. I think that as we do these improvements on the 405 and the 101 we should be thinking 20 years ahead and fold into those projects the potential for mass transit. I think we have the opportunity to, as we improve the freeway, to make a place where we could place a light rail or a heavy rail line or even a dedicated bus line. We need to use the existing footprint of the freeways as a place to do mass transit.

WEEKLY: Let’s say you’re State Senator Wally Knox. What are your priorities and what do you really want to involve yourself in if you get, let’s say, eight years in the Senate?

KNOX: Well, there are three areas that I think I’ll work on in particular. One is to continue the work in education I’ve been doing. Outside of the middle colleges, I was a very, very strong supporter of class size reduction, which, I think, is crucial for a lot of reasons. But, I think, we need to continue working on reforming and improving the education system. I think I’ll spend the rest of my life, in one way or another, either in public or private life, working to improve the educational system. It’s not going to be one bill. It’s going to take a generation of activity.

WEEKLY: There seems to be a division of opinion between the California Teachers Association and the governor on the proposed initiative that the CTA is likely to plunk on the November ballot, which would mandate raising the level of per pupil spending in the state to the national average. How do you feel about that proposal?

KNOX: I’m in favor of the CTA’s proposal. Basically, there are four things I want from the schools. I want every student to be taught by a competent teacher. I was talking the other day with a teacher at a school where the certification rate was 15 percent; 85 percent of the teachers didn’t have credentials. Also, I want to see appropriate school rooms. I think, we should ratchet up our expectations and demand excellent classrooms, not adequate classrooms, excellent classrooms everywhere. And we need classrooms that are fully supplied. I went through years of buying chalk for the teachers at my children’s school. And the fourth thing I think we need is accountability. The first three things are funding issues. But, I think, unless you have some real accountability, you’re just not going to gain the public trust to get the money there. These issues can’t be resolved by introducing four bills. That is a lifetime of activity. So I’m going to be working on those issues for the rest of my life in one way or the other.

WEEKLY: Okay, so education is priority one. What else?

KNOX: Transportation. I feel, the work I started doing in transportation is really important to this town. And, I think, we need to move ahead dramatically on mass transportation. We are going to do that, in my view, not by pitting it against the commuter’s need to use the freeways. We’re going to do it by linking those two. And I’m going to be a very forceful advocate for aggressively moving to solve the freeway congestion issues in ways that are going to be kind of interesting.

I’ve also begun to lay the groundwork to work aggressively in the medical care area. One of the problems we’ve had in dealing with health care issues is that we’ve approached them in a piecemeal fashion. A legislator gets interested in breast cancer issues, another in prostate cancer issues; and as they focus on specific diseases and disabilities, bills are introduced mandating coverage. We could pass 50 of those bills a year, and in 20 years end up with a thousand laws on the books trying to chop us into pieces and out of this create a health care policy. That has been pretty frustrating.

Two years ago, I compelled the state auditor to do an audit. The audit looked at what every health insurance company and every HMO in the state was doing as far as denying health care coverage. And basically what we discovered is that somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of the time where someone goes to an insurance company for a health issue, you either have a denial, a downgrade, or a delay. That is intolerable. There is only one thing those companies are going to respond to and that is their bottom line. And so the legislation that I’ve introduced says very simply, "If you deny, downgrade, or delay payments on health care coverage, you’re going to suffer a financial penalty too steep for you to budget."

WEEKLY: How does that work?

KNOX: There’s already a defined procedure for identifying delayed and downgraded payments. There’s just no penalty. So we already have a remarkably good handle on what’s really going on in our health care system. If you stop giving speeches about it and go out there and monitor it, we actually -- we actually know a lot. There’s no penalty for the darn thing. So you have to attach a percentage -- a kind of a percentage and penalty to it. And I’m still wrestling with what the appropriate level would be. You can imagine the counter-arguments the insurance companies are going to argue. We have to find a point where the penalty is significant enough to move them and move them strongly, but where you’re not going to hurt people who need medical coverage.

WEEKLY: Do you get any signs from the Governor’s office about whether he’ll sign the bill?


WEEKLY: I realize they don’t give a lot of signs.

KNOX: No, but I put nine bills on the Governor’s desk this last year, and they were not tiny bills. He signed everything I put on his desk. I put a bill on his desk to guarantee that people can use half of their sick leave coverage to take care of their sick children. Now that’s a bill that I just plopped on his desk and said, "Here it is, Gray." I had no prior discussions with him about the bill. And he signed it. So I’ve dealt with Gray Davis in different ways. On the Eight-Hour Day Bill we negotiated for a month solid. On the Sick Leave Bill, I just dropped the bill on his desk and said, "What do you want to do?" And I’ve had a 100 percent batting average with him so far. I think, I’ve figured out a few things about him.

WEEKLY: From my point of view, some of your most notable work has been the study you did on the middle class.

KNOX: I remain absolutely convinced that the problems with middle class income are very real and that while the flush times we are in wonderful to have, they are obscuring the major underlying problem [of growing income inequity]. I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years. My personal conclusion is the underlying reason for it is a failure to invest in working people. A failure to, on a day by day, year by year basis, to continually keep investing in workers so that their work becomes more productive. And that is a complete change in American economic history.

For 200 years, we invested more and more in ourselves and made ourselves more productive – and lived very well as a result. In the mid- ‘70s, we stopped doing that. The last two years in the Clinton Administration, we started doing it again, and lo and behold, there was a boost in productivity. Gosh, I wonder how that happened.

WEEKLY: Flesh out what "investing in workers" means.

KNOX: "Investing in workers" means a billion different things. It can mean something as simple as a better computer or moving from a typewriter to a computer. It can mean something as elaborate as revising an entire production line at General Motors and deciding that you’re going to dramatically increase peoples’ productivity.

WEEKLY: What is the public sector role in this, as opposed to the private sector?

KNOX: The public sector has refused to think about this as an issue worthy of its concern. I chair the Revenue and Taxation Committee now. This is my third year chairing Rev and Tax. ([With term limits], you may never interview anyone ever again in the Assembly who chairs a committee three years in a row.) But I really like the committee, because as chair of Rev and Tax, I have been able to get the renter’s tax credit reinstated. I’ve been able to get the senior housing credit dramatically improved. This is what you can do as the chair of a committee like Rev and Tax.

WEEKLY: Explain about the senior housing credit

KNOX: It’s something seniors can qualify for whether they’re home owners or apartment dwellers. And the darn thing was too small. So we went out and expanded it.

Another important area no one is discussing is what we could do to encourage investment in activities that result in a dramatic increase in worker productivity. If we’re giving tax breaks to businesses, and we are by the billions of dollars, including a credit for research and development and a manufacturer’s investment tax credit – government policies to encourage employers to direct their investments – why not see what we could do to encourage investment in activities that could result in a dramatic increase in worker’s productivity. If we’re giving tax breaks to businesses, why don’t we [match them up to] what we’d like to see in our society? It strikes me as a kind of win-win. You’re not saying that in order to improve our society, we are going to pile up a whole bunch of regs, demand a certain kind of conduct, we’re just going to encourage it. That at least needs discussion.

But here’s the other thing. In this Clinton business cycle, it’s almost impossible to raise these issues. The truth is that Al Gore and Bill Bradley and John McCain and George Bush aren’t really going to talk about the economy until there’s a downturn. And unfortunately there will be another downturn, at which point we can start raising some of these more fundamental issues.

WEEKLY: You’re term limited out of the assembly. On the other hand, you wouldn’t be in the assembly if it weren’t for term limits. How do you feel about them.

KNOX: Six years in the California State Assembly is ridiculously short. I’m a quick study and I know a lot of people who are quick studies, but it took me a couple of years to get to the point to where I could really be an effective legislator. I could not have done the Area Code Bill or the Holocaust Bill or the Eight Hour Day my first or second year. The skills simply weren’t there. On the other hand, the public very much supports term limits, and it’s very clear to me that the only reform will have to come right out of the grass roots. If legislators try to impose a change, forget it, it ain’t going to happen. The good part about term limits is it brings a lot of fresh people into the system. And there is a real virtue to that. But six years is too few.

WEEKLY: There are a lot of Democratic voters who are not happy with the choice they have to make, because they like both you and Sheila Kuehl. How are they to differentiate you from her?

KNOX: First of all, I don’t think Sheila and I are very happy with this. But because we’re both termed out of the assembly, we’re fated to run against each other. But to differentiate us, the work I focus on has almost entirely been work that came right out of my district and that my district asked me to work on. The Hate Crime Bill. The 405 issue came right out of people in my district and -- and me dealing with it every day. The area code issue: the exact same thing. The gun issue: Chief Parks met with me and said that he could not get anyone else to carry the bill because it was impossible, but someone had to raise the issue for the long term. What I have done is to listen very closely to what the people in my district want me to do, even when it looks absolutely impossible. A remarkable amount of what I have gotten done was viewed by the insiders in Sacramento as impossible. The gun bill was impossible. I was advised at the beginning of last year not to move the bill. Why? It was impossible. I was advised, "Don’t get involved in the area code issue." Why? It’s impossible. 405/101, I was told, "You’ll never get anywhere with the transportation bureaucrats. It’s impossible." That’s something that’s distinctive about how I work.

The second thing is that a lot of what you accomplish in Sacramento is what you affirmatively do. But what you resist and fight against can be just as important. One of the most important things I ever did for the environment was to lead the fight against [1996 Republican Assembly Speaker] Curt Pringle’s appointees to the Coastal Commission. And that fight was a key part of making the environment a major 1996 issue and protection of the coast as a major 1996 part of the Democratic victory. I’m enormously proud of that. And sometimes you have to stand up to your own leadership. This last year, the Speaker met with me and said that he wanted every Democrat to support lifting the cap on malpractice medical insurance damages. And I told him at the beginning of the year and through the year that we were going to part company on that issue. That, in my view, was going to significantly drive up health care costs. Planned Parenthood said it would jeopardize their ability to deliver services. So I decided to break company with my speaker on that. Now this is the guy who appointed me chair of Rev and Tax, allocated my budget to me, appointed me to every committee on which I sit. And I made it very clear, "You do what you have to do, but I’m not going along on this." There’s a time when you have to have the guts to go out and do the legislative work you do. And there’s a time when you have to stand up to your own leadership and say, "No, I’m not going along with this."