Stench of Politics

(top): LA Times Collection,UCLA LibrarySpecial CollectionsSACRAMENTO — Growing up in Long Beach the daughter of a civil servant, Jenny Oropeza understood the value of jobs to blue-collar Los Angeles. For Oropeza, a former member of the Long Beach City Council and now an Assemblywoman from the 55th District, forming strong relationships with the business community has always been second nature. Her life took on new meaning in the past year, however. One day last August, Oropeza suffered severe abdominal pain. At first she thought nothing of it. When the pain persisted she went for an MRI, which revealed that she had liver cancer. After a seven-hour surgery, two weeks in the hospital and several months of chemotherapy, she became anemic, lost her hair and was forced to miss the first three weeks of the 2005 legislative session. Meanwhile, her colleague, Assemblyman Mike Gordon from El Segundo, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died in June, at age 47. Through the close of the legislative session a black sheet was draped over the chair in the Assembly where he once sat. Oropeza recalled that her chief of staff, who also grew up in an industrial part of Los Angeles, survived ovarian cancer a decade ago. These reminders of mortality came as one of her proposals, AB 1407, which would have imposed the first-ever fee on off-road diesel fuel users to offset air pollution, was gutted by the Chamber of Commerce, with an assist from Democratic leadership in the Assembly.Most legislators know that, according to the California Air Resources Board, more than 70 percent of the cancer risk faced by Southern Californians comes solely from diesel exhaust, which is prevalent near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and along the trucking corridors east of the Alameda Railway. Asthma rates there are more than three times higher than in the next highest region of the state, which already is the worst in the nation. But as chronic as the illness caused by air pollution is the dilemma for lawmakers who value commerce and jobs — and in the age of term limits, steady financial support.Suddenly Oropeza’s mission as a legislator became clearer than ever. “I live in downtown Long Beach, a stone’s throw from the 710 freeway, the port and an oil refinery, so I can see the soot on my furniture,” said Oropeza on a recent Friday in her office in the state Capitol. As she sat there munching on a bowl of cereal, an unopened and, in her fragile state of recovery, inadvisable can of diet soda was within arm’s reach. Surrounded by photos of her younger, healthier self — a political climber by most accounts — she spoke of a moral choice. “I also have a good relationship with Chevron, Valero and other oil companies in my district. I’m not saying the air quality where I live is a direct cause of my illness. But cancer was a wake-up call. I’ve never seen a more important nexus between the environment and public health. I know that my duty is to the people I represent, not the people who write the checks.”With Californians overwhelmingly in support of safeguards for air, water, the coast and community health, a surprising number of elected officials from the areas most affected by diesel pollution do not appear to share Oropeza’s opinion. According to the California League of Conservation Voters, which publishes a legislative scorecard every year, 25 percent of state legislators, mostly Republicans, vote against environmental measures every time. In recent years, Assembly Democrats from Southern California, the Central Valley and the Bay Area have joined in that opposition.A notable exception is Assemblywoman Fran Pavley of Woodland Hills, a staunch advocate for environmental and clean-air initiatives. “Look at voting records, then look at the money people are receiving,” says Pavley. “If a person is receiving money from opponents of clean-air legislation and they are voting in a way that is not in the best interests of the health of their constituents, then I would say there is cause for concern. I won’t name names, but some of my colleagues vote against my bills or won’t support them unless they are amended, yet their constituents are more affected than mine, who live in the suburbs and along the coast.”From 2003 to 2004, the average Assembly Democrat’s environmental voting record dropped from 94 percent to 85 percent, according to the League’s scorecard. Assembly Democrats with an environmental voting record of 50 percent or less quadrupled, from one to four. Democrats in the state Senate also increased their opposition to environmental measures, lowering their average score from 93 percent to 87 percent. Veteran lawmakers agree that waning support for clean-air initiatives has mirrored this trend.At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce, in concert with the railroad, trucking, automobile, and oil and gas companies — and to a lesser extent manufacturers and alcohol distributors who strive for the least costly flow of goods — have lavished elected officials with cash and spent even more on lobbying efforts that have derailed public-health initiatives. From 1998 to 2002, the energy industry alone spent $16.6 million on statewide candidates in California, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. For Oropeza, and her colleagues from Southern California who have already been on the front lines of the clean-air battle for years, they need look no further than to their fellow passengers on the weekly shuttle flights out of Sacramento to see the face of that opposition — and its potential recruits. Volunteers are packed into the lobby of KCRA-TV studios in Sacramento on a recent Thursday night, waiting to join in a phone-banking effort to raise money for the American Red Cross. It is a week after Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans. Working well past the dinner hour, several distinguished visitors arrive roughly at the same time and make their way to the phones. They are: State Assemblymen Jerome Horton of Inglewood, Joe Baca Jr. of Rialto and Hector De La Torre of South Gate. Moments later, Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod, of Chino, arrives. The presence of these Democratic Assembly members from Southern California on the eve of such a historic tragedy is heartwarming. It also is oddly coincidental. As it turns out, they share more than a concern for helping victims of the epic flooding and disaster that has swept through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Horton and McLeod are members of what is known as the “Mod Caucus,” a group of moderate, business-minded Democrats who frequently oppose, refuse to support or help to dilute clean-air proposals. Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg in the Bay Area is their leader. Baca and De La Torre, newcomers to the Assembly, are not official members of the Mod Caucus. According to political observers, however, they are drawn to the same moderate business views, and therefore are likely to stand in the way of aggressive clean-air legislation. One way to glean a Mod Caucus member’s vote is to see if a bill appears on the Chamber of Commerce’s Web site under “Job-Killers.” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed all 10 job-killer bills sent to him in 2004, including a measure to cut gasoline use by 15 percent and a measure to prohibit any growth at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that would lead to increased air pollution. A separate measure to require railroad companies to install emission-reduction equipment and to impose a fee to mitigate diesel emissions from trains stalled in the Assembly after being labeled a job-killer.After about 20 minutes working the phones, Baca and De La Torre head for the door. De La Torre, a tall, youthful man in shirtsleeves and slacks, was diplomatic though fidgety in response to questions about air quality in his district, which he calls the “urban core” of Los Angeles. De La Torre, observers say, has not fully developed his ideology as a lawmaker. Yet in the cliquish world of the state Capitol, he has found friends among the moderate Democrats, and he talks the talk of the Mod Caucus: “It’s good business to be more efficient in production. We shouldn’t have to choose between clean air and prosperity. That’s a false choice. We want our workers to be healthy so they can enjoy the products coming into our city. But it’s not good enough to put vague goals out there.” The League of Conservation Voters has not rated De La Torre. He’s supported at least one measure to reduce emissions at the port and sponsored his own modest effort aimed at cleaner air. His financial support is split evenly between business and a combination of labor and the Democratic Party. In 2004, he received $38,650 from the automotive, electric-utilities and waste-management industries, which view clean-air measures as job-killers. He received $6,400 from pro-environmental groups.Baca, the son of Congressman Joe Baca, is easier to read. Inching toward the exit in his workout clothes and clutching a gym bag, the muscle-bound former corrections officer from the Inland Empire was expressionless when asked the same question: What about the air in your district? “I’ve got to sit down with the air-quality district and the business community and work toward a compromise,” Baca said, his eyes narrowing. “We have the highest asthma rates among children in my district. But it has to be approached on a bi-partisan basis.” Baca voted “no” on AB 1101, a measure introduced by Oropeza to reduce diesel emissions at ports, railyards, airports and trucking centers. The Chamber of Commerce dubbed it a job-killer. Baca acknowledged the tag is extreme but added, “We can’t just look at the environment. I’m focused on jobs. If we can bring more work to my area, that cuts down on commuter traffic and pollution.” Baca raised almost two-thirds of his $591,654 in 2004 from the business community, including more than $30,000 from electric utilities and the automotive industry, and $9,000 from alcohol distributors and retailers.A short time later, Horton stepped down from the phone bank. Businesslike in his blue suit and striped tie, he was no less pragmatic — or impatient — with questions about air quality. A Mod Caucus member with a 56 percent environmental rating from the League of Conservation Voters, Horton gets more than 75 percent of his funds from businesses — mostly casinos and alcohol sellers. He has a penchant for not voting — essentially having the effect of a “no” vote but ostensibly without offending anyone. Horton declined to vote 60 percent of the time in 2004, including on AB 1101, which died on the Assembly floor, six votes shy of passage. “Because of term limits there’s no time to dedicate to developing real policy answers, so we follow those who bring us solutions,” Horton said. “There’s a lack of academic and historical knowledge in the Legislature to provide leadership. We waste too much time cleaning up bills that should have more thought put into them. Basically we need to be more analytical and more responsive to real problems, instead of issues to placate special interests. Some people say, ‘If the Sierra Club says so, it must be right.’” Horton’s young son was with him. When asked if the rates of asthma in children in his district figure into his way of thinking, he replied, “We all are driven by something that happened in our lives. My mother died of cancer. I hate cigarettes.” Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod of the Mod Caucus strolled by. “In my district we have bad air quality, but we have to be friendly to business,” said McLeod, one of four Assembly Democrats with an environmental rating of 50 percent or lower. “We have to have jobs to have a good quality of life, which includes breathing good air.” McLeod also declined to vote on AB 1101, as did Assemblymen Ron Calderon of Montebello, Ed Chavez of La Puente and Dario Frommer of Glendale, her fellow Mod Caucus members. “How to marry the two together, air quality and business, that’s the rub,” she said. “The answer is not to impede on business.” When pressed for a more detailed explanation, she replied, “I drive a hybrid car, OK?” McLeod abstains from voting 43 percent of the time. Her political contributions come mostly from the Democratic Party and labor unions, but she received $24,000 from electric utilities and the trucking industry, and another $30,000 from beer, wine and liquor companies, which rely on trucks for distribution. At a time of rapid growth and reassessment of Los Angeles’ infrastructure, scientists and environmental advocates see an intellectually dishonest debate emerging around the issue of air quality. Lawmakers who are questioned about their commitment to the health of their constituents all too frequently invoke the mantra of term limits to explain how their ability to engage in meaningful policy work is inhibited. Following the money can help to explain some politicians’ behavior. Schwarzenegger, for instance, a self-proclaimed “Green Governor,” is the king of cash when it comes to industries that oppose environmental and air-quality initiatives. In 2004, he accepted $352,400 from oil and gas companies and car manufacturers who simultaneously spent $395,400 to pass Proposition 64, which scaled back consumer lawsuits having to do with health and environmental damage. Car dealerships gave $407,700 to Schwarzenegger while spending $629,150 on the passage of Prop 64. In all, he collected $4.8 million from companies who supported Prop 64 — roughly the same amount spent by those same companies to pass it. Likewise, Mod Caucus members from around the state soak up contributions from energy, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture companies, and appear equally influenced by what industry lobbyists say. Joe Canciamilla, the chair of the caucus, has an environmental voting record of 58 percent, according to the League of Conservation Voters. A conduit to big business, he is one of the most influential lawmakers in Sacramento. Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, a Democrat from Hanford rated at 39 percent, voted against three prominent clean-air bills in 2004. Assemblyman Simon Salinas of Salinas, who is rated at 79 percent, abstained from voting to help defeat a 2004 initiative by state Senator Martha Escutia that would have authorized the South Coast Air Quality Management District to reduce emissions from trains and heavy-duty vehicles operating at rail yards. Lou Correa, an assemblyman from Anaheim with a 44 percent environmental-voting record, helped defeat that measure and two others last year. Nowhere is the clash between jobs and health more extreme than in Los Angeles. Emissions from the shipping, rail and trucking industries are more damaging to the public’s health in Southern California than anywhere else. The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, reports that 95 percent of Californians breathe unhealthy air. According to toxicologist Bart Ostro, of the State Office of Environmental Health Assessment, the statewide annual health impact of air pollution is 9,600 premature deaths statewide. Most but not all of those deaths would be avoided if the region met current air standards. Failure to achieve those standards causes 6,500 premature deaths; 4,000 hospital admissions for respiratory disease; 3,000 hospital admissions for heart disease; 350,000 asthma attacks and 2,000 asthma-related emergencies. In Southern California, where unhealthy ozone levels exist during one out of every three days, low-income and minority communities near the ports and the trucking corridors to the east are particularly vulnerable to multiple pollution sources, according to the American Lung Association of California. Its 2005 study found that from Santa Barbara to San Diego, every county failed one or more tests for particle pollution or ozone levels. And in a 2004 study, the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found that because of diesel emissions the rates of premature mortality, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and asthma in the South Coast air districts accounted for half of the statewide illnesses, at an annual public-health cost of $10 billion. Against such data, the industries that drive Southern California’s economy have spared no expense protecting their bottom line. Oil companies and related industry associations spent more than $50 million lobbying Sacramento from 1995 to 2002, according to the secretary of state. Oil companies gave an additional $3 million to statewide candidates from 1997 to 2002. In 2004, the oil and gas industries gave $640,532 to statewide candidates, spending more than half on Democrats, who control the Legislature. ChevronTexaco, which owns a huge refinery in El Segundo, has spent $1.6 million on state-level politicians and party committees since 2000 — more than half what it has spent nationwide. While the company spends almost twice the amount on Republican committees as on Democratic ones, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics it spends equally among Republican and Democratic candidates for state office. And it has a knack for backing winners. The institute reports that 69 percent of the company’s contributions go to winning candidates. Top 20 recipients include these Democrats: former Gov. Gray Davis ($186,000); Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante ($55,000); Attorney General Bill Lockyer ($25,500); Treasurer Phil Angelides, who is running for governor ($25,000); state Senators Mike Machado of Linden ($12,000) and Dean Florez of Shafter ($7,500); and Assemblywoman Betty Karnette of Long Beach ($7,000), who as a state senator in 2004 abstained from voting on four out of five clean-air bills. In addition, last year the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, Union Pacific Railroad, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad, the California Trucking Association Political Action Committee, the California Motor Car Dealers Association Political Action Committee, General Motors, Occidental Oil and Gas Corp. and BP Amoco contributed more than $1.1 million to the campaigns of statewide candidates, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. Western States Petroleum Association spent its money lobbying elected decision makers to the tune of $1.4 million. The Chamber of Commerce also organizes transportation, energy, waste-management and beer and wine companies into coalitions that lobby together against fuel-economy bills. Earlier in her career, Oropeza, a pragmatist with a reputation for being combative, might not have challenged such clout. Even now, as she redefines her approach to lawmaking, she is not shy about tossing off a term-limits reference to explain why the business of improving air quality has turned into a political quagmire. Her environmental voting record is 88 percent — just above average for Democrats. Until last year she was on the fast track to Speaker of the Assembly, a power position she badly wanted but lost to Assemblyman Fabian Nuñez of Los Angeles. Yet in addition to her bout with cancer, circumstances have changed profoundly for her. Relieved of the pressures of formal leadership, Oropeza finds herself in a position to lead from a policy perspective. “I want to make a difference,” she says. State Senator Alan Lowenthal stands before a wall-sized map of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, tracing his hands over the sources of the most deadly emissions to be found in California. Arguments from the Mod Caucus about jobs amount to obfuscation, Lowenthal says. “Of course the movement of goods throughout the region has to be part of our future, but right now it is a problem, and what was once an environmental problem is a public health crisis. We cannot afford to say we will fix it later. We have to build sustainable communities or we will kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” Lowenthal is a wiry, energetic man, a former psychologist and community activist who ran for city council in Long Beach 13 years ago and never looked back. Now he is one of the most passionate and respected advocates for clean air in the Legislature. “When I ran for city council in 1991 I walked the precincts around the port and tried to talk to people about revitalization. They said, ‘That’s nice, Alan, but what is this black, filmy substance on our furniture?’ I looked at an air-quality report and learned that 1 million tons of petroleum coke was moving through the Port of Los Angeles. I sued the Port of Los Angeles and people accused me of trying to gain an economic advantage for the Port of Long Beach. I said the economy is not the issue. And as I learned more, I saw the problem was like one of those Russian dolls, where you remove the head and there’s another doll inside. Diesel particles were just the tip of the iceberg.” The sponsor of some of the most aggressive clean-air measures, Lowenthal receives direct contributions from oil and gas companies but refuses to do their bidding. Instead, he has worked with them and the transportation industries in some instances and applied not-so-subtle pressure in others. In 2004, after it was labeled a job-killer, his bill to hold the ports to no net increase in pollution growth was vetoed by Schwarzenegger. However, his trucking bill, AB 2650, which cut the time trucks can idle at the port, met with approval from the transportation industry; businesses saw that reduced idling time led to smoother passage of goods and greater profits. Then, having engaged the business community, Lowenthal threatened to call upon the state to regulate the opening of trucking terminals to further speed the cargo-loading process at the port — that is, unless the trucking companies could coordinate pier passage themselves. The implications for business competition, labor unions and Homeland Security were massive, yet the strategy worked. “It’s like the Wild West with these companies, always looking to undercut each other. You have to show them ways that make good business sense. I was concerned only about reducing emissions. But what business has trucks lined up for hours waiting to be loaded? You cannot treat the surrounding communities with such disrespect.” Faced with pressure from the Chamber of Commerce during this recent session, Lowenthal took the unusual step of holding back his container-fee bill, SB 760. The bill would funnel shipping container fees into meeting emissions standards. It passed in the state Senate but was labeled a job-killer. He’ll bring it to the Assembly at a later time. “Steps toward a consensus,” Lowenthal says with a smile. But what about the pressure of term limits, doesn’t that make it difficult to take a long view of such complicated problems? “How does that fit into anything?” he says, this time with a straight face as he gestures wildly all over the map on his wall. “I live here,” he says. “My children grew up here.” Howard Posner, a Cal-Trans veteran and consultant to the Assembly Transportation Committee, which is chaired by Jenny Oropeza, says Oropeza was drawn to clean-air advocacy even before she got cancer, but that her illness transformed her. He points to two bills she sponsored in early 2004 that failed. AB 2644 would have placed a limit on bus idling, and would have codified regulations already adopted by the California Air Resources Board. Though it was not labeled a job-killer, Schwarzenegger vetoed it. AB 2526, which would have reserved a quarter-cent from each 18 cents collected under an existing diesel-tax program for improving air quality, died in the Appropriations Committee. A third bill, AB 1407, introduced by Oropeza this year, would have imposed a 5-cents-per-gallon fee on the sale of off-road diesel. Under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and the Mod Caucus, the bill was amended to instruct CARB simply to study the impacts of the fee. Such failures and compromises tell the story of how bogged down air-quality legislation has become, Posner says, pointing to numerous other measures that met a similar fate, often at the hands of the Mod Caucus. Yet he expects Oropeza, who is running for state Senate in 2006, to keep fighting. “It’s important to decide when opposition is based on real policy concerns, and when it’s just a line of B.S.,” Posner says. “Sometimes bills are too ambitious and worthy of compromise, and it’s better to get something on the governor’s desk than nothing. Other times, the politics can get under your skin.” These days, Oropeza, though still suffering from anemia and fatigue at times, does her best to stay philosophical. Like many who have faced their mortality, she sees job stress as a life factor to keep in check. Cancer survivor Oropeza, who represents Long Beach at ground zero of the political fight between commerce and clean air, may find that her best work still lies ahead of her. She is in a unique position to personalize environmental issues as they relate to public health. She can dramatize issues as well, like the time she responded to criticism on the Assembly floor that AB 1101 was a job-killer. “No it’s not,” Oropeza said, her pre-cancer combativeness making a comeback — but with an enlightened focus. “It’s righteous.”

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