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Taking On Arnold

In the topsy-turvy world of Governor Arnold, few have had more of a paradoxical relationship with the former action superstar than Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez. Although Nuñez has emerged as Schwarzenegger’s most persistent antagonist, the Weekly learned that the former L.A. labor leader spent most of the weekends of August 6-7 and August 13-14 meeting with the governor at his Los Angeles mansion to negotiate compromise initiatives for the November special-election ballot.

The sessions, limited to only four people, were mediated by Schwarzenegger’s friend and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, the Valley Democrat and erstwhile L.A. mayoral candidate. With much of Schwarzenegger’s senior staff in revolt against a deal with Democrats, the only Arnista participating was state Finance Director Tom Campbell, the former Silicon Valley congressman.

Nuñez described the lengthy sessions as encounters with a different Arnold, “without the façade,” a man looking for a way “out of the box” of a special election in which his so-called Year of Reform initiatives are mostly in deep trouble. But with interests yanking on the elbows of both leaders, the negotiations ultimately did not work, so we can expect a very tumultuous election season, more in the vein of Nuñez and Schwarzenegger’s recent past.

The Weekly shadowed Nuñez earlier this summer to get a bead on this little-known politician who has emerged as one of the most important figures of post-recall California, at one point catching up with him right after a very contentious encounter with the Terminator. Nuñez, mindful of risks for Democrats and widespread disdain for both the Legislature and the governorship, was in the Governor’s Office to negotiate an end to the special-election showdown. At one point, Nuñez decided to confer privately with his colleague, state Senate President Don Perata, outside the governor’s earshot. So they stepped out of the room and left Schwarzenegger cooling his heels, a tactic that he was not used to in his Hollywood heyday and distinctly does not enjoy.

They returned after about a half-hour to resume talks about the November 8 election. Schwarzenegger made a crack about the former labor official Nuñez checking in with “union bosses.” Nuñez took offense, saying he didn’t have to listen to that kind of “bullshit,” and he and Perata stormed out. As they did, Schwarzenegger called after them: “You are dismissed.”

Nuñez assumed the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief antagonist earlier this year, when the governator’s lofty and historically popular centrist course veered sharply into the harsh-sounding Republican partisanship that fed his rapid decline in the polls.

In his imposing, history-laden Capitol office, the 37-year-old speaker operates from behind the massive desk made famous by the legendary wheeler-dealer Willie Brown in the era before term limits, with a Mexican soccer match playing in the background on a large-screen TV. There are a number of personal mementoes. (Though fewer than you might think, as it is the custom of the Capitol to retain the office’s historic decor.)

Along with photos of his family, his friend Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (Nuñez is proud to have been the first elected official to endorse him in his recent campaign), and his mentor, the late L.A. County Federation of Labor chieftain Miguel Contreras, there is a framed and personally inscribed picture of the speaker with another politician of an immigrant background. On it, the smiling inscriber pledges to work closely with Nuñez for the betterment of all Californians. It is signed, “Your friend, Arnold.”

“We got along better last year,” says Nuñez, an Angeleno who grew up in San Diego and Mexico, of his relationship with the governor.

Engagingly, he’s come out from behind the massive Willie Brown desk and is sitting next to me on a sofa. (Nuñez, who can be very direct and profane, is also something of a charmer and flatterer. At one point he refers to me as “a younger version of Warren Beatty.” Which is not, shall we say, accurate.)

“John [Burton, then president of the state Senate] was taking the lead last year instead of ‘The Kid,’” Nuñez says, referring to the famously irascible Burton’s nickname for him. The speaker is little more than half Burton’s age. “They [Burton and Schwarzenegger] got along great.”

Later, when I spent a day shadowing the speaker, Nuñez expanded on that. “John led the Hollywood stuff,” he said, “and the governor was in a different place, much more moderate. Except when he did a few things like try to take out my members,” referring to Schwarzenegger’s failed plan to defeat a raft of Democratic Assemblymembers last November.

Some Capitol insiders, including key Arnold advisers, had expected Nuñez again to be eclipsed by the Senate president pro tem, Oakland Democrat Perata. But Perata, a political veteran who worked with L.A. Congressman Howard Berman before going into elective politics, and who had repeatedly signaled his intention to work with Schwarzenegger, was hobbled by two major factors: an ongoing federal investigation into his Bay Area business dealings and the governor’s rightward lunge. Meanwhile, Nuñez, buoyed by his success in defeating every one of Schwarzenegger’s efforts to take out his members, became very aggressive in combating Arnold.

Working closely with the public-employee unions doing battle with the governor — Nuñez and the Assembly Democrats’ chief political consultant, Gale Kaufman, is also the top strategist for the unions — turned Nuñez into the welterweight knocking the superheavyweight around the ring.

“I had about 100 fights,” Nuñez says, referring to his days as an amateur boxer. “I learned how to take a punch and keep throwing them.” Nuñez’s unmarked face and youthful good looks make it clear he learned quickly how to avoid taking too many punches.

“I like to hire people who are smarter than I am,” he says disarmingly. “I don’t have all the answers.” In addition to a well-regarded policy shop, Nuñez has loaded up his operation with Gray Davis veterans, including deputy chief of staff Steve Maviglio, communications director Gabe Sanchez and press secretary Vince Duffy. Perhaps seeking some recall payback, they sharpened Nuñez’s already frequently intense criticism of the governor.

It’s ironic the California’s two principal political combatants both come from the immigrant experience. While Nuñez was born here, in his childhood years he often felt like an immigrant.

“Because for a time my parents couldn’t afford a home here,” he notes, “we moved to Mexico. So every day they crossed the border to work and I crossed the border to go to school. I saw such economic disparities that it fired a sense of justice in me.”

In a sense, Nuñez lives his life on a border, one foot planted in hardscrabble reality, the other in the aspirations of the upper middle class. One of 11 children, Nuñez, unlike his parents, never had to work in the fields. A scholarship student, he attended elite universities. Despite an economically challenged background, he doesn’t have the street feel of his friend Villaraigosa. Indeed, he acknowledges he took up boxing to short-circuit pressure to prove his manhood by joining a gang. A career labor advocate, he is also an art aficionado who dresses tastefully if not showily from Nordstrom.

Before being elected to the Assembly, Nuñez served from 2000 to 2002 as government affairs director for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

From 1996 to 2000, he was the political director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

After attending the University of California at San Diego on scholarship, Nuñez earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and education from Pitzer College in Claremont. He quickly moved into immigrant advocacy and then labor organizing, rising rapidly in the ranks of L.A. labor, becoming Miguel Contreras’ chief political operator.

His background draws fire from California Republican Party communications director Karen Hanretty. “Editorials call him ‘labor’s chief lobbyist’ in the Capitol,” she notes. “He told the electrical workers union, ‘I am your shop steward in Sacramento.’ He supplements his hundred-thousand-plus state income with $35,000 a year from a labor foundation. His political consultant is the unions’ political consultant. Tell me he is not in Big Labor’s pocket.”

Of course, Hanretty said this before news broke of Schwarzenegger’s multimillion-dollar muscle magazines moonlighting deal, which had critics screaming over his veto of supplement-regulation legislation opposed by the supplement companies who rely on the magazines as an advertising platform. And Nuñez, who had not received any money this year from the labor foundation, ended his comparatively minuscule arrangement.

Hanretty also complains that Nuñez can talk conciliation in English but say something very different in Spanish.

During Nuñez’s December 2003 visit to Mexico City, the La Crónica de Hoy newspaper reported that he said: “I have already personally declared political war on Schwarzenegger .?.?. that is the reason I was elected by my supporters. This is only the beginning of the confrontations with Governor Schwarzenegger. In a meeting I had with him, I advised him that Democrats will not allow him to step on our principles, which are to defend the rights of immigrants and Californians.”

Later, Nuñez asked for a retraction. The reporter said he no longer had the recording from two months earlier.

Whatever was said, Nuñez had a certain taste for confrontation before, not to mention later. During the 2003 budget crisis, before Schwarzenegger was a candidate, Nuñez was overheard during a private meeting of Assembly left-liberals, inadvertently broadcast throughout the Capitol over the squawk box in their conference room, suggesting that they “precipitate a crisis” over the budget as a way to persuade voters to lower the two-thirds vote requirement for the passage of the state budget. Other experts thought that a disastrous strategy.

“He hasn’t had the experience of running statewide elections, much less winning them,” notes Democratic strategist Garry South, who directed Gray Davis’ winning campaigns for governor in 1998 and 2002. “When you come from a district with 11 percent Republicans where the whole ball game is winning the Democratic primary, you don’t develop the instincts you need for statewide politics.”

“I know I come from an advocacy background,” says Nuñez. “But I learned a lot about negotiation with Miguel and the labor movement. It wasn’t all protest. You know when we had the big march in L.A. against [the anti-illegal immigrant] Proposition 187 in ’94, Miguel tried to talk me out of it. ‘Are you guys crazy?’ he said. But I wanted to march.”

Nuñez acknowledges that the march, notoriously replete with Mexican flags (which he opposed), may have helped fuel 187’s landslide victory. “But it was the right thing to do. And we mobilized people who had felt powerless under attack,” he notes, arguing that it sowed the seeds for future victory.

For his part, Nuñez says that he is becoming more of a New Democrat rather than simply a labor/left Democrat. Indeed, at a recent Sacramento Press Club luncheon, he made a statement that was overshadowed at the time. While California is in budget crisis, he said, “We should push to fund existing programs before we create new programs.”

Some Republicans were stunned by that — it was the last thing they expected to hear from him. Perhaps they should not have been. Earlier, Nuñez didn’t allow a vote on assisted suicides and agreed with enough members backing off the bill to deny passage of gay-marriage legislation.

Nuñez’s statement about the budget and new programs went largely unnoticed because of something he said that day. He revealed that compromise talks were going on with the governor in an effort to defuse Schwarzenegger’s Year of Reform special-election initiatives.

A day later, Schwarzenegger acknowledged the talks, which his staff had denied.

“We have been going at it with the governor,” Nuñez said last month, “but I think we will have a deal on compromise special-election initiatives. It’s best for everyone. His poll ratings are fucked and we need to get the focus back here. You know, the governor told us [he and Perata], ‘I did Twins on a napkin’ [referring to Schwarzenegger’s deal on the comedy hit with Danny DeVito].”

Nuñez makes a face at this. Despite his optimism, tensions remained palpable, especially in the aftermath of his blowup with Schwarzenegger the day before.

Later that night, at a “secret” pep rally for administration appointees with hundreds of protesters outside, Schwarzenegger supposedly said something about the need to recall the Legislature. The next morning, Nuñez called Arnold’s chief of staff, Pat Clarey, about it. From Nuñez’s side of the conversation, she apparently said that Schwarzenegger had included in his talking points the suggestion that the Legislature would have been recalled along with Davis had it been on the 2003 ballot. Based on his spy’s report, Nuñez expressed doubt about that and hung up, satisfied his point had been made.

However, in a day of meetings and phone calls with legislators, staffers and some lobbyists (not all of whom wanted to be on the record or even have me in the room), and a brief tour of his office and the Assembly floor with the California Academy of Physician Assistants (with requisite poses for photos as the Assembly vote tally board lit up in the backdrop with the group’s name), it is not all pleasantries. Indeed, Nuñez blew up at the L.A. Unified School District’s legal counsel, slamming the phone down in frustration.

Contemplating an “off-campus” fund-raiser late in the day (to which I was not invited), the speaker again expresses frustration. “I hate fund-raising,” he says. “I’m good at it, it has to be done. You know, a big part of this job is being nice. You use staff to deliver bad news. Here [with fund-raising] I have to have a drink with this guy, sit down with that guy...” He shakes his head. “But it’s what we do to win.”

Throughout the day, adviser Arnie Sowell comes in and out to report on Schwarz­-enegger’s “Million Solar Homes” bill, authored by Democratic and Republican senators and backed by environmentalists, now in the Assembly after passing the Senate. Labor wants a “prevailing-wage” provision — usually applied to government projects that would benefit unionized contractors — applied to private installations of solar-power devices. Nuñez tells his aide to inform labor they won’t get it and the bill will move forward. For now.

“The governor wants the solar bill bad,” he says. “It sounds good but you know it’s a big subsidy that some of my liberal members say won’t help poor people.” So the bill keeps moving forward in the Legislature. But the prevailing-wage provision, which could knock out Republican support for the bipartisan bill, stays in reserve as a bargaining chip in the maneuvering with Arnold.

Later, Nuñez takes a call from Warren Beatty to discuss “the State of Arnold.” The Oscar-winning director and movie star had advised Nuñez to reveal the secret negotiations. In part, he argued, it would prevent administration conservatives from strangling a deal before it ever saw light. And it also would prevent Arnold and company from claiming that the Democrats weren’t willing to compromise, as Schwarzenegger’s staff had been doing.

Negotiations continued but were ultimately fruitless. The biggest problem came with the revelation of Schwarzenegger’s multimillion-dollar moonlighting with the muscle magazines, which shredded his credibility. Nuñez’s labor allies, smelling Republican blood, wanted the election to go forward even though the ballot contains an initiative dangerous to them, the so-called “paycheck protection” initiative, which would require written permission from public-employee union members for their dues to be used in politics.

While Schwarzenegger hasn’t endorsed the initiative, his more adroit advisers had insisted on the importance of it making the ballot as, if nothing else, a major bargaining chip for the governor. But now, as Education Coalition spokesman Roger Salazar notes — even though the union-dues measure does much better than Schwarzenegger’s spending limits and redistricting initiatives, actually enjoying a healthy lead — a “vote no on all Republican initiatives” campaign could well prevail in spite of Schwarzenegger’s strenuous and well-funded efforts.

Even in victory, a special-election showdown would drain tens of millions from Democratic campaign coffers. But Democrats are tantalized by the prospect of crippling Schwarzenegger, even setting the stage for his defeat next year or an early departure from politics.

The deal can go down many ways in this multilayered game, which now includes a legal opinion from the Democratic-controlled Legislative Counsel’s office that Schwarzenegger can unilaterally cancel the special election at any time. Whatever happens with the election, Fabian Nuñez, whose actual power exceeds all but a few of the many Angelenos more famous than he, will be right in the center of it.

Although Nuñez isn’t sure that Schwarzenegger can recover from his descent in the polls, he knows neither side looks good in the special-election debacle. “The public is pretty sick of all of us and most people don’t even know who I am.”

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