The Worst Legislator in California
So you thought it worked like this: A kid grows up dreaming of making the world just a little bit better. So like San Fernando state Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, he learns how to blow-dry his hair and runs for office, promising he'll write new laws, better laws. He'll write the laws that will erase misery, obliterate oppression — laws that make the whole world sing.
That's what you thought, isn't it?
The truth is, in California, lawmakers like Fuentes don't actually make laws. They make deals.
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It's easy to become confused. In Sacramento, a legislator who introduces a bill is called the "author." In reality, Fuentes and many of his colleagues didn't so much as lift a pencil. Or if he did, he handed it over to the PAC men and women, corporate executives or lobbyists who really did write the law before they went shopping for a legislator to carry it through the Capitol. And in Sacramento-speak, those special-interest folks who ghostwrite California's laws are called "sponsors."
But the worst thing about this system? Hands-down, it's the universality of it all.
Everybody is ghostwriting the laws. The Sierra Club. The teachers unions. Anheuser-Busch. The California Manufacturers Association. The city of Los Angeles. The California Retailers Association. Doesn't matter if they're from the right or the left. Everybody's in on it.
"Outside special interests have an inordinate impact on the bill-making process in Sacramento," says James Lee, who was former Gov. Pete Wilson's spokesman.
Talk about understatements.
The practice of letting special interests dictate the laws that legislators pass — right down to the very words and phrases — dates back to at least the 1940s in California. But now the practice has exploded to almost unprecedented levels.
Led by reporter Karen de Sa, in July, the San Jose Mercury News published a groundbreaking analysis of the 2007-08 legislative session, the most recent complete two-year session, and found that more than 1,800 bills — about 39 percent — were "sponsored" or actually written by special interests.
That's 702 laws ghostwritten and custom-designed specifically by the groups who benefited from them, then slapped with the name of one or another of California's 120 state legislators and introduced in the state Senate and Assembly as legitimate bills.
To top it off, the isolated Sacramento press corps rarely blows the whistle to alert the public about who is really writing California laws. When de Sa started working on her newspaper's online database, which any member of the public can use to look up the most compromised of the state's legislators, Capitol workers — including reporters — "would say, 'Sponsored bills? Well, duh. It's the way things are done,' " de Sa says. "I've never worked in the Capitol. But people in the Capitol who work there and who cover the Capitol have become far too jaded and accustomed to lobbyists pushing bills. Some of the [legislative] staff does work for lobbyists and the lobbyists become de facto legislators. [Legislative staff and the media] have accepted as routine what we as outsiders would think is a shockingly unethical way of doing business."
It didn't bother the politicians, either: An astonishing 60 percent of the ghostwritten laws put forth by legislators are passed by their colleagues in the Legislature.
The corporate sponsorship of legislation is so commonplace, in fact, that former assemblyman and current congressman Tom McClintock, Republican from California's 4th District, made news during his tenure in Sacramento for his refusal to front bills ghostwritten by special interests.
He made news because the squeaky-clean McClintock was the only one to simply refuse.
And then there's Felipe Fuentes.
The north San Fernando Valley's Assembly rep is a standout example of how lawmaking in Sacramento has devolved into something quite apart from lawmaking as people normally understand it.
The 39-year-old Democrat who represents Sylmar, Pacoima, Lakeview Terrace and Arleta in the California Assembly was listed as the "author" of 24 proposed bills in the 2007-08 legislative sessions. Yet despite all his bustle, Fuentes could easily win a nomination as the worst legislator in California — quite an achievement in a 120-member body with a 10 percent approval rating — because 10 of his laws were ghostwritten by special-interest groups.
Fuentes has the friendly demeanor of a politician hot on the campaign trail. On Election Day, he was out confidently campaigning for "another good Democrat," he says.
And he has a lot of confidence in the Sacramento system, which he insists isn't broken. "We have a robust process in the sunshine," he says, noting that organizational "sponsorship" of every bill is duly noted by the secretary of state, even if the public has no idea it's going on. "There isn't any one way to create good legislation."
But he lets special-interest groups write his laws. Then he puts his name on them.
Wasn't he elected to do the job he's letting the ghostwriters do?
His confidence wavers ever so slightly. "Well, off the record," he says in a rush, not giving a reporter the chance to say there's no such off-the-record deal in place, "it's not a yes or no answer, whether making laws this way is good or bad.
"There's nothing wrong with generating ideas from different sources," he says. "I'm not an attorney and I'm not the best writer and I depend on the city people," meaning the Los Angeles city officials and civil bureaucrats who are actually writing the bills on which Fuentes puts his name. "There isn't a monopoly on good ideas. I'll take them from anyone."
Indeed, Fuentes has carried water for pretty much any special-interest group you can think of, including the Independent Automobile Dealers Association of California, Workers' Compensation Pharmacy Alliance, the California Medical Association, the Personal Insurance Federation of California and Symantec Corporation.
But perhaps his pièce de résistance is the one that got away: He put his name on a stinker of a law known as Assembly Bill 2531, which was ghostwritten by Los Angeles' powerful Community Redevelopment Agency.
See, the CRA is a semi-autonomous city department that siphons off a portion of property taxes and uses those monies to redevelop "blighted" city neighborhoods. It does that by giving loans to owners — usually development companies who rehabilitate property or tear down existing buildings to erect apartment complexes, hotels or office towers.
It sounds pretty, but AB 2531 also had the potential to displace thousands of minority and poor L.A. residents — and wipe out huge swaths of nonblighted Los Angeles — through a land grab disguised as redevelopment.
The CRA has the power to declare eminent domain over blighted areas. According to the original wording of AB 2531 that Fuentes put his name on, "blight" would be expanded to a radical new definition: those unhealthy neighborhoods with "high incidences of obesity, diabetes and other diseases which are affected by poor access to fresh food" or places where there are "high incidences of asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases which are affected by air pollution or the presence of contaminated properties," and, lastly, areas "that suffer from a lack of parks and open space."
And that made Bob Blue, an engineer and former Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council member, really mad. Because AB 2531 laid out a whole new definition of blight.
Neighborhoods with limited open space and parks, or a lack of fresh vegetables, with an elevated incidence of diabetes or obesity, or with high incidents of lung problems, were now "blighted" and at risk.
Echo Park, Hollywood, Boyle Heights, Venice, South Central, Mid-City, Pacoima, Van Nuys.
Much of park-poor, asthma-suffering, overweight Los Angeles, in fact.
About 24 percent of the residents on the city's Eastside are obese, as are 30 percent of those who live in South Los Angeles. In West Los Angeles, just 11 percent are obese. According to the county Department of Public Health and the local chapter of the American Diabetes Association, in 2007, the diabetes rate among African Americans increased to 11.4 percent in L.A.; 12.8 percent of L.A. Latinos have the chronic disease. By comparison, 5.7 percent of whites in L.A. County have diabetes.
Oh, and "blight" also would include public housing in L.A. that's more than 50 years old — pretty much drawing a bead on several projects built before 1960, which are home to some of the city's poorest, and many of its most fiercely antiredevelopment, Latino and black residents.
"Currently, you have to prove an area is blighted, and that takes about two years to do so," Blue says. Fuentes' law, dreamed up by the insiders at Los Angeles' redevelopment wing, "would have circumvented the process and eased the definition of 'blighted.' "
It also would have allowed developers first dibs on land condemned by the CRA and the city — while providing those developers with favorable loan terms, Blue says.
Ziggy Kruse, a legal researcher and CityWatchLA blogger who previously blew the whistle on a negligent Hollywood redeveloper, CIM Group — taping an embarrassing video that forced CIM Group to tear down a festering old motel filled with rotting garbage — joined Blue in begging Schwarzenegger to veto the bill.
Says Kruse: "The CRA tries to get its hands on whatever land it wants. There are a couple of obese city councilmen whose neighborhoods could be condemned and land taken if this bill had become law."
She leaves it to voters to figure out who they are.
Kruse and Blue say Assemblyman Fuentes pushed the bill because it's what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants — and Fuentes, who clearly has political ambitions beyond 2012, when he'll hit his Assembly term limit, wants Villaraigosa's support when he makes a move to gain Richard Alarcon's seat on the L.A City Council.
Fuentes was a deputy mayor under James Hahn, assigned to duties in the San Fernando Valley, in 2001. Then he became chief of staff to then–Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, now a state senator and Fuentes' current protector in Sacramento.
Some Democratic Assembly members in Sacramento, says one legislator who insists upon remaining anonymous, believe that Fuentes sent the tip to L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley's office that launched the investigation of where Councilman Alarcon really lives.
Fuentes, his colleague says, is nakedly ambitious to grab Alarcon's City Council seat early — before Alarcon reaches his term limit in 2013 — and he openly hates Alarcon.
In January, Fuentes introduced Assembly Bill 1676 on behalf of a wildly self-interested special-interest group made up of one: Felipe Fuentes. The retroactive law would have "immediately" forced from office any local politician caught living outside his voting district. Two days later, Councilman Richard Alarcon suddenly made the evening news — an investigation had been launched into allegations he was living in Sun Valley, not part of his district. Alarcon's defense was that squatters had taken over his dilapidated, slumlike tract home. He and his wife currently face felony voter-fraud charges arising from the probe.
Fuentes' ambitious reputation for bringing highly conflicted, ghostwritten bills to the Assembly floor — more than almost any of the other 119 legislators, although the Mercury News database reveals that several Los Angeles–area assemblymen are among the worst — has become an inside joke in Sacramento.
When Fuentes introduces a new bill in the august Assembly chambers, there's so much scorn for him that his own Democratic Assembly colleagues quietly chant "Bwop, bwop, bwop," making a sound like a police cruiser headed to a crime scene. Their message: Trouble is on the way.
Trouble indeed, says Blue, who finds it ironic that Fuentes, a Latino, would throw his support to a land-grab law that could displace Los Angeles Latinos in much the same way the CRA was infamously created in 1948 — to "redevelop" a historic Latino community called Chavez Ravine.
The city planners promised they would build new, better homes at Chavez Ravine. Instead, they built Dodger Stadium.
"Fuentes didn't write" AB 2531, Blue says. "He introduced the bill because of his relationship with the city."
Blue and Kruse learned of AB 2531 just before it got to the governor's desk. The two organized a letter-writing campaign and fired off scores of e-mail alerts to stop the nonsense — and the governor vetoed Fuentes' bizarre expansion of "blight."
Nobody knows if the two Hollywood activists stopped the governor, or if Schwarzenegger was waiting with his veto pen.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five years ago in Kelo vs. City of New London that the state of Connecticut could seize a working-class neighborhood to build a mall, 43 states have enacted laws to protect communities from blatant land grabs.
Fuentes was trying to roll back California's not very protective law, making it far easier to declare minority and working-class neighborhoods blighted — thus joining 19 states that have nearly unlimited definitions of "blight."
The Democrat-controlled California Legislature backed Fuentes up.
The governator told the Legislature he killed the bill because "redevelopment funds are to be used solely for the purpose of eliminating blight. ... This bill would authorize the use of redevelopment funds for projects that are not necessarily blighted, as well as for projects outside the redevelopment area, and as such would violate the primary purpose of redevelopment law."
Fuentes defends AB 2531 by saying anything that benefits L.A. is a good deal, and the new law was poised to fulfill some dreams. For whom, he wouldn't say.
Legislating Sacramento-style means the public has to put up with the good, the bad and the ugly of lawmaking, Fuentes implies.
"If you're doing something for big business like a tobacco company, then it's wrong" to put his name on bills he didn't write, Fuentes says. "But if you're doing it for L.A., as in the case of this bill, it's good for redevelopment. I did this [AB 2531] in collaboration with the city."
Fuentes called it a good and simple bill that, instead of addressing the bricks-and-mortar issue of redevelopment, would have changed the way the CRA in Los Angeles spends its money, letting the funds go to "incubate small businesses, promote green jobs and technology and provide job training."
"If there was ever a time to move money around through development, it's now," Fuentes says. "I'm not trying to figure out how to create Disneyland. I'm interested in redevelopment."
Fuentes insists the bill "doesn't say anything about taking land or displacing people."
No, but then, he didn't write a word of it.
"When there's money involved, the process is corrupt," Blue says. "Many people greased the wheel to get this bill going, including bond lawyers, developers and Felipe Fuentes."
Villaraigosa did not respond to L.A. Weekly's request for an interview. But he blessed AB 2531 when he signed off on the City Council's legislative wish list last February.
The law was backed by the Los Angeles City Council, 15 people who vote as a unanimous block 99.993 percent of the time, usually taking their cue from Villaraigosa — even on wildly controversial ideas such as this one. Voting yes were Alarcon, Janice Hahn, Paul Koretz, Jan Perry, Ed Reyes, Bill Rosendahl, Dennis Zine and four City Council members running for re-election in 2011: Tony Cardenas, Tom LaBonge, Bernard C. Parks and Herb Wesson. Four were absent: Eric Garcetti, Jose Huizar, Paul Krekorian and Greig Smith.
CRA Chief Deputy Jim Dantona says there's nothing wrong with Fuentes' legislative tactics.
"Fuentes saw it, liked it and so he attached his name and presented it," Dantona says. "With this bill we were trying to get money spread out through the city instead of just targeting our redevelopment projects."
Although the CRA is powerful and wealthy, controlling a $586 million annual budget, Dantona complains: "We can't get businesses money for equipment or capital improvement if they're half a street over, the next block over or a mile away from a project area."
It's quite inconvenient, in fact. It's utterly illegal.
Earlier this month, Fuentes won re-election handily to his second — and final — Assembly term, with 79 percent of the vote, in a gerrymandered district where he could not lose. He was helped by $462,108.50 that flowed to his campaign from organizations representing the banking giant JPMorgan Chase & Co. PAC of Chicago and California police. If he later sponsors a bill written by people from among those organizations, what will that say?
Fuentes explains, "I don't just put my name on a bill and present it. All these bills I presented, I authored. I don't take pen to paper myself. I rely on committee staff, consultants and legislative counsel. My strength is taking ideas and making them better. I'd be wary of a legislator who took pen to paper by themselves. You need a lot of folks."
That's political-speak for justifying Sacramento's unwritten pay-to-play system, says California Voter Foundation founder and president Kim Alexander, a fourth-generation Angeleno whose first foray into Sacramento politics came in 1989.
Twenty-one years later, Alexander says, the link between money and legislative power is stronger than ever.
"A lot of people are surprised by this kind of access," she says. "I don't know how to answer whether it's corruption or not. Or whether it's right or wrong. The legislative process is dependent on money to fuel it. The fact is you can't get a bill passed without money, and there is no power without it. ... It frustrates the public. If you don't have money, you don't have a voice."
But James Lee, the former Wilson press secretary who now runs Lee Strategy Group in L.A., says you can't lay all the blame on Fuentes and his cohorts. The nature of the lawmaking game in Sacramento was turned topsy-turvy 18 years ago, Lee says, when voters approved term limits.
"Term limits have had a profound effect on sausage-making in the legislature," Lee says. "If in, say, six years you introduce hundreds of bills, you're seen as someone who can get things done."
Fuentes gets things done, all right.
Back in July, the Mercury News wrote, "Beginning in 2007, Fuentes introduced 10 bills that had been crafted and pushed by those lobbyists — one of the highest totals of any legislator. ... In the years since, he has reaped tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money from bill sponsors, won re-election and snagged plum appointments to Assembly committees."
Legislators who front for the ghostwriters pass themselves off as high-achieving lawmakers — an image that's allowed to stand by the mostly silent Sacramento press corps. But behind the scenes, these private groups are authoring intricate laws about themselves. "Entire regulatory issues are put up for sale," Lee says.
Fuentes' prolific bill-fronting is fueled by yet another problem, according to Lee. With a 66 percent supermajority needed to pass a budget, he notes, stalemates are "brutal, brutal." To get 27 out of 40 votes in the Senate and 54 votes from the Assembly, he says, legislators will take help from any organization with enough staff to provide it.
On Nov. 2, voters passed Proposition 25 and did away with the supermajority to pass a California budget. Now, the Democrats in Sacramento can pass a budget with a simple majority vote, taking away one of the key pressure points.
But Fuentes doesn't plan to tone it down. He'll keep putting his name on California laws ghostwritten by special-interest groups from whom he takes big sums of money.
As long as he and the groups involved both report the donations, even if those links are publicized only by the occasional digging of a journalist like Karen de Sa, he says he's doing right by serving and protecting his constituents.
There's no irony in his voice as Fuentes paraphrases the slogan of a major U.S. corporation: "There's no monopoly on good ideas," he says. "I'm like 3M. I can take things and make them better."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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