WITH GREAT PRIDE, I ACCEPTED the honor a few months back of being labeled “the state's worst political journalist” by one of the party flacks who works for the soon-to-be ex-speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Núñez. In this business, it's all about collecting the right enemies. And now I'm just as flattered to have been among the first to have correctly predicted —way back in the summer — that Núñez's political career would come to a humiliating end, as it precisely did, in last week's election.
In spite of vigorous protests from the French national Chamber of Commerce, distraught at losing one of its most loyal and profligate consumers, it's strictly adieu Fabian, as the speaker lost his bid for a six-year term extension when the voters wisely kiboshed Proposition 93. No more $2,562 shopping sprees at Louis Vuitton's Paris outlet, no more $5,149 wine purchases from Bordeaux (and no more $2,701 gift belt buckles for Arnold) funneled out of Mr. Speaker's campaign funds. Voilà! No more Mr. Speaker.
Even more satisfying for those of us ranked by his loyal staff as dwellers in the bottom drawer of political journalism, long before our poorly written and scantily read screeds are lost in cyberspace, Fabian's political legacy will be reduced to little more than an asterisk.
It's a true tragedy, I say with as much sincerity as possible. One of 12 children born to migrant Mexican workers (a maid and a gardener), who spent the first eight years of his life in Tijuana, Núñez was a prototypical American success story. He met his wife in the 1980s when they were organizing events for Cesar Chavez. Núñez earned double B.A.s from Pitzer College, and at a young age was doing God's work lobbying — uphill — for the LAUSD. By the year 2000, he took over as political director for the mighty County Federation of Labor. With labor's staunch support, he gained entrance into the state Assembly two years later at age 36. After only another two years, he was elected speaker. Núñez embodied what was most promising about a new generation of emerging Latino political clout, especially when teamed up with labor.
Problem is, power corrupts. Núñez quite literally was intoxicated — and those crates of Bordeaux were the symptom, not the cause, of his inebriation. Soon, he was nesting in a cushy $1.2 million home outside Sacramento. His wife was lavished with a six-figure state contract (benefiting corporate hospitals, not patients). He was putting his name on legislation initiated by Democratic colleagues, bigfooting them for personal glory. At times, you needed the help of a proctologist to probe the depth of his partnership with Schwarzenegger. In the middle of a hard-fought gubernatorial election, Núñez couldn't be bothered to show up for his own party's state convention. He was too busy trudging the greens with a pack of corporate lobbyists up at Pebble Beach.
This past year, he knifed his own labor allies in the back, railroading through the Legislature a package of four giveaway gambling deals with the richest Indian tribes in the state. Núñez's political logic, if not his motivation, was transparent. In fact, he didn't give a damn about the tribes. What he most wanted was to neutralize their potential opposition to the shameful Prop. 93, which was — at its core — a sham. In the name of tightening up term limits, the measure would have extended his term and that of another amateur sommelier, state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. Worried that the deep-pocket tribes might line up against him, he greased through their deal and inflamed the unions. “The bottom line: It was all about Prop. 93 and [Núñez's] ambition to continue to be speaker and his terror that the Big Four gambling tribes would put money against [the measure] if he didn't do their bidding,” Jack Gribbon, California political director of UNITE Here, a labor union that opposed the gambling deals, told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. “It was one of the coldest political calculations that I have seen in my life.”
But Núñez was too smart by one-half. The Indians wound up spending $100 million to get their juicy gambling deals approved last week by guilt-ridden California voters. And just as Núñez wished, they stayed out of the term-limit fight. What the speaker didn't count on, however, was that the voters were not quite as dumb as he had hoped. There had long been promises that the term-limit measure would be paired up with much-needed and long-promised redistricting reform — a move that would at least loosen the Mafia-like grip that both parties currently hold over the drawing up of legislative districts. But Núñez and his Sacramento cronies were just too greedy to make the deal the voters (not the tribal lobbyists) wanted. The pols wanted to get to heaven without having to die, so instead they killed off any attempt at redistricting reform. And with it, any desire by voters to give these power freaks an extension of their terms. Núñez gamed himself right off the table.
Nor does he stand much of a chance of running for mayor of Los Angeles when the seat opens up in 2009. His good friend Antonio Villaraigosa has already botched what was considered a sure shot at governor by ceding front-runner status to Jerry Brown and is now likely to want to re-up at City Hall.
Almost certainly, Fabian will soon resurrect as a private-sector lobbyist, most likely with his Big Telecom friends. But as a political figure, the markers he will leave behind are 10,000 extra slot machines we never needed. The most Núñez can now expect from history is that every time someone tosses a quarter into the black void of one of those machine's bottomless bellies, he will recall how Mr. Speaker threw away his once-bright political career.