Photo by Ted Soqui

About midway through lunch at Art’s Deli in Studio City, Bob Hertzberg’s
eyes begin to water and his usual courtroom-confident tone wavers. Asked to compare
himself to his father, a constitutional lawyer who introduced him to politics,
the 50-year-old former Assembly speaker and current mayoral contender cuts his
own answer short, looks down at the calendar on his watch, then picks his head
back up. “You know what? He died 18 years ago today. Exactly to the day, on January
21. At 8:48 tonight.” He sighs deeply, steadies himself and almost instantaneously
resumes his cool, detailed political discourse, praising his father as a “guy
who feared nothing, who put his neck on the line, and never forgot the little
guy” and who, yes, he thinks he resembles in “a ton of ways.”

No one who knows Hertzberg even in passing would be surprised to hear of this emotional interlude. He’s ably won his handle as “Huggy Hertzberg” precisely because of his willingness, his zeal really, to use his expansive personality as his political calling card. Grabbing strangers around their shoulders, pinching their cheeks, patting them on the head, looking directly into their eyes while he unloads his personal musings has been honed into a campaign fine art by a smart and wealthy Democrat lawyer who has spent his entire adult life navigating both the backroom and the front stage of politics.

But Hertzberg’s political skill goes way beyond laying on the schmaltz (even though he seemed to personally greet about half the diners at Art’s including Art himself). He’s perfected a sort of body-mind double punch. It’s as if his tall, bearish frame serves as one big passion-driven boiler in constant percolation and agitation. But then all that steamed-up energy gets directly piped to a highly educated and calmly calculating head that channels, categorizes, drafts, revises, structures, charts, measures and processes it all before delivering it in a smooth, fast, uninterrupted flow of words that is half visceral and half pure wonkishness.

So let’s get that out of the way. Bob Hertzberg is warm and very likable. And he’s undeniably smart and articulate. He’s like the kid in grade school who was always ready with the answer, straining out of his chair with his hand up — but with a better personality. (His one-time roommate and current mayoral rival Antonio Villaraigosa concedes both of Hertzberg’s prime qualities and jokingly says that when he — Villaraigosa — gets elected, he’ll make sure to hire really smart fellows just like Hertzberg).

But Hertzberg is in a bit of a jam. After a strong start this spring, calling attention to himself with an agile blog, some creative Web advertising and by hiring on Howard Dean’s former guru Joe Trippi as an adviser, Hertzberg is quickly running out of time. With less than a month to go before the March 8 primary, he finds himself uncomfortably sandwiched between Villaraigosa and Hahn above him in the polls, Richard Alarcón below and Bernie Parks jostling him for third.

Hertzberg claims to be undaunted as he surgically cuts the numbers he claims can get him into the runoff (if no candidate wins 50 percent next month, the top two contenders go into a May runoff). “Jimmy Hahn made it into the runoff last time with 125,319 votes,” Hertzberg says with his characteristic precision. “Let me remind you that 42 percent of the people who voted in the last two cycles — 1997 and 2001 — came from the Valley. The Jewish vote was another 18 percent of the turnout. And though I have worked all parts of the community for the last 30 years, all I have to do is get half the votes in the Valley and the Westside and I’m in. It’s a horrible comment about our democracy, but this time I think the turnout will be lower than last, so I can make it with maybe 125,000.”

Hertzberg is the first to admit that in spite of some accomplished fund-raising and his three terms representing the San Fernando Valley in the California Assembly including a stint as speaker, he suffers from low name recognition, a product, he pleads, of his commitment to getting things done instead of hogging the spotlight. Three-fifths of likely voters say they have no impression of him.

To attempt to break through, Hertzberg has fashioned an aggressive three-pronged program that for the moment, at least, de-emphasizes the Fleishman-Hillard scandal and the pay-to-play investigation currently lapping at the doors of City Hall, and boils down to calling for the breakup of the L.A. Unified School District, the hiring of 3,000 new cops without raising taxes, and a “Commuter Bill of Rights.”

And while he says he “hates, hates, hates” categorizing himself politically, preferring to call himself a “possibilist without illusions,” Hertzberg is clearly trying to leverage his moderate but progressive Democratic track record in a way that attracts votes not only from his left but also from his right. There is no major Republican running for mayor, and that leaves open for grabs a tantalizing constituency that Hertzberg is well-positioned to tap.

His campaign pitch comes tightly wrapped in “can-do,” down-and-in-the-details packaging that sharply contrasts with Mayor Hahn’s soporific image. With his showcase issue of breaking up the LAUSD — a cause that many thought had died along with Valley secession — Hertzberg portrays himself as a courageous lone politician having the guts to “walk into the propellers.” His rivals laugh off his breakup plan as transparent pandering to the Valley and as a strategy destined to fail. “It’s just recycling of old ideas — tired battles already fought,” scoffs veteran Democratic consultant and Hahn campaign adviser Bill Carrick.

The breakup idea, however, got a much different and more effusive reception
when Hertzberg pushed it last month at the candidates’ debate sponsored by the
Sherman Oaks Homeowners’ Association — the veritable mother of all suburban voting

Anyone prone to discarding Hertzberg out of hand should note that on that blustery weeknight, when most of the city was still flatly ignoring the mayor’s contest, nearly 500 people packed into the Sunkist Auditorium on Riverside Drive and attentively stuck with the proceedings for the better part of two hours. This was a huge slice of the Los Angeles middle class that actually votes, and Hertzberg’s insistence on breaking up L.A. Unified elicited some of the most enthusiastic applause.

“We have no choice,” Hertzberg told the crowd. “It’s about 53 percent of ninth graders not finishing high school. We have no choice. It’s about public safety, when 75 percent of these kids who don’t finish wind up in jail. Same thing when we talk about the adult literacy rate . . . You’ve got to do this at all costs. You can’t walk away from it.”

It doesn’t hurt Hertzberg’s Valley appeal that as an Assembly member he supported legislation that stripped the L.A. City Council of the power to veto secession. He didn’t support Valley cityhood itself, but Hertzberg did offer up (rather late in the game) a compromise plan for dividing the city into boroughs. Indeed, one of his rivals’ top staffers says Hertzberg’s potential support in the Valley is so strong that he’s making a mistake by campaigning anywhere else. “Hertzie’s wasting his time doing events in South L.A. where he’s not going to get a single vote,” he says. “He ought to be obsessively pounding away in the Valley where he could have a shot of getting the [overall] 27, 28 percent or so he needs to get to the runoff.” (A recent L.A. Times poll indeed shows Hertzberg as the top preference among Valley voters with 21 percent, but with virtually no support in the central city.)

Lawyer Richard Close, the longtime leader of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners’ Association and also of the pro-secession Valley Vote (as well as one of the motor forces behind Proposition 13) and who wields real political clout north of Mulholland, has become an avid endorser of Hertzberg. “He gets things done,” Close says, repeating the most frequently quoted one-liner about Hertzberg. “Here’s an example of how he works,” Close says. “He was up in Sacramento working on a bill that was important to us. At 1:30 in the morning on the last day of the session, and he calls to give me an update. My wife answers the phone and says, ‘What are you doing calling in the middle of the night?’ and she hangs up on him. Four hours later, at 5:30 in the morning, he calls back. He just couldn’t wait. This guy never sleeps.” Close then giggles and, after saying he endorsed Hahn in the last election, says: “That’s what this race is about. A mayor who is always asleep. And a challenger that never sleeps.”

On more than one occasion over the last few weeks, whether in a luncheon
with Valley business leaders, in post-debate spin sessions or in one-on-one interviews,
Hertzberg has said of his campaign quest: “I’m not on the needle.” He’s not addicted
to the political limelight.

Maybe. But politics is undeniably in his blood. While still in college, his father hooked him up with Mervyn Dymally’s 1974 campaign for lieutenant governor. The bug had bitten, big time. Rubbing shoulders with legendary Democrats like Willie Brown, Jess Unruh and Phil Burton infected Hertzberg with a political fever. “I was in awe, I loved everything about it,” Hertzberg remembers. “It changed my life.”

Five years later, after graduating from Hastings College of the Law, he started working at the Mid-Wilshire law firm of his father, Harrison Hertzberg. “Harry was into real estate and business, but he was also the most passionate constitutional lawyer and the best trial lawyer I have ever seen,” says one of the firm’s former associates. “That’s where I met Bobby, and he’s really the same kid you see today. You can see a lot of the old man in the way Bob talks and carries himself. He’s got his father’s passion, but also is much better organized.”

Harry Hertzberg’s law practice also overlapped with Democratic politics. Hertzberg, father and son, helped win the first major case that permitted an Indian tribe — in this case the Coachella Valley Soboba band — to dabble in legalized gambling, a connection that would mature into substantial political support in Bob Hertzberg’s political life.

But mostly, Hertzberg’s experience with his father’s firm placed him in that nexus where Democratic politics intersects with the real world of business interests — a crossroads where Hertzberg has fashioned his own career.

He was appointed to a state youth commission, and became close friends with fellow commissioner Victor Griego. Soon Hertzberg, the Jewish Westsider, was immersed neck-deep in the raucous emerging politics of the Latino Eastside as he raised money and strategized for a young Gloria Molina and an up-and-coming Richard Alatorre. Hertzberg enmeshed himself in an offstage network called “The Group” that helped grow the careers of a crop of Latino candidates ranging from Xavier Becerra to Villaraigosa to Hilda Solis, whom he supported for an obscure community-college post years before she came into the public eye as a successful candidate for the Legislature.

Hertzberg can also claim to have “discovered” Lee Baca long before his 1998 election as sheriff. Both of Baca’s campaigns were co-chaired by Hertzberg. “Bob has a long history of staying in the background getting people elected to office,” Baca told the Weekly. “I’m just one more in a long line that has benefited from his skill to analyze and dig right into the nuts and bolts.”

While working the Eastside, Hertzberg also met his well-connected third wife, UCLA physician Cynthia Telles. The daughter of a former mayor of El Paso and related to the Lozano family that owns the daily La Opinión as well as a former member of several L.A. city commissions, Telles was also once considered as a candidate for elected office.

By 1996, while in his early 40s, Hertzberg was himself elected to the Assembly and early on established a reputation as a frenetic lawmaker prone to 20-hour days and round-the-clock negotiation and compromise. During just his first year he sponsored nearly two dozen bills that became law. Over his six-year span in the Assembly, Hertzberg can rightfully take credit for sponsoring key initiatives that benefited the UFW, that helped fund community colleges, that spawned a massive education bond and that led to a regional water-sharing deal.

Though he often served as lieutenant to liberal Speaker Villaraigosa, Hertzberg went on to organize the so-called Mod Squad, a collection of centrist Democrats who defended business interests. Hertzberg — but also the more liberal Democratic leadership — was certainly lavished with sizable corporate political donations.

When Villaraigosa gave up the Assembly’s top post in 1999, Hertzberg succeeded him as speaker and forged a close relationship with then-Governor Gray Davis. “Bob is the guy you went to if you had some big problem you had to get solved,” Davis tells the Weekly. “He’s thorough, he’s wise and he stays on top of the bureaucrats. During the energy crisis we worked closely, and he could really be counted on.”

Counted on a little too much, claim some of Hertzberg’s critics. “Make a list of politicians who have strayed, and Bob Hertzberg is right on the top. Make that ‘Bailout Bob,’” says Harvey Rosenfield of the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights. “Hertzberg was the mastermind of the bailout for the Edison Company during the energy crisis,” says Rosenfield. “He never had an idea except to make the ratepayers pay more.”

Hertzberg’s critics also note that when former Senate Pro Tem John Burton (a Gray Davis rival) came up with the creation of a state Power Authority to offset the clout of the private utilities, Speaker Hertzberg let the measure linger in the Assembly.

Hertzberg was also lambasted by consumer advocates on two issues that arose in 2001. They charge that in the summer of 2001, Hertzberg imposed a “death by speaker” by holding up a bill that would have prohibited financial institutions from disclosing customer information to other companies without the written consent of the consumers. Hertzberg denied the charge at the time.

A few months later, in the tumultuous days after the 9/11 attacks, Hertzberg was again accused of shilling for corporate interests. In spite of intense lobbying by the Consumers Union and other citizen groups, Hertzberg joined with other key Assembly members in not bringing a bill to vote which would have allowed disclosure of documents in secret out-of court settlements. The measure, opposed by 400 businesses and industries, came in the wake of the Firestone tire scandal where the public was being denied full knowledge of the scope and consequences of a deadly corporate defect.

“Wherever the special interests are, there’s Hertzberg,” says consumer lawyer Rosenfield. “With a smile on his face and a slap on your back, nothing matters except the next office.”

Hertzberg brushes aside such criticism as the predictable knocks you take as a politician who is ready to make “the tough decisions.”

“It’s what I call the thermonuclear theory of politics,” Hertzberg says of his style. “If there’s a bomb ticking, no politician wants to touch it because a) it could explode, and b) if they take a risk and sweat their guts out and remove the detonator, no one pays attention, there’s no story. But I say you have to rush in there and take out the detonator anyway. I did it time and time and time again.”

In any case, carping from his left is hardly unpleasant for Hertzberg. It only re-enforces his contention that he’s the no-nonsense problem solver who’s willing to be unpopular with some of his party’s own traditional constituencies and to be attractive to moderate Riordan Republicans. In arguing his current proposal to hire 3,000 more police without a tax increase, for example, he carries around a wire-bound pie chart that shows almost $500 million in additional city revenue over the last four years. He argues that if Hahn had spent some of that money on the LAPD rather than on the pay increases he granted to some very Democratic public-employee unions, the city would not have to choose between less police or more taxes.

Hertzberg served as a member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mostly symbolic transition team and for a time was considered a serious candidate to be his first chief of staff. (When asked if he was disappointed by the governor’s hard turn to the economic right, Hertzberg thriftily replied, “Yes.”) After retiring from the Assembly in 2002, Hertzberg took a post with a high-powered law firm, nesting under the wing of Mickey Kantor, the Democratic rainmaker who served as President Clinton’s secretary of commerce and de facto liaison to corporate America.

“I’m a Democrat and I believe in social services. That’s who I am,” he told a closed-door luncheon of Valley Republican-leaning business leaders gathered inside the Disney Studios in Burbank. “But if there’s a downturn in the economy, it’s poor people who are going to get hurt . . . I know there’s going to be a lot of tough decisions ahead of me, and I’m more than ready to take the heat.”

For the moment, the heat on Hertzberg is to immediately break out or see
his mayoral campaign legacy be reduced to an asterisk. It’s difficult to see how
he can torpedo a Hahn-Villaraigosa redux. “That’s Hertzie’s biggest problem,”
says a downtown insider, himself a former mayoral candidate. “He’s a good guy
and a smart guy. But a few weeks out from the vote, the media is going to start
paying attention to the race, and they are going to frame it as the Hahn-Antonio
rematch. When they do, Hertzberg’s out.”

Hertzberg also may suffer because as business-friendly as he might be, he’s still a Democrat just like the other four major contenders. That doesn’t give Republicans much reason to turn out on March 8 — there’s little else of significance on the ballot except the heavily contested council race in the very Democratic 11th District. “A lot of folks who supported Dick Riordan and Steve Soboroff would find Hertzberg to be their natural candidate,” says one local Republican consultant. “The dilemma for Bob is that a lot of those same people are likely to just sit this one out.”

There’s always the Great Unknown of the Fleishman Hillard scandal. For months now city watchers keep waiting for the heavily rumored “next indictments,” wondering out loud how close, if it all, the joint county-federal investigation into City Hall corruption will get to Hahn’s office. The indictment of a Hahn insider could focus public opinion on the scandal, seriously wounding the incumbent mayor, but it might cut both ways for Hertzberg. In 2003, he was a paid adviser to Fleishman Hillard, albeit on programs unrelated to the current overbilling and influence-peddling scandal. But such explanations are sometimes hard to crunch into a TV soundbite.

A Hahn-Villaraigosa dogfight might be just the opening Hertzberg needs, allowing him to rise above the fray as a huggable problem solver, as the fresh choice between two already-known quantities (didn’t dark horse John Kerry emerge as the “electable” alternative after Dean and Gephardt stained the snows of Iowa with each other’s blood?).

A prolific fund-raiser, Hertzberg had $1.5 million on hand at the end of February, the same as Villaraigosa and not terribly far behind the mayor. Hertzberg was the first and only candidate up on the air last week with an initial $250,000 buy of some rather unconventional TV ads. His supporters applauded the spots, which portrayed the candidate as a jolly 70-foot-tall giant striding through the city and tending to its problems. His detractors saw the early media buy as a sign of desperation. Hertzberg doesn’t disagree that it’s now do or die. “The consultants say you have to inundate, and I’m going to be pushing the envelope in the ads,” he says. “They’re either going to be a 10 or a flop.”

LA Weekly