Assembly for newbies

Rookie lawmakers have it harder than usual this year

Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, at 28 years old, is one of the fresher faces in a house nearly half-full of Sacramento newcomers.

Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, at 28 years old, is one of the fresher faces in a house nearly half-full of Sacramento newcomers.

Photo By Jill Wagner

The day after their swearing-in, the new Assembly members sat quietly in a makeshift classroom on the top floor of the Library and Courts Building across from the Capitol. The room featured warm, wood walls; tall, frosted windows; and the likeness of Minerva peering down from a giant state seal embedded in the ceiling.

The freshmen listened as Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine and Chief Clerk Dotson Wilson explained the intricacies of requests, digests, deadlines, blue forms, tracking numbers and Rule 34. An easel at the front of the room held a big, textbook-like diagram full of color-coded boxes and arrows, the “Life Cycle of Legislation.”

The class is part of the Hertzberg Institute, a kind of boot camp for new members (and, later, their staffers). The training takes on additional importance this year, with the lower house nearly half-full of rookies ill-equipped to tackle the looming budget crisis.

Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg created the institute two years ago to help the increasing number of newcomers get up to speed sometime before the end of their first term, and it makes up the bulk of the training new members get. Each caucus also breaks away for a little training of its own. The institute kicked off two days after the election with several full days of instruction on the basics, such as leasing a district office, hiring staff and using the voting buttons. Later, the freshmen got an entire afternoon of ethics training that covered the dos and don’ts of conflicts of interest, misusing state resources, gifts, bribery and extortion. Media training took up another afternoon.

But that day in the Library and Courts Building, the schooling focused on first things first. Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher took over. As someone entering her third and final two-year term (six years is the limit), she’s one of the chamber’s old timers.

She told everyone to kiss their organized lives goodbye.

“I’m going to tell you how you’re losing control of your life,” the Brea Republican intoned. “Your life can change immediately. Somebody else is going to tell you what to do. … It’s not like local government, where you can say, ‘I want something 24 hours in advance.’ Forget that.”

Daucher used that to segue into the importance of having a good scheduler.

“I couldn’t tell you a week ago what I’m going to do today. I’ve let that go. My scheduler has full authority,” she said. In her first year, Daucher said, she did her best to make it to as many events as she could. “I killed myself trying to stop by,” she said. Her scheduler now uses an all-purpose refrain: “She’ll try.”

Even family time can be hard to come by, so that must be scheduled, too. Daucher said her secret is booking several flights back home to Orange County, so missing one doesn’t mean wasting several hours waiting for the next one.

Darrel Steinberg, the other member helping teach freshmen, said the time demands get to be disorienting during the busy months. “Working in the Legislature sometimes reminds you of being in a casino. You don’t know what time it is.”

Steinberg gave pointers on coauthoring bills (it’s overrated), getting your message out (prepare fact sheets for members and the public) and putting the right witnesses in front of committees (nothing is worse than boring ones).

And taking amendments, the Sacramento Democrat advised, is part of the game. “You shouldn’t be insulted when someone asks to amend your bill. But you’re going to face difficult choices because if you give it away in the Assembly, you’re going to have to be giving in the Senate, too. So make the necessary compromises to keep the bill moving but also keep the idea intact.”

The sheer amount of administrative information, contained in several thick volumes handed to rookies, would be impossible to digest in the first couple weeks. “You get a lot of binders—I think there’s 13 in all—and not one of them is thin,” said Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield. McCarthy, a former congressional aide, said he’s ahead of the game because of his years in that post, where he wrote bills and sometimes trained new members, but it’s still a lot to absorb. “You could spend a whole day training just on the laptop” that members use on the floor.

This year’s new members faced a scary first day in school; they got the call to hack billions worth of mid-year cuts out of the budget in a special session at a time when most of them didn’t yet have homes, offices or staffs.

The heavy lifting on the budget was delayed until January, but it’s still going to be tough going when the Legislature reconvenes. On top of handling the governor’s suggested mid-year cuts, lawmakers also will have to start looking into the gaping maw of the 2003-2004 deficit.

Several members said they’d keep their heads down until they felt more sure of themselves.

“As a freshman,” said Gene Mullin, D-Millbrae, “I’m not sure I’ll be carrying a lot of weight up there, but at least I’ll know what’s going on.” Mullin said he ran on his experience as a budget-committee member of the South San Francisco City Council and on his years as a union negotiator with the school district where he taught.

Mullin said the lack of institutional memory is one of the detriments of term limits, but Mullin sees an upside, too. “I’m clearly an example of someone who wouldn’t be there without term limits.”

To help freshmen get up to speed on the budget crisis, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill spent time going over the situation with both caucuses.

Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, said the deficit’s enormity hit hard. “People are very serious about it, like the way you react to a tragedy in a family.”

Not everyone really needed the training. Mervyn Dymally, D-Compton, is returning to the seat he first won 40 years ago, before becoming a state senator, lieutenant governor and congressman. Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, is a former senator taking back the Assembly seat he first won 10 years ago.

And Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, who hasn’t held an elected office, is taking her husband’s seat. “I think I have an advantage,” Runner said, adding that she’ll keep husband George Runner’s chief of staff. “I have so much less to worry about.” John Laird, D-Santa Cruz; and Lois Wolk, D-Davis, are among freshmen keeping the chiefs of staff of their predecessors. Greg Aghazarian, R-Stockton, said he made finding an experienced staff a priority. “With term limits, it’s hard to find people with institutional memory,” he said. “That was very important to me because, as an incoming freshman, if I want to get something done in the building, I want to have someone who knows the ins and outs.”

Some newcomers are greener than others. Cindy Montañez, D-San Fernando, is just 28, though she spent three years on her hometown city council. Nicole Parra, D-Bakersfield, is 32 and was a congressional district director but also hasn’t held an elected office. The lone new legislator in the Senate, Jeff Denham, R-King City, has no elected-office experience other than a failed Assembly bid a few years ago.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Culver City, tapped two newcomers for leadership posts: Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, as assistant speaker pro tem and Fabian Nuñez, D-Los Angeles, as majority whip. Nuñez has never held elected office.

Wesson himself has been speaker for less than a year. It’s a contrast with past eras, when speakers like Willie Brown and Leo McCarthy ruled with decades of experience, as did key committee chairs. Today, no Assembly member has held office for more than four years. Additionally, Assembly Budget Chair Jenny Oropeza, D-Carson, has held office for just two years.

The fact that there’s a set training regimen for new members is another change from the era before term limits—and something that came up at the institute.

“They told us there never used to be training,” Wolk said. “In fact, it was discouraged so the new members had to depend on the veteran legislators.”

Perhaps feeling a kind of kinship because of the task in front of them, members of the freshman class sought to keep some policy discussions going. Some policy talks had been so interesting, freshmen said, that they talked about arranging a few more evening sessions. There was even talk of putting together a freshman retreat.

New lawmakers said it was useful to get acquainted with their cohorts on the other side of the aisle in a friendly environment before the shooting starts.

“It was a great opportunity to get to know people in a non-threatening, nonpartisan way,” John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, said of the bipartisan mood. “I consider them friends, and I hope I can maintain that relationship.”

As this session’s new members took their oaths and moved into their offices for the first time, Hertzberg, who created the institute named for him with ex-Senator Bill Leonard, was at work at a law firm in Los Angeles.

The last session wasn’t easy either, he pointed out.

“I had the energy crisis happen when the new-member training was going on. Nobody except Steve Peace understood energy, and we had to train everybody from scratch.” It was the downside of term limits. Hertzberg also had to learn fast: “We had no training—just half a day at Cal State Sacramento. It’s one of the reasons it was important to develop the institute.”

When rookies arrive, Hertzberg added, “You’re scared about your first bill. You’re scared about the process. It’s hard to understand the Roberts Rules.”

Hence, the need for the training, which, he said, let lawmakers get to know one another in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have.

“One of the great, unintended consequences of the institute was that it let people get to know one another before they understood what party they were from,” he said.