Cruz controlled

Political kingmaker Richie Ross helps Democrats like Cruz Bustamante get elected, and then he proceeds to lobby them in the halls of the Capitol. He sees no conflict in his interests.

Illustration By James McHugh

Exactly what happened June 5 depends on who’s telling the story, but everyone involved agrees on this much: Richie Ross—a lobbyist for powerful special interests and a political-campaign consultant to the leading gubernatorial candidate and other top Democrats—threatened two legislative staffers. The incident ruffled feathers so much that a task force was created to consider whether consultants, who run campaigns for lawmakers and act as their indispensable political advisers, should be prohibited from lobbying the people they put in office—a reform that could be the first of its kind.

After several meetings, the task force proposed a ban on campaign consultants like Ross from lobbying. But, perhaps tellingly, the report was never released.

The ruckus started when Ross was lobbying for the United Farm Workers (UFW) by pushing a bill to rescind tax breaks for farmers who don’t provide health care for employees. He and others watched those on the floor debate, on a closed-circuit television in the reception area of the speaker’s office, just outside the Assembly chambers. When two Democrats he’d been counting on said they wouldn’t support the bill, Ross erupted at the legislators’ chiefs of staff, who happened to be within cursing distance.

The exchange shook the Capitol and made news around the state.

Ross plays a unique dual role in state politics that has made him one of the most powerful and feared forces in Sacramento. It also has made him a rich man. As a political consultant, Ross has made millions by advising dozens of Democratic lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Senate President John Burton. In that role, he oversees the whole campaign operation, coaching candidates on strategy, designing mailers and buying TV ads. At the same time, he also lobbies on behalf of the most powerful and free-spending special interests: trial lawyers, American Indian tribes and labor unions. Ross also plays a big role in local politics, having advised Sacramento mayors, a majority of sitting city-council members and both of the city’s representatives in the Legislature.

The arrangement means Ross can get people elected and then be hired to twist the arms of the same people who depend on him for their political lives.

But most importantly now, Ross is guiding longtime client Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante in the recall race. If they win, the victory would be a coup for Ross, who would command more influence than ever as the governor’s consigliere.

Ross, who organized alongside Cesar Chavez and later worked as chief of staff to legendary Assembly Speaker Willie Brown before starting a consulting business in the mid-1980s, talks to Bustamante a couple times a day and sometimes travels with the campaign. He’s also Bustamante’s mouthpiece, spinning reporters at each twist and turn of the race.

“I don’t think Cruz goes to the bathroom without checking with Richie,” one top Democratic strategist said of the campaign consultant. “[Ross] would be running the state lock, stock and barrel.”

Bustamante has said he hopes Ross will help shape a new administration. The governor appoints 1,000 administrators and staff, including Cabinet members and department directors, and names 2,500 members to 300 boards and commissions.

That behind-the-scenes influence—and how Ross uses it—was one of the topics of an Assembly Democratic Caucus meeting that was called after the blowup. Behind closed doors, lawmakers poured out their frustrations about tough tactics by Ross and other lobbyists.

In response, Wesson created the Task Force on Protocol to set rules for conduct and to consider whether political-campaign consultants should be prohibited from lobbying. Wesson named five assemblymembers to the panel, all of whom were Democrats. It included a Ross client: Sacramento Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg. Steinberg said he was too busy working on the budget to attend more than one meeting.

The task force met in June and forwarded its recommendations to Wesson in late July. Its report dealt with several issues, but the most important recommendation was aimed squarely at Ross.

The report, obtained by SN&R, urges lawmakers to “prohibit campaign consultants (individuals with whom candidates, now elected officials, have had a direct business association) from lobbying the Legislature for a year after the election in which they were employed.”

Ross does more work as a campaign adviser than as a lobbyist, but a ban on doing both still would force him to cut loose some big clients and, if he abandoned lobbying, give up some of his influence over lawmakers.

Lobbying-reform experts said they hadn’t heard of similar laws being introduced or enacted in other states. Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said California’s proposed reforms could be unprecedented. “This is the first time anyone has tried that, to my knowledge,” she said.

Other task-force recommendations called for lobbyists to disclose “business associations with public officials and candidates,” as well as any lobbying of those officials, and for the creation of a procedure for reporting violations of lobbying rules.

Asked in early September about the delay, Wesson initially said the task-force recommendations would “be rolled out before session is over.”

But the task-force report sat on Wesson’s desk through the September 12 end of this year’s legislative session without being discussed or distributed to assemblymembers. Assembly Democrats interviewed said they hadn’t seen the report or heard what it said. It seems to confirm the unparalleled sway Ross has. Not only is Ross so powerful that lawmakers drafted reforms to lessen his influence over them, but also, more importantly, those proposals haven’t gone anywhere for months.

Wesson, who hires Ross to do work for the Democratic Caucus, seemed annoyed when asked if the delay had anything to do with his relationship with the lobbyist-consultant. “Don’t try to make something there,” he said, citing major legislative efforts required in the last few weeks of session. “That’s just absolutely not true.”

Assembly Democrats suggested that the delay may have had more to do with politics surrounding the unprecedented chaos of the recall. Politically, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for the Assembly to stir up debate that could make an issue out of the man behind Bustamante, who could be the Democrats’ best hope for preventing a Republican executive branch. “Does the Legislature want to cast aspersions on the Democratic candidate’s closest adviser? Probably not,” said one Democratic legislator who didn’t want to be identified.

Lobbyist and political-campaign consultant Richie Ross chats with a former client, Senator Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, in a Capitol hallway during a late-night legislative session just before lawmakers left town for the year.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

Ross, however, cast aspersions on himself and Bustamante by accepting millions of American Indian gaming dollars into an old committee, creating an unflattering news story that’s dogged Bustamante for weeks. It also highlights Ross’ dual role.

Bustamante used a campaign-finance loophole to take $1.5 million from the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, which just happens to employ Ross as a lobbyist. The tribe also hired Ross to lobby the Legislature on a constitutional amendment written by Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, that would make it harder to compete with tribal gaming. Florez also pays Ross to run his campaigns and began this year’s legislative session with a $100,000 debt to Ross for campaign work.

It’s relationships like this that the critics cite when they say Ross shouldn’t be allowed to act as both a lobbyist and a campaign consultant, especially when the next governor may owe his job to a lobbyist.

Asked at a press conference about who really calls the shots in the recall campaign, Bustamante seemed irritated but didn’t dodge the question—the second time it was asked, anyway.

“I’m the candidate,” Bustamante said. “It’s my name on the ballot. Richie is a very good friend, and he’s somebody who I have a lot of faith and trust in, someone who’s run my last five or six campaigns, all successfully, and we’ve been able to have a great relationship. Richie and I have a good relationship because we have a basic rule: Not all of his friends are my friends, and not all of my friends are his.”

Ross is certainly not the first lobbyist to misbehave. But he is different because he casts such a long shadow in the Capitol corridors. The outburst touched a raw nerve with some lawmakers not because it was an example of bad manners but because it raised an unpleasant question: Are they governing, or is Ross?

Craig Reynolds, chief of staff to Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, was one of the aides on the receiving end of the tirade. After the vote on the farmworkers bill came up short and was placed on hold, Reynolds walked out of the Assembly chambers and bumped into Ross, who was with a couple UFW people as well as his daughter Esperanza, also a UFW lobbyist.

“I’m getting you a lifetime subscription to Sunset Magazine,” Reynolds recalled Ross saying angrily, a reference to Wolk’s insistence that the bill expire after a period of time. Ross said, “I’m getting a sunset in every one of Lois’ bills in the Senate.” The crack violates state law that lobbyists may not claim to control the actions of state officials.

Ross then turned on Don Wilcox, chief of staff to Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Pomona. “Your boss is dead in my eyes,” Ross supposedly told Wilcox. Strong words from an influential campaign adviser. Wilcox and Negrete McLeod declined interview requests. The UFW bill later passed out of the Assembly.

Since the incident, Reynolds hasn’t spoken to Ross, even though the two go way back. Reynolds got his start in politics in 1986, when Ross, then with Brown, hired Reynolds to help run Assembly races. “I have a great deal of respect for him,” Reynolds said, “but I think he has an ethical blind spot.”

Wolk’s still bothered about what happened to her top aide. “He threatened the passage of my legislation, and that’s crossing the line,” she said, adding that Ross never apologized to either of them. “It violates the lobbyist code that they sign.”

After the incident, Wolk introduced a bill to prohibit lawmakers from voting on anything connected to a lobbyist with whom they’ve had a business relationship in the past year. Wolk seems to have little to fear from Ross: She beat his client, West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, in last year’s primary.

Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Glendale, introduced a companion measure to Wolk’s that prohibits consultants from lobbying lawmakers they help elect.

Had the measures been a priority, reforms could have been adopted this year. Instead, the task-force report was ignored, and the clock ran out on the bills, suggesting that creating a task force was actually more of a signal that Ross should behave, rather than an attempt at real change. The Wolk and Frommer bills, introduced with plenty of time to pass, instead ended the year stuck in committee.

Before that, of course, came the political earthquake: the recall.

Top Democrats, including Bustamante, initially refused to run as replacement candidates. Then, just two days before the filing deadline, Bustamante took what could turn out to be his best shot at governor.

Two top Democrats already planning to run in 2006, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides, already sit atop mountains of cash Bustamante probably couldn’t match. And as lieutenant governor, Bustamante has a do-nothing post with little visibility—unless the Senate must break a 20-20 tie.

Entering the recall race toward the end was shrewd, but it enraged the governor’s supporters. To some insiders, it looked like a Ross power grab.

“Nobody ever believed ‘no recall’ was more than a fig leaf,” said one Davis adviser.

Ross, who was working on Lockyer’s 2006 bid, also stepped on the attorney general’s toes by pushing Bustamante into the race. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Lockyer and Ross were “now barely on speaking terms.” Lockyer’s spokesman denied that, though he added that Ross isn’t working for Lockyer anymore.

Others who watched Democrats feud from the outside also saw a Ross power play.

“Cruz is a good guy,” said Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, who was elected with Bustamante in 1992. “But Richie has dominated him. Richie saw the opportunity because he’d invested his political future in Cruz. And this was Cruz’s only chance.”

Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, talks with her chief of staff, Craig Reynolds. Wolk wrote a bill to curb the influence Richie Ross holds over lawmakers after Ross berated Reynolds.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Then, in early September, Ross oversaw another risky move: cuddling up to big-money special interests as Davis has. He took millions in campaign contributions from Viejas and other tribes with gaming interests. The checks went into an old campaign account that predates the $21,200 cap on contributions established by Proposition 34.

California Common Cause Executive Director Jim Knox called it “the largest donation to a candidate in California history.” In a nationally televised debate, independent candidate Arianna Huffington called the donation “nothing but legalized bribery.” She told Bustamante, “You have made a mockery of campaign-finance laws.”

Senator Ross Johnson, R-Irvine, who co-authored Proposition 34, sued to block the transfer. But when that suit went to court, Bustamante formed a new committee under his control that would use the donations to buy TV ads opposing Proposition 54, the racial-privacy initiative.

Then, Bustamante transferred nearly $4 million from the old committee to the new one, which was run out of Ross’ office, and started using the money to air ads featuring the candidate campaigning against Proposition 54—effectively campaigning for governor under a different guise.

“Clearly, this shift of gears was an admission of guilt,” said Johnson, who quickly amended his suit to stop the transfer.

A judge later blocked use of the laundered money and ordered the unspent portion returned. Then, when Ross started telling reporters that all the transferred cash had been spent, a media buyer for candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger filed a legal declaration that said the Bustamante campaign hadn’t spent all the money and still could cancel the ads. The judge told Bustamante to produce contracts that would prove the money was locked up in TV ads. At press time, a spokesperson for Johnson said both sides were still contesting in court whether the prepayments for TV ads could be refunded.

The Viejas donation is one of several examples of Ross clients aiding one another.

Sometimes, Ross consulting clients help out other Ross consulting clients.

This year, Bustamante made a campaign platform out of a pending constitutional amendment by Senator Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, which would open the door for state regulation of the gasoline market. Dunn is a Ross client. Last year, during Bustamante’s re-election bid, campaign commercials featured the candidate, along with other Ross clients, including Florez and Dunn, appearing at his side.

At the request of Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, Steinberg recently won passage of a bill that could make it easier for the city to finance a new downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings. Fargo, Steinberg and Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof are all Ross clients. Steinberg said Fargo asked him to introduce the bill, but he later talked to Ross about the idea.

(Incidentally, five of nine votes on the Sacramento City Council are Ross clients—Steve Cohn, Sandy Sheedy, Ray Tretheway, Robbie Waters and Fargo—which could make things interesting when the Maloofs ask the city to buy a new arena for them.)

Other times, Ross consulting clients help his lobbying clients. The 36 sitting lawmakers that Ross helped elect, in fact, rarely vote against Ross-backed bills, according to a recent analysis. The Orange County Register reported that, of a sampling of bills pushed by Ross or his daughter, clients he helped elect cast just 16 dissenting votes out of 187 total.

Ross got Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy, elected in 2000. Soon after taking office, she introduced a bill to raise taxes on some brands of smokeless tobacco. Then, word hit the news media that the change would benefit tobacco maker UST Inc., which makes Copenhagen and Skoal. UST was a Ross client.

Though it looked bad, Matthews denied that Ross used her to help the tobacco company. “That was totally misrepresented in the press. I did that bill because I thought it was good for California,” she said. Matthews also said Ross had never lobbied her and that she was sticking with him. “He did a good job, and I got elected twice. He’s a great campaign consultant.”

This summer, Senator Mike Machado, D-Linden, started writing a bill to let a water-pipeline proposal for a tribal casino and golf course skirt environmental review. Ross is Machado’s political consultant. Machado, however, dropped the amendments after newspapers broke the news that the bill would benefit the Barona Band of Mission Indians, whose lobbyist is Ross. “It was just happenstance Ross was involved,” Machado said, though he added that the issue came up in a meeting Ross attended.

Both Matthews and Machado said they didn’t know if they’d support reforms to bar anyone from playing a dual lobbyist-consultant role.

The state’s most powerful and profane legislator, however, called the reform plans “horseshit.” Burton, the Senate president and a former client who’s still close to Ross, said he’d “no more vote the way a political consultant asked me to vote than shoot myself.” He shrugged off criticisms of Ross. “People get pissed at Richie because he’s not always as charming as I am,” Burton said.

He said lawmakers always can say no to both lobbyists and consultants, who won’t get hired if they act improperly. “That’s the ultimate sanction, isn’t it? Costing a guy money? Either that or kick him in the nuts.”

Ross isn’t the only political consultant who also lobbies, but nobody else approaches his level of influence. As a political consultant, he’s worked for 13 sitting lawmakers in the last three years as well as three statewide constitutional officeholders: Bustamante, Lockyer and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. Last year, records show, Ross Communications, the firm Ross runs out of a small office building at 17th and L streets, billed politicians for $520,767 worth of consulting services plus $1.1 million for campaign literature and other services. Ross also charged $126,316 for lobbying the Legislature last year.

Another top Sacramento lobbyist, Darius Anderson, doubles as chief fund-raiser for Davis, but he doesn’t act as a political adviser to the administration. Davis hasn’t said whether he’d support a ban on consultants as lobbyists.

Still, Ross makes watchdogs growl.

“It should be illegal,” said Bob Stern, former general counsel to the Fair Political Practices Commission. He co-wrote the state’s 1974 Political Reform Act and now runs the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based research group that studies campaign finance.

Cruz Bustamante says he wants Richie Ross to play a role in forming his administration if Ross leads him to victory next week.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“[Ross] has the power of representing one of the most powerful interest groups in the state, Indian gaming. He has the power of representing many of the important Democratic legislators, and now he has the power of representing a man who has a good chance of becoming governor.

“That’s the trifecta,” Stern said, adding that reforms probably won’t go anywhere when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

Bustamante’s recall rival, Senator Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, also wants a ban on what he called “a natural conflict of interest that should be obvious to anyone.”

Senator John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, the longest-serving member of the Legislature, goes further, blaming Ross for eroding public trust in politics.

He cites a 1998 Democratic primary in which his friend, former Assembly Minority Leader Richard Katz, challenged Ross client Richard Alarcón for a San Fernando Valley Senate seat. A hit piece designed by Ross implied that Katz had been connected to an infamous incident a decade earlier in which Republicans intimidated voters by stationing uniformed guards at polling places in Latino neighborhoods. Katz had been involved—by suing Republicans to make sure it didn’t happen again.

“When you fuck somebody who’s down there helping you,” Vasconcellos said, referring to Katz’ support of Democratic causes, “that’s the lowest thing I can think of.”

Katz lost by 29 votes. Alarcón, D-Van Nuys, told SN&R that he and Ross now wish they hadn’t done it.

Last year, in the Democratic primary for the Silicon Valley Assembly seat Vasconcellos first won in 1964, his longtime friend Rod Diridon Jr. faced Ross client Sally Lieber. Diridon rejected tobacco and oil money, Vasconcellos said, but took money from a pro-business political-action committee (PAC). One of the PAC’s donors, it later turned out, was Philip Morris. Days before the vote, a mailer went out that said, “Diridon supports big tobacco.” Major funding for the hit piece, an independent expenditure, came from the Consumer Attorneys of California, a group that employs Ross as a lobbyist.

Lieber won. Vasconcellos fumed. “The trial lawyers spent $200,000 on a pack of lies. The tracing is not as clear,” he said, “but I have no doubt in my mind.” He believes Ross was behind the mailer. “I despise him like nobody else in politics.”

Next year, Vasconcellos will propose reforms he hopes will restore the public’s faith in politics. One would bar political consultants from lobbying.

“He’s pushing people around and threatening them,” Vasconcellos said. “I talked to one of my colleagues this morning who said he’s been threatened by Ross for having dared to be party to the bill that would constrain him.” He wouldn’t name the lawmaker.

Vasconcellos said there’s much at stake.

“The system is so delicate, so precious—democracy is—that it should be above reproach in every respect. That’s the way it needs to be in order for people to believe in it. And if we don’t believe in it, we’re in big trouble.” If people distrust government, Vasconcellos added, they won’t give it the authority to solve the problems people want solved. “You’ve got to rebuild the trust, and with people like Richie Ross, it’s impossible.”

In the week before the Legislature adjourned for the year on September 12, Capitol hallways were crammed with lobbyists there to make last-minute plays on hundreds of bills. Dressed in suits, huddled in groups and glued to cell phones, they gathered around the rear entrances to the Assembly and Senate where lawmakers pass.

As one session dragged into the night, Ross was there. Immaculately dressed in a charcoal suit with a bright blue tie, his wire-rimmed glasses and close-cropped white hair made him seem professorial, but his slight stature made him less imposing than his status as a political giant would suggest. In person, he is soft-spoken and articulate in a way that makes him sound like the genius that clients and opponents alike say he is. In his voice, it’s possible to hear sharp consonants and flat vowels that hint of Brooklyn, where he was born 53 years ago.

As a teenager, Ross became a Catholic seminarian in Baltimore, where he got involved with two brothers, both priests who were well-known antiwar activists. Those priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, introduced Ross to Chavez in 1968. Ross later left the seminary, moved to California and joined the UFW.

“Richie’s career in the UFW was not spectacular, and hundreds of people had similar careers,” said Larry Tramutola, a fellow organizer back then. “Richie took that as a base, got it, got what disciplined work and creative strategy are all about, and took it to another level.”

In the early 1970s, Ross hitched a ride from Sacramento back home to San Francisco with a legislative staffer who offered him a campaign job. Ross, who was unemployed, broke and living in the Tenderloin with his wife and two kids, accepted. A few years later, Ross was running races all over the state as the guy in charge of campaigns for Assembly Democrats. Former Assembly Speaker Brown later made Ross his chief of staff.

Since leaving the speaker’s office in the mid-1980s, Ross has run campaigns for hundreds of ballot measures and for Democratic candidates in both state and local races.

Tramutola, now a big-name political consultant based in Oakland, said Ross still thinks outside the box. “Bustamante entering the race, that was thinking big.”

Ross’ daughter Esperanza, the lobbyist, and son Joaquin, a part-time legislative staffer, also joined the campaign and now work for Bustamante. Esperanza travels with Bustamante as a campaign aide. Joaquin produces TV ads for his dad’s clients and works part time as a legislative aide.

Lieber, who was sworn in last January with a $50,000 debt to Ross, hired Joaquin shortly after taking office, for a $20,000-a-year job working 20 hours a week for a committee on mobile homes that she chairs. Joaquin took leave last month when he started working for the Bustamante campaign.

Esperanza Ross, right, a registered lobbyist now working on the campaign trail for her dad’s biggest client, Cruz Bustamante, talks at a San Francisco campaign stop with state Board of Equalization member Carole Migden.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Ironically, that same gilded Victorian office of the Assembly speaker that Ross used to oversee was where he crossed the line this summer. What set him off, Ross said, was that he’d understood that Negrete McLeod would support the UFW-backed bill, and when she didn’t, Ross took it out on Wilcox, whom he’s known for a decade.

“I expressed my displeasure,” Ross said, “in a rather loud, clear voice.” In a Shakespearean twist, Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, was behind a partition, unbeknownst to Ross, and word soon reached Wesson, the speaker.

Wesson hauled in Ross, who wouldn’t elaborate on what was said, only that it “was a less-than-pleasant conversation.”

Asked if the outburst-inspired lobbying reforms are needed, Ross responded carefully. “Whatever rules they want to establish are fine with me. It’s their house, not mine.”

Though his critics might disagree with that, Ross said there’s no problem with his clients depending on a lobbyist. He gestured to the herd of other lobbyists down the hall who manipulate the Legislature by funneling vast sums of money to every single lawmaker. What’s better, Ross asked rhetorically: lawmakers depending on an adviser for guidance or depending on lobbyists for money?

“What are we doing here?” Ross said. “Think about what goes on here every day, and I’m what needs to be reformed? I don’t think so. Jesus, because I use my freedom of speech?”

But although he doesn’t see a problem with lobbying his other campaign clients, Ross said he would never lobby a Bustamante administration. That is apparently a conflict of interest in his mind.

“I have a special friendship with him, and I want him to know that when I give him counsel, if he asks for it, that it is counsel given without any motivation,” Ross said. “I want to be above that question. The question you’re asking is a legitimate one, and I don’t think that there’s a way to answer it to the satisfaction of the public other than in very clear, unambiguous terms.”

Ross doesn’t tell reporters or other politicians what it is he tells political clients. “You know why politicians trust me?” he asked. “They can.” Ross also said he’s squeaky clean ethically. “There’s not one complaint, one fine, ever.”

On Matthews’ tobacco bill and Machado’s tribal-water bill, Ross said he didn’t ask either client to carry either bill.

As for the bill by Florez that would make it harder for others to compete with tribal gaming, Ross said he “approached him on behalf of Viejas.” Ross added that he understands why it might look awkward, that he asked one political client, Florez, to do something that benefited another lobbying client, Viejas. But he dismisses the concern.

“I’ve never seen anybody afraid to disagree with me,” he said. “Sometimes, people will agree with other people, and I could represent both of them. Sometimes, people I represent won’t agree with one another. And there are as many examples of one as there are of the other. But they’re not as fun to write about because they don’t fit the story.”

Through a spokesperson, Florez said Ross brought the idea to him, and he judged it on its merits like any other bill.

On the last day of the session, Ross was back at the Capitol, sitting in a chair in the rotunda area while bills by his clients, and for his clients, came up for debate in both houses. Ross sat alongside Florez and UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.

As evening stretched into night, Steinberg’s bill on the funding of the arena passed the Assembly. In the Senate, Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, presented Assembly Bill 923, the same UFW bill that provoked Ross’ tantrum. The bill was authored by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-South Gate, and shepherded in the Senate by Ortiz. Both are Ross clients.

Florez, who’d been huddling with Ross, stood next to Ortiz as she presented her bill, feeding her points to make in the debate. But then Ortiz halted the debate to regroup, the Senate moved on, and the bill never came back up. Ross left shortly after that.

At Bustamante’s San Francisco press conference the following week, dozens of reporters packed the Sierra Club’s headquarters. Environmental activists announced their support for Bustamante, who stepped up to praise himself and bash the Bush administration’s environmental policies.

Taking questions, Bustamante responded coyly about Ross.

He was asked, “How much control does your political consultant have over your campaign and possibly your administration?”

“Quite a bit.”

“Will he play a role in shaping your administration?”

“I hope so.”

“Is that appropriate given his background as a lobbyist?”

“He’s already answered the question about his lobbying. He said he would never lobby any administration in which I was governor.”

“It’s possible to disconnect the two?”

“Actually, truth be told, and I haven’t really talked to Richie about this, but I was hoping that I could somehow convince him to leave his lucrative business practice and come to work as a bureaucrat in state government.”

Though it didn’t get a laugh from all the reporters in the room, this was clearly meant to be funny because it’s silly to suggest that Ross would ever take a giant pay cut to join the public sector. But there’s an additional subtext to the quip: Ross has more power operating outside the government than he ever could inside it.