Dems Divided

For state Democrats, the Arnold era has ushered in a period of political back-stabbing and uncertainty. Can they recover?

Fabian Núñez won the race to become speaker of the Assembly, but when he takes over next year, he may wish he hadn’t.

Fabian Núñez won the race to become speaker of the Assembly, but when he takes over next year, he may wish he hadn’t.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If they banded together, the 10 Assembly Democrats meeting after hours in the Capitol knew, they’d have the power to pick the next speaker of the Assembly. The four-way race had dwindled to a stalemate between two remaining candidates, neither of which could round up the necessary 25 votes out of the 48-member Democratic caucus. It was November 18, the day after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s swearing-in. With a new Republican governor following the recall, they needed to get their act together fast and unite behind someone.

The 10 holdouts, mostly moderates, were gathered in the top-floor office of Dario Frommer, who was ready to cut a deal to throw his support behind Fabian Núñez of Los Angeles. And some members of the group were leaning against the other remaining candidate, Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach.

“Someone,” Frommer said, “needed 25 votes, and no one was getting there. You had to move on. I made a calculation and thought Núñez could do it.”

Before backing Frommer, of Burbank, as a candidate, the moderates originally had supported a fourth candidate who already had dropped out: Joe Nation, of Marin County, who also was in the room that night. The group supported Frommer next, but he couldn’t lock up enough votes, either. Núñez and Oropeza had agreed to be interviewed by the moderate group before it made up its collective mind.

The Assembly speaker is one of state government’s top three jobs. As the leader of the lower house, the speaker has the power to organize committees, decide the fates of bills and negotiate directly with the governor. A speaker also needs to raise large amounts of campaign money, protect his flock and set a policy agenda. Because Democrats control the 80-member Assembly, the caucus gets to select one of its own by a majority vote on the floor.

Picking a new speaker should have been a positive experience for Assembly Democrats, some of whom had been putting pressure on Speaker Herb Wesson, of Culver City, to step aside. Although former Speaker Willie Brown once ruled the Assembly like a pharaoh, the power of the speaker has faded. Since Brown, speakers have come and gone every two years, which dilutes the power of the office. And although Wesson is well-liked by members, he isn’t regarded as a strong leader.

Wesson, who will be termed out at the end of 2004, had no clear successor, so the jockeying to succeed him had dragged on for the better part of a year as the four candidates worked to form alliances and raise money for the caucus. Wesson had favored Núñez from the start, giving him a leadership role as majority whip as soon as Núñez took office. But it was a testament to Wesson’s lack of influence that his preferred heir had to struggle.

Without a clear successor in line, the political process dragged on and distracted members of the Democratic caucus from more important tasks. Assembly Republicans named their new leader in September, uniting quickly and painlessly behind Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

That night, Núñez spoke to the moderate group first. He was impressive, according to Assembly members in the room. Oropeza was interviewed next. She didn’t come across as well. Oropeza, a Latina, had the support of many of the women in the caucus, but she had not performed well as chairwoman of the important Budget Committee, and members didn’t see her as someone who could protect incumbents in 2004 races. The youthful Núñez, on the other hand, had a long history of working behind the scenes in Los Angeles politics.

Oropeza had the most committed votes and had been ahead the whole way, but she couldn’t get to 25. As the regular session ended in September amid recall-fueled chaos, rumors swirled that Oropeza was the chosen one and that members might vote for speaker before leaving town. Two months later, it looked like the moderates would bet instead on Núñez, who had been the last to join the race and had lagged behind for most of it.

Then, out of nowhere, Oropeza dropped a bombshell: Núñez already had cut a deal to throw his support behind her. Or had he?

Leadership succession always touches raw nerves in Sacramento, but this speaker fight probably was the messiest since Brown seized power by cutting a deal with Republicans in 1980. It’s emblematic of where Democrats stand these days: disorganized and divided. When they come back on January 5, they’ll be dealing with a fiscal disaster as well as their own fractures. And there’s no clear indication that Sacramento’s once-dominant party knows how to meet the challenges. Democrats are worried about the 2004 elections and an imposing new Republican governor.

A year ago, Democrats ran this town. Now, they’re on the defensive.

In spite of the party’s historic sweep of all statewide offices in November 2002, Gray Davis nearly lost to a bumbling GOP challenger, and Democrats fumbled two Assembly seats and one Senate seat. Then, it got worse, as voters forced Davis to walk the plank.

Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza says Fabian Núñez reneged on a pledge to drop out of the race and support her for Assembly speaker instead.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Since the recall, Democrats appear to have done little thinking about what to do next. Interviews with dozens of Democratic lawmakers paint a picture of a divided group that has not confronted the bigger questions it must answer: How can Democrats erase the public’s disdain for the Legislature, which has earned them approval ratings even lower than those of Davis? How can they keep from getting steamrolled by Schwarzenegger? What’s their message?

“I don’t think there’s a cohesive response yet,” said Frommer.

Assembly Democrats around the state held a conference call two days after the October 7 recall vote. Some members agitated for a return to Sacramento to get their heads together. It never happened.

A number of Democrats contacted for this article said that the party is naturally fractured and doesn’t have a serious problem. But those responses were outnumbered by those of lawmakers who said they need to stop hitting the snooze button and wake up.

“There is a recognition that we need to pull together. There is some concern that we haven’t had the time to focus,” Nation said, adding that another member recently had complained to him that Democrats “are completely rudderless” on the governor’s proposed fiscal plan.

Before dropping out of the speaker race, Nation spoke up at a caucus meeting when the Legislature returned to extend Megan’s Law at the end of September. He believed Wesson should step aside to make the transition easier. “No disrespect to you,” Nation recalled saying, “but because of term limits, you won’t be here next year. We need to think about our agenda for next year. We need to think about the elections in November 2004.” Wesson responded by saying for the first time that he would agree to step down in March 2004.

On the Senate side, there is less division. Although Senate President Pro Tem John Burton will be termed out in a year, the charming crank commands respect in his caucus. Still, Democratic senators acknowledge that they need to sit down for some difficult conversations.

“I think we’re in therapy right now,” said Senator Jackie Speier of San Mateo. “I mean, we got socked pretty good in the stomach, and we’re not down for the count by any means, but we’ve got to go into training. We’ve got to be more fit and more ready for the battles that come. And we’ve got to take the time to get in touch with our voters.”

So, it was against this turbulent backdrop that the selection process to name a speaker turned into a mess that shook some members’ faith in the person who eventually would become their leader.

In addition to Frommer and Nation, the group that met that night also included Democrats Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg, Manny Diaz of San Jose, John Dutra of Fremont, Barbara Matthews of Tracy, George Nakano of Torrance, Pat Wiggins of Santa Rosa, Lois Wolk of Davis and Leland Yee of San Francisco. Some flatly declined SN&R’s requests to answer questions about the meeting. According to several who did give their accounts, Dutra asked Núñez about his ties to powerful political consultant and lobbyist Richie Ross. Though many Democrats depend on Ross for strategic advice, others fear that he holds too much sway over the members he advises and over the Legislature as a whole. (For more on Ross, see “Cruz controlled,” SN&R Cover, October 2.) Núñez told the group he had no present or future relationship with Ross.

When it was Oropeza’s turn, she lit the fuse by mentioning that she’d met with Núñez 10 days before at the Burbank Hilton. Núñez had cut a deal, she said. He would back Oropeza for the speakership in exchange for becoming majority leader, the No. 2 spot. She said they shook hands on it.

Frommer asked: Who witnessed the handshake?

Richie Ross, Oropeza replied, was the only other person there, and Núñez had invited him as a trusted ally.

This surprised everyone. Ross is known as a close adviser to Oropeza, though she doesn’t formally employ him. Oropeza admitted as much in the meeting, though she does not like to advertise her closeness to Ross. Lawmakers and lobbyists following the race believed that Ross was guiding Oropeza’s bid for speaker and that Ross had had a falling out with Núñez after helping to get him elected in 2002. “More than one member was skeptical that he’d bring Ross as a witness,” said one lawmaker, adding that Ross had threatened legal action against Núñez over an unpaid consulting bill. “Everyone knew Richie was advising her,” the Assembly member added.

Oropeza left. Núñez was summoned. Canciamilla questioned him on the meeting with Oropeza and the agreement of support. Núñez got ticked about being put on the spot. Canciamilla then explained the allegations, sources said.

If outgoing Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson looks worried, it may be because some members of his caucus didn’t have much faith in his leadership.

Photo By Larry Dalton

One member, who would not be quoted by name, said Núñez denied that the deal or meeting ever happened: “Fabian says, ‘That’s bullshit. It’s an absolute lie. It never happened.’” At that point, it was 10 p.m., and everyone was tired and confused about who was telling the truth. They wanted to decide and agreed to meet at lunchtime the following day. “At that point, we were still trying to decide who was telling the truth,” the legislator said.

Several other lawmakers who attended the meeting confirmed the story. “People said he lied,” said another attendee. “Others said they didn’t know. I couldn’t tell. But Jenny, I felt, seemed to be honest. Everyone said that we can’t support him if he was dishonest.”

Later, according to multiple sources, Oropeza’s staff produced notes supposedly from the hotel meeting. They suggested there was an agreement, and they were in Oropeza’s handwriting, on stationery from the Burbank Hilton.

The issue, over who said what to whom, and who was telling the truth, was never resolved. The moderates met the next day, Wednesday, and threw most of their votes to Núñez. The group had more confidence in him as a leader, although a couple of members split from the moderate group. With a clear majority of the caucus now behind Núñez, Oropeza bowed out, and the race was over. Press releases soon went out announcing Núñez as the 66th speaker of the California state Assembly. A formal floor vote is expected in January.

Later, Núñez flatly refused to discuss the meetings. “I’m not even going to get into that. I think that’s old news,” he said. “I’m not going to bring our internal disagreements public.” He also declined to explain his relationship with Ross, other than to say that he “was not working with him on the speaker’s race.”

Oropeza confirmed details of her meeting with the group and stuck to her guns about the Burbank meeting with Núñez. “It did happen,” she said. “I can prove that it happened. He and I know that it happened. I don’t want to talk much about it, but what I said was true.”

Ross isn’t talking about the Oropeza-Núñez situation. “There’s a reason people can trust me,” he told SN&R.

Though it is apparent that Oropeza and Núñez still don’t agree on what happened with the meetings, both said it was time to unite and move on. But that’s not going to be easy.

The week after the inauguration began with another headache, when Democrats retreated on Senate Bill 60, trying to remove the albatross of one of their biggest political mistakes from their necks.

The bill, to license undocumented drivers, had been kicking around the Legislature long before Democrats painted themselves into a corner on the issue. After four years of defeat, Los Angeles Senator Gil Cedillo’s bill passed and was signed by Governor Davis at the height of the recall. It immediately backfired with many voters, giving Republicans an opening. Schwarzenegger campaigned to block it. Republicans gathered signatures to get a repeal on the ballot.

On Monday, November 24, Senate Democrats already had decided to kill SB 60. They had no choice. Republicans reportedly had gathered more than enough signatures to put the issue before voters, and polls showed that a repeal would win handily.

That day, outside the Senate Transportation Committee meeting, the glare of TV cameras surrounded Dolores Huerta. The elderly Latina labor hero, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez, openly trashed the Democrats for their retreat. “It’s a racist issue,” she said. It was the exact same quote Burton had used at a packed press conference the week before. Except now, even Burton had backed off and had approved the repeal.

“I think I’m about to lose faith in those Democrats,” Huerta told SN&R after the cameras left her alone in the dimly lit corridor. “We already have the bill. Let’s stand up and fight. Let’s get some guts. I’m extremely angry about this.”

Democrat and Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Murray of Los Angeles opened the packed hearing with a warning that “anyone who uses the word ‘racist’ will be removed.”

“I’m asking senators to vote to repeal SB 60,” Cedillo told the committee, visibly shaken by his own words. Cedillo’s wife of 29 years died of cancer last year, and in one of their last conversations, she made her husband promise to make the bill his top priority. After five years of trying, he had reached his goal. And watching the bill die now weighed heavily on him. “This is a very difficult request,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, right, shakes his fist at Republicans. With Gray Davis gone, that’s Burton’s duty as Sacramento’s top Democrat.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Cedillo told the committee that he’d recently met with Schwarzenegger and had been assured that they would work together on a new bill next year.

Huerta spoke next, comparing the unpopularity of the bill to once-unpopular causes like slavery abolition and the civil-rights movement. She fought back tears. “These are hate, wedge issues, and I just want to ask Democrats to stand up for the people who have stood up for you,” she said.

The committee approved the repeal, sending it to the Senate floor. Later that afternoon, Senators approved the repeal 33-0 as Huerta watched from the back of the chamber.

Armed with Democratic blunders like SB 60, Republicans have been trying to get every last bit of mileage out of the recall. In floor debates, Republicans are fond of holding up Schwarzenegger’s landslide victory as the electorate’s unmistakable rejection of Democratic positions.

California, of course, is still overwhelmingly Democratic, but the party seems constantly on the defensive, saying that voters tossed Davis, not Democratic values.

“I don’t think the voters rejected where the Democratic Party stands on key issues,” said California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. Democrats have been heard saying that a lot lately.

If that’s the case, however, it’s at odds with what Torres said next. “We’re seeing a change in Democrats being fiscally responsible,” he said, tacitly acknowledging one of the main reasons for the recall’s success: Democrats are seen as the ones who drove the state off a fiscal cliff.

Although many individual lawmakers enjoy high approval ratings at home in their districts, lawmakers are acutely aware that polls showed approval ratings for the Democrat-controlled Legislature slumping into the teens this year—even before Davis got the boot.

Part of that disapproval is reflected in how well the recall did in many Democratic districts. According to data compiled by the state, Schwarzenegger was the top vote-getter in all Republican Assembly districts, as well as in 23 of 48 Democratic districts. The recall itself passed in 19 of 48 Democrat-held Assembly districts.

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, co-authored with John B. Judis the influential 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, which detailed how demographic and economic trends favor Democrats in the long run. Teixeira said that’s especially true in California, which means the state won’t be in play in 2004’s presidential or U.S. Senate races. “Solid blue,” he said. In other words, Democrats still own California. But there are problems.

“In a demographic, political sense, they dominate the state, but they’re not maximizing their potential. They need a way to do that, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the party,” he said. “It’s pretty much dedicated to getting re-elected, and they had a pretty good model there for a while, pretty standard—you know, have a lot of money, spend a lot on TV, take advantage of your opponents’ weaknesses. But they need to get more energy in the campaign.”

One place to look for insight, Teixeira said, may be Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

“A party needs to be a little bit of a movement and give people a sense it stands for something rather than just getting re-elected and getting as much money as possible to win as many re-elections as possible. People want to know what you’re about, and they’re tired of the BS. If you do that, you can really galvanize a lot of people, and maybe that’s something that the California party needs.”

Solid blue or not, some Democrats concede that they’re not confident about keeping all of their seats in next year’s Assembly and Senate elections.

San Diego Senator Dede Alpert said there’s a possibility that Assembly Democrats could lose seats next year or even forfeit their majority.

Democrat Dario Frommer has been offered the Assembly’s No. 2 position: majority leader.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Some Democrats talk as if they’ve already kissed goodbye two Democrat-held Assembly seats: Bakersfield and Long Beach. Voters in both of those districts, 30 and 54, chose to dump Davis and elect Schwarzenegger by healthy margins that were above the statewide average. Senator Mike Machado of Stockton also faces a bloody battle with a Republican challenger.

And those are just California’s legislative contests. In Washington, Democrats are shut out of power, thanks to the party’s disastrous showing in the 2002 midterm elections. In San Francisco, one of the most solidly Democratic cities anywhere, lavishly funded Democratic mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom beat the Green Party’s Matt Gonzalez by just 5.62 points. Democrats brought Al Gore and Bill Clinton to town at the last minute, if only to demonstrate how terrified they were of losing. Outside of the Legislature, Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer has boasted of voting for Schwarzenegger, whom he likely will challenge in 2006. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, another Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, traveled around bashing Schwarzenegger’s bond proposal but had little impact on negotiations back at the Capitol. Taken together, these are bad signs for Democrats.

“Burton said in caucus that we really need to do a better job explaining our issues,” said Alpert. “We don’t have a consensus on our message.”

Alpert said the Democratic message tends to be more complex than what the governor’s been saying over the last few months. Government is complicated and messy, sometimes obscured by its own language—a clear contrast to Schwarzenegger’s facile “clean house” sloganeering. Accordingly, it’s hard to get a complex message across—especially when dealing with a hard-to-understand issue like the labyrinthine state budget.

“We haven’t figured out how to say it in 30 seconds and get people more engaged,” said Alpert, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But we are not willing to lie down. That is agreed on.”

Alpert may be talking tough, but she’s also termed out of the Legislature. And her San Diego seat is one of the more vulnerable next November. Republicans have been aggressively registering voters there, where the recall fared remarkably well.

San Diego also was the first stop in Schwarzenegger’s campaign-style effort to build support for his fiscal package before the December 5 deadline. Schwarzenegger also appeared in Bakersfield and Tracy. All three cities are places where Republicans hope to topple vulnerable Democrats in November. To the Democrats, the appearances were unmistakably intended to rattle their cages, especially because of Schwarzenegger’s threat of “serious consequences” for lawmakers who didn’t support him.

On Monday morning, just before zooming off to that first appearance in San Diego, Schwarzenegger met for the first time with the Assembly Democratic caucus. Nervous Democrats quizzed him about whether or not he was campaigning against them while saying he wanted to work with them. “He said he wouldn’t go after members,” Assemblywoman Wilma Chan of Oakland said later.

After Schwarzenegger left the caucus meeting, Democrats stayed behind closed doors for two hours, trying to decide what to do about his fiscal package. It was the first of many long caucus meetings they had that week. At the same time, there were still a lot of nervous members of the caucus wondering how the speakership transition would work out.

“Right now, it’s a very unstable situation,” said Wolk, a freshman from Davis who supported Núñez. “Fabian has a challenge in front of him. He needs to first unify the caucus and reassure those that were opposed to him, then respond to the challenges that are facing the Democrats in March and November. I think he can do it. It’s just a real challenge.”

After Núñez got the nod from his peers, the Capitol buzzed with rumors about the new speaker’s lineup, especially about who would chair which committee. Committee chairs have a great deal of influence over which bills live or die, and certain committees are a goldmine for fund-raising purposes.

As Núñez works on rearranging the Assembly leadership, he must balance competing demands of allies who backed him early with those of other members who are more experienced or have raised more money for the party. Several legislative sources said key committee chairs would get the boot early and that some freshmen who had backed Núñez for speaker would be rewarded with plum chairmanships.

Núñez would not comment on committee assignments but said some of the committees wouldn’t change hands until as late as June or August. He also said he had offered the majority-leader position to Frommer, who’d been part of the moderate group that gave Núñez his winning votes for speaker.

Few expect that Oropeza will continue chairing the Budget Committee, especially given her performance in that role.

Democratic Assembly Speaker-elect Fabian Núñez, left, and his new counterpart, Assembly Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, lower right, are both 36-year-old rookie lawmakers.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Insiders expect three freshmen to come out on top in the reorganization: Cindy Montañez of San Fernando, Ron Calderon of Montebello, and Lloyd Levine of Van Nuys.

“That core group was something that brought others on board,” said Montañez, who, at 29, is the state’s youngest lawmaker. “We’re obviously going to have a key role in this new leadership team.”

Montañez said she’s talking to Núñez about getting everyone going in the same direction. There also will be more of a grassroots political approach, she said, which will involve new ways to mobilize different constituencies, strengthen field operations and develop a message to get out across the state.

“It will begin to change people’s perception of the Legislature,” she predicted.

On the fund-raising side, Democrats are working on getting away from their usual fund-raising base in Sacramento, where they mingle in a clubby atmosphere with lobbyists who’ve delivered checks from interest groups. One top Sacramento Democratic fund-raiser said there will be more of a focus on raising money in the districts—and that although the party is well-positioned for a good fund-raising cycle next year, nothing’s being taken for granted.

During all this upheaval, Núñez was busy soothing ruffled feathers. He allows that there are still “internal disagreements” over the speakership race and the disputed meeting with the moderates. He’s been reaching out to Oropeza’s backers. “Over the last few weeks, I have met with just about every member of my caucus that did not support me,” he said.

Other members asserted privately that they were positive Núñez had lied about his meeting with Oropeza and relationship with Ross. None would go public with their concerns and risk crossing the new speaker, though, especially while he’s reorganizing the house.

Though the speaker-elect may have detractors, many more members are hopeful he can turn the caucus around. Núñez, who is just 36, has never held office before, has only served one year and has a youthful face that makes him easy to mistake for a legislative aide. But he was picked with the future in mind, not the past. Núñez won’t be termed out for five years, so he can end the post-term-limit trend of two-year speakerships. Republicans made a similar gamble with McCarthy, the incoming Assembly minority leader, who also is a 36-year-old freshman lawmaker with no previous experience in elected office. The two often shoot hoops together.

If Núñez can consolidate power, he could reverse the erosion of power from the Assembly, which has taken a back seat to the less-volatile Senate. The Assembly used to be the dominant house, but in recent years, it has stiffened into a dysfunctional atmosphere of extreme partisanship in which the level of political discourse sometimes sinks to near bar-brawl levels.

“We want to bring stability to the Assembly with a longer-term speaker that has more years to set a more cohesive long-term agenda for the caucus,” said Núñez, whose opponents for the speakership all were sophomores.

Núñez has a long background in politics. Previously, he was the Los Angeles Unified School District’s top lobbyist. Before that, he was political director for the all-powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He grew up poor, one of 12 children of immigrant day laborers, but went on to graduate from Pitzer College.

“Is he young? Absolutely,” said one Assembly Democrat. “But he was savvy enough to become speaker of the California state Assembly. Assuming that he has what it takes, it’s to his advantage that he has four or five years. We have not been well-served by having the speaker du jour. It’s hard to have any power when people know your power is transitory.”

Miguel Contreras, who runs the labor federation, said his longtime friend Núñez combines the operational knowledge of a grassroots organizer and the strategic experience of a political consultant—a rare mix.

“This guy’s a fighter,” Contreras said, alluding to Núñez’s background as a championship boxer. “He’s not afraid to get dirty.”

In spite of all these problems, Democrats have reason to be optimistic about the coming year’s battles if their first staredown with Schwarzenegger was any indication. Democratic lawmakers stuck together and emerged from the confrontation over the fiscal package unscathed. Even though Schwarzenegger got to claim victory, he’d caved on key provisions.

As Democrats blew off the December 5 budget-plan deadline, and essentially told the governor to buzz off, they seemed to be a little more confident and unafraid, maybe showing the first sign of settling into a role they’ll be playing for a few years.

In a floor speech a couple of hours before the midnight deadline, Senator Don Perata said what everyone in the building already knew: Schwarzenegger wouldn’t get his way. The Oakland Democrat, who occupies the No. 2 spot as Senate majority leader and is considered a likely successor to Burton, also seemed to be speaking on behalf of his fellow party members.

Perata stood up for career politicians, sounding peeved that the governor had traveled around the state bashing Sacramento (code for Democrats). “What we are about is complicated public-policy making. It does not fit on a bumper sticker, or the mouth of some radio talk-show host,” he said.

“Democrats are not fools,” Perata said. “We can read the newspaper. We know the box score. We got our asses kicked a couple months ago. We get that.”

It was an unusually honest assessment by one of the once-omnipotent Democrats, who, as a group, are still coming to grips with the fact that California, though still solidly Democratic turf, isn’t a one-party state anymore.

So, as they go forward, it looks like the only thing Democrats would need to do to reclaim the state would be to give a good explanation of why it belongs to them—maybe even something that does fit on a bumper sticker.