Fabian’s fibs

Why can’t Assembly Speaker Núñez just tell it like it is?

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a former amateur boxer, had a reputation in the ring for being scrappy and unyielding. It’s no surprise he took those characteristics into politics.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a former amateur boxer, had a reputation in the ring for being scrappy and unyielding. It’s no surprise he took those characteristics into politics.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Last spring, I was stunned to hear California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez announce that the elusive deal to fix California’s disastrous workers’-compensation system had been all but completed.

It startled me because I knew Núñez’s claim of an imminent deal almost certainly was not true.

I was closely following the closed-door struggle between reformers, who had Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on their side, and anti-reformers: sleazy doctors, lawyers and “injured” workers who have sucked the workers’-comp system dry at the expense of truly injured California workers. Even as Núñez announced an imminent deal, he was fighting crucial reforms and was pushing other deal killers, like letting incompetent state bureaucrats set workers’-comp insurance rates.

It was a disheartening replay of 2003, when crucial reforms were killed by Democratic leaders controlled by big unions. Horribly, the union leaders saw the widespread abuse of workers’-comp time-off provisions and cash “disability” awards as free perks for workers.

Some Sacramento insiders thought Núñez exaggerated that a workers’-comp deal was near because of inexperience. Others believed he fibbed in order to portray himself as a problem solver just a hair’s breadth away from a deal so he could blame others as the obstacles.

I didn’t much care. From where I stood, the Democrats had no hope of halting reform. The people themselves were demanding reform. If the Democrats balked, the governor planned to campaign for even tougher reforms on the November ballot—and voters almost certainly would approve.

But Núñez’s veracity problem emerged again and again and again. Fabian’s fibs became so frequent that journalists started asking whether information they were getting was solid, or would turn out to be “a Fabian.”

I compiled a list of some of his most questionable behavior when it comes to believability:

Last summer, Núñez participated in what I dubbed the “Squawkbox Seven.” Several heavily left members of the Assembly secretly discussed a scheme to worsen the budget gridlock then crippling California and pin the blame on Republicans. But the Squawkbox Seven didn’t realize an intercom was on, blasting their scheming through the Capitol. Núñez was heard stating that if the budget crisis was made worse, Democrats could then persuade voters that gridlock could be solved only if the legislature were allowed to pass budgets—as well as fat, new taxes—with just a 55-percent vote. (A two-thirds vote is required.) Voters rejected the 55-percent plan, but Núñez never apologized for plotting against the state.

In December, Núñez pledged to work with Schwarzenegger. But he told Mexico City’s La Cronica a version of his plans that turned out to be the truth: “I have already personally declared war on Schwarzenegger. … This is only the beginning of the confrontations with Governor Schwarzenegger.”

Early this year, when running for speaker, Núñez assured moderates in the Assembly that if they chose him instead of the less radical Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, Núñez would appoint moderates to three of five leadership posts. Moderate Caucus leader Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg noted that once Núñez was elected, he appointed only one moderate: the not-so-moderate Assemblyman Dario Frommer of Glendale. Núñez handed the other jobs to left-wingers and then pressured moderate Dems to stop disagreeing with his policies.

On March 24, Núñez announced that a workers’-comp deal would go to the Legislature the next week. As I’ve explained already, it wasn’t close to a reality.

In early July, Núñez announced that the budget deal was nearly a wrap. It wasn’t. “Unless somebody blows it up, and it’s not going to be me, we’re closing it today,” Núñez said. In truth, Núñez was pushing for major alterations that helped delay the deal for weeks. He also was mounting an aggressive fight against Republican proposals, laid on the table months earlier, to allow non-union bus drivers in public schools (saving hundreds of millions of dollars) and to reform a new “sue your boss” law clogging the courts. Núñez wrongly claimed that the Republican plans to save money by allowing non-union bus drivers, and to reform the job-killing sue-your-boss law, were last-minute demands. He got some press for making that claim, but it wasn’t true.

When Schwarzenegger finally signed the budget at a ceremony, journalists noticed some leaders were absent. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and others said nothing was up; they had prior engagements. But Núñez claimed he wasn’t invited. Schwarzenegger aide Richard Costigan immediately announced that he had personally invited Núñez. The Núñez camp went silent. Tellingly, Democrats did not take up Núñez’s weird claim.

Núñez doesn’t need to fib in order to accomplish things, but now it could take him months to regain the trust of key figures. It’s unfortunate. He’s extremely smart and disarmingly charming. And he has the financial backing of the rich and powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which is thrilled by his attacks on the pro-business Schwarzenegger.

I contacted several Democrats for insight into Fabian’s fibs. Most of them went pale and refused to talk—but didn’t deny it. On the Senate side, one aide to a top Democratic senator told me, “We don’t know why he’s doing it, and we certainly can’t talk about it.”

OK. But we can still analyze what has caused Núñez’s veracity problems.

Núñez, a former amateur boxer, gained success by being scrappy and unyielding. Born to a family of 12 kids in Tijuana, he arrived here at age 8 not speaking English. He once explained to me why he opposes the position of some hard-left members of the Latino Caucus, who want to separate out California’s Latino immigrant children and educate them with a separate curriculum. Tragically, the separatists seem to have the ear of Schwarzenegger’s confidante, Bonnie Reiss.

Said Núñez: “I was one of those kids in elementary school in the ‘blue room,’ and all of us in the ‘blue room’ knew we were the Mexicans. And it was just bad. … You place an inferiority complex on a child that takes decades to get rid of.”

Núñez rose above the damage from his dumbed-down schooling. He earned a degree and became political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He was fiery, cheering union members at a 1995 rally to “bring Washington to its knees.”

He organized huge protests against Proposition 187, the 1990s measure to deny public services to illegal aliens. He made a huge blunder, rousing immigrants to march while waving hundreds of Mexican flags. California voters were not amused. Proposition 187 was approved, and he successfully fought to overturn much of it in court.

His love of hardball politics was on display last spring, when Núñez huffily announced that, unlike outgoing Speaker Herb Wesson, Núñez would never negotiate with Schwarzenegger while the governor visited malls to get people worked up against legislative gridlock. So, I asked Núñez if he saw the Legislature as responsible for the huge deficit Schwarzenegger inherited.

Núñez’s response was remarkable: “The budget deficit is a problem that the governor [Schwarzenegger] has created by rolling back the car tax. He made the promise to roll it back, not us. We are willing to work with him. But he has to operate on a bipartisan basis, as he promised. I did not agree to operate on a bipartisan basis.” (Grin.)

That’s clear now. Núñez is staking out a position as the anti-Schwarzenegger. But to take Schwarzenegger down a notch, he utters often unreliable things. It’s got to drive him crazy that Schwarzenegger’s post-girlie-men approval rating is in the stratosphere at 65 percent, according to a Field Poll.

It’s one thing to dissemble while playing union politics. It’s quite another to do so when you lead all Californians as speaker. In Sacramento, the phrase “my word is my bond” means that even if politicians viciously fight, when the dust settles, they must be able to trust each other’s word.

Democratic Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Republican Senator Chuck Poochigian of Fresno were just named by California Journal magazine as the 2004 legislators with the most integrity. They derive substantial power from the fact that they never tell a different version of events depending on the crowd.

California Journal also named a top rookie legislator. The magazine chose Republican Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield as top rookie. Núñez got second place. McCarthy, who deals with Núñez regularly and considers him a friend, said, “Fabian knows that I don’t think his tactics are wise, but people have to go their own way.” The magazine noted that Núñez won his post under a cloud, which no doubt affected their decision not to award Núñez the Rookie of the Year, despite his dizzying climb.

Núñez, who didn’t call me back, could reject his current path. He could build on the legacy of speakers like Antonio Villaraigosa and Bob Hertzberg. Those men, now both running for mayor of Los Angeles, dealt honestly with foes and allies alike. Ironically, either could unseat Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, now mired in veracity troubles.

Villaraigosa and Hertzberg eschewed fibbing and dissembling. Today, Californians are more tired than ever of such high jinks. So, unless Núñez wants the phrase “a Fabian” to become part of the Capitol lexicon, he should take the lessons of his predecessors to heart.