I’m Loud. I’m Proud. Get used to it.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg is a strong and vocal proponent of liberal causes at the Capitol. This former teacher is pushing education reform, and her opponents will have to listen.

Jackie Goldberg

Jackie Goldberg

Photo by Larry Dalton

Jackie Goldberg sits patiently in Capitol committee room 4202—the Jesse M. Unruh Hearing Room—as her fellow legislators on the Education Committee quiz Democrat George Nakano on the bill he’s presenting before them, AB 1898—a measure that would establish a test project to reduce class sizes for grades one to five in the Torrance and Poway school districts.

Hovering above the legislators, a color portrait of the fleshy, mustachioed “Big Daddy” Unruh hangs on the wall like the ghost of California politics past. Unruh, who ran the Assembly from 1961 to 1968 as speaker, epitomized the pre-term limits House—he was tough, gruff and the caretaker of the good ol’ boy network. In the photo, Unruh’s massive head is lit as if encircled by a halo.

All is going fairly well in committee. Nakano and the two men he’s brought to testify on behalf of the bill—the superintendent of each district—are well versed in what the measure would do if eventually signed by Governor Gray Davis. It’s the third time Nakano has brought a bill for this purpose. The first two times it failed to clear Davis’ desk—once it didn’t get to a vote and once Davis vetoed it because he was concerned it didn’t go far enough. This time Nakano says there are reasons to believe the bill will get Davis’ OK.

After several other members of the committee address Nakano offering only minor concerns and their compliments, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg breaks in with a question to one of the superintendents.

“Do you have students in your districts that are reading below grade level?” Goldberg asks.

Bemused, and thinking Goldberg’s question is rhetorical—after all, all districts have kids reading below grade level—the superintendent of the Torrance district answers, “Of course.”

Goldberg knows this, and says that her question wasn’t rhetorical but further asks what percentage of kids in the districts are reading below grade level. The superintendent says, “something below 10 percent.”

At that, Goldberg has a suggestion. Nakano’s bill calls for a little over $200,000 of the general fund to be used to study the effects of class-size reduction based on what happens in Torrance and Poway, both middle- to upper-class districts. What if, Goldberg asks, Nakano included in his bill a couple of districts that have less funding and more learning problems than these two districts? Some experts say, she adds, that class sizes should be reduced for kids reading below grade level—and kids who are meeting standards could actually perform as well in larger classes. If they are appropriating money to study class size, wouldn’t this split be a better way of looking at it?

Either they take the money out, Goldberg says, or they find a couple of low-performing districts to add to the study. Her inquiry and suggestion have stopped the conversation on Nakano’s bill dead in its tracks, but she tells him: “I don’t want to stop you guys from doing it … that’s not my goal here.”

Nakano, however, calls her bluff. “I’d be willing to take the money out,” he says. At first, Goldberg says that’s fine, but she still has a point to make, so she adds that she’d rather leave the money in. There is the potential, after all, to find out some useful information. Nakano begins to tell her that the demand for these class-size reductions is coming from high-performing districts because the parents are engaged in the process. But Goldberg—staring intently at him over her reading classes—cuts him off.

“I understand that and that’s wonderful and God bless them,” Goldberg says, her voice raising an octave. “I’m very pleased that there are high-performing districts, but so far they tend to equate with high-income school districts.”

Nakano closes his eyes and turns his head slightly as if withstanding a stiff wind. Goldberg continues: “Now, our goal is to find out whether changing these numbers affects students in a different socio-economic group.”

This is Jackie Goldberg in her element, always defending the underdog in a brusque, if not bullying, manner. Even in an Assembly full of members with big egos, pet causes and not-too-subtle vanities, the assemblywoman from Los Angeles has quickly emerged as one of the biggest personalities in the place.

Part of it is the hand that nature dealt her—Goldberg is a tall, outspoken, plump woman, whose presence commands a room. She also possesses a booming voice that can cut through a debate like a shredder through a stack of paper. But another part of it is what she believes. A part of the Berkeley free speech movement in the ’60s, Goldberg developed politics that are among the most unabashedly liberal in the Assembly. And she’s one of a group of four Democrats in the Legislature who are openly lesbian and commonly referred to as “the lavender caucus.”

In Jesse Unruh’s days, Goldberg’s outspokenness could have landed her a seat on a backbench somewhere in the Capitol, far from the corridors of power. Back then, a junior member had to wait for his or her turn and certainly not be as brash and seemingly all-knowing as Goldberg. Times, however, have changed. And with them, so have the means for acquiring power. No longer is it enough that a member is patient, a good fund-raiser and has acquired friends in high places.

The premium now is on smarts and the ability to communicate—two traits that, no matter what one thinks of her politics, Goldberg has in abundance. While she has only been in the Legislature since the beginning of last year, Goldberg has already found a spot on Speaker Herb Wesson’s leadership team and will chair the important Education Committee next session. But that hasn’t changed her politics. Goldberg has authored some of the most progressive—and polarizing—legislation of 2002, including a measure (AB 2160) that would allow teachers the right to influence public school curriculum in the collective bargaining process.

Clearly, term limits have eliminated the professional Legislature and brought a distinctly amateurish feel to state government. But they’ve also opened up what was a decidedly good ol’ boy leadership structure and created what Sacramento Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg calls the “entrepreneurial Legislature”—the power is there for the taking, he says, but members have to display the intelligence and the initiative to earn it.

Goldberg and her partner Sharon Stricker. If Stricker didn’t agree that running for the Assembly—and moving to Sacramento—wasn’t a good idea, Goldberg says she wouldn’t have run.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“With term limits, everybody is in pretty much the same boat,” Steinberg says. “Jackie is a good example of a member who has gained power and influence by understanding that the time here is short.”

It’s rare when members of the Assembly have any time to themselves. Most days, their lives are run out of their assistants’ computers—a meeting here, a caucus there and a three-hour committee hearing thrown in for good measure.

When Jackie Goldberg has free time, she does some reading and it’s not light. Today she’s going through a trio of bills authored by Republican Charlene Zettel that will be presented to the Public Safety Committee, one of six committees on which Goldberg sits. As she reads the bills from behind her desk in her fourth-floor office at the Capitol, she shakes her head.

“Do Republicans stay up at night dreaming this stuff up?” Goldberg asks to no one in particular about AB 2102. It’s a measure that would make harboring a terrorist punishable by up to 25 years to life in prison.

Goldberg wears a black blazer—she wears blazers most days—with an embroidered shirt underneath. It’s a non-descript wardrobe, but it seems to be the fashion for women legislators—the blazer, the scarf, the reading glasses perched on the nose. And while she’s most definitely a salty character and is known to use a curse word or two, the 57-year-old Goldberg has an expressive face that displays a genuine openness.

Goldberg’s office is peppered with citations and awards garnered over an almost two-decade career as an elected official—first as a member of the Los Angeles School Board and then as a Los Angeles city councilwoman. But the most prominent display on her wall is a portrait of Mark Twain that hangs over her desk with Twain’s quote: “Loyalty to a petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.”

On this Wednesday, Goldberg gave her opinion to the press. One of her more controversial bills, AB 2160, has reporters clamoring for comment. The bill would move the decision over what gets taught and which books to use in schools into the collective bargaining process, where teachers could exert some influence. Currently, administrators hold the power to decide how students are taught, even if teachers disagree. If the bill passes, the teachers union in each district would be involved in that decision-making before a choice is made. The critics say that because of this, the teachers union could use those academic decisions as chits when negotiating teachers’ salaries, if the governor signs the bill.

The measure has school superintendents and newspaper editorialists up in arms over what they say is a blatant teachers union power grab—in fact, the California Teachers Association is heavily pushing the bill. And the criticism has been harsh—the Los Angeles Daily News (never a fan of Goldberg) ran an editorial depicting Goldberg as a grotesquely overweight Jabba the Hutt-like figure who is introducing a union hack to school kids as their new teacher. Goldberg’s chief of staff, Wendy Notsinneh, says she doesn’t want to show Goldberg the cartoon. This is the first bill Goldberg has authored that has received this much attention, but it likely won’t be the last.

The legislation has the office buzzing. While two officials from the California Postsecondary Education Commission wait at the front desk to see Goldberg on a different matter, they strike up a conversation with Goldberg’s legislative director Sophia Kwong. They ask Kwong if she’s the point person on 2160, and Kwong answers yes.

“Do you have good armor?” one of the representatives asks.

The controversy over the bill intensified when the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial blasting the legislation. Sitting in her office, Goldberg finds out that Governor Davis has come out against the bill “as written,” but generally supports teachers having more say in classrooms. “It’s not my job to comment on others’ rationale” for opposing the bill, Goldberg says. Is Davis’ pronouncement discouraging? “No,” she says. “This is not a one-year fight.”

But Davis’ words have reporters furiously calling Goldberg for comment. The Sacramento Bee’s Emily Bazar calls at one point, and during the conversation the Wall Street Journal’s editorial comes up. Goldberg takes this opportunity to get a dig in on the Bee’s own editorials blasting the measure. The Bee has called the bill a “school wrecker,” and columnist Dan Weintraub has penned two columns ripping the teachers union. The Bee’s editorial politics, Goldberg tells Bazar, aren’t much better than the Journal’s.

The two main organizations against the bill—the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators—have Goldberg especially pissed off. In every story written on 2160, their representatives decry the measure as the worst piece of legislation ever authored.

“They’re acting like the god-damned world is coming to an end,” Goldberg exclaims. “It’s exactly how they acted when [teachers] got collective bargaining—and did the world come to an end then?”

Goldberg is especially frustrated with the administrators because they won’t even acknowledge that teachers should have some say in what gets taught in classrooms, even if it’s not done in collective bargaining. She says that she invited the administrators to sit down and discuss the problems they had with the bill, but they declined. By their unwillingness to negotiate with the California Teachers Association (CTA) over the measure, the administrators are digging themselves a hole with Goldberg.

“If you give me no choice, then you make me behave like I have no choice—I’ll be here for a long time,” Goldberg adds. “I’m going to be chair of the Education Committee so this is a losing strategy.”

Goldberg chairing Education, however, will be a boon for the teachers union. Not that the union needs the help. According to a report by Common Cause, the CTA gave the second most money to state congressional candidates in the 1999-2000 election cycle. And in the 2001 legislative session, 36 bills supported by the CTA were passed and signed into law. For her part, Goldberg has received $12,000 from CTA in campaign contributions since 2000, while Governor Davis has received $62,000 from the group.

However, there are entrenched interests on both sides of the AB 2160 debate. And the school administrators are no shrinking violets. The Association of California School Administrators has given Governor Davis $70,000 since 2000. They’ve given Goldberg $1,500.

Goldberg and Assemblywoman Carole Migden share a moment on the Assembly floor. Both are part of the “lavender caucus,” a group of four lesbian lawmakers that also includes state Senator Sheila Kuehl and Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe.

Photo by Larry Dalton

But it’s clear that Goldberg isn’t bringing the measure because the teachers union gave her campaign cash. As a former teacher in Los Angeles, the issue of teacher control in the classroom is close to her. For every phone interview she does that day—about eight of them—Goldberg starts off very logical and measured. By the time an interview is finished, her voice is a little louder and her manner is a little less formal. Off the phone it’s the same. The administrators’ position isn’t just politics—it’s personal.

“They make three or four times more than a teacher and the only time they ever even see a child is when they give a presentation at a school board meeting,” Goldberg says. “It’s insulting.”

At the end of a long day of work, Goldberg’s staff has gathered around her desk. They don’t knock on the door, or seem worried they might be disturbing her—instead they plop down and BS with the boss. While Goldberg and her assistant Bertha Mardueno negotiate plane departure times by yelling at each other from different rooms, chief of staff Notsinneh and legislative director Kwong chow down on Gummi Life Savers—the candy is the office snack rage of the moment. Their enthusiastic ramblings about the candy catches Goldberg’s attention. Kwong, who holds the bag, fakes throwing one at her but Goldberg exclaims: “I’m willing!” She opens her mouth and Kwong, obliging the boss, throws the candy but comes up a few inches short.

Goldberg is leaving tomorrow morning for Los Angeles for the opening of a regional homeless center in her district. She’s in a good mood, not only because the project was a long time in coming, but also because she’s going back to her partner of 23 years, Sharon Stricker.

Later, over dinner at Thai Spice on Broadway at 28th Street, Goldberg says that without Stricker’s OK, she wouldn’t have run for the Assembly when her Los Angeles City Council seat was termed out. In 1999, then Assemblywoman (now state senator) Sheila Kuehl approached Goldberg about running. Because Stricker had always been supportive of her forays into the demanding world of public office, Goldberg felt it was time to spend more time with her partner and for her to quit politics. But Kuehl convinced Stricker, who’s a writer, that Sacramento would be the perfect environment in which to write. Why was Kuehl twisting arms so hard? Goldberg says it was out of obligation to keep progressive lesbian women in the Assembly.

“She said, ‘our job is to make sure we keep getting progressive people, women, gay women in office and you are obligated to take your turn,’ ” Goldberg says. “We have no problem getting moderates and reactionaries to run.”

At first, the couple thought they’d rent a two-bedroom apartment, but were quickly dissatisfied with the prices. So instead they bought a little two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Oak Park. The real estate agent called the neighborhood “transitional” before Goldberg and Stricker saw the house. “I thought, transitioning from what?” Goldberg says. “Transitional meant ‘integrated.’ ”

Even with the house, Goldberg’s first year in the Legislature was “ghastly.” Stricker wasn’t around much because of commitments in Los Angeles leaving Goldberg lonely, in a strange new town and in a job “that she was talked into.” And while most people told her the first few months of office would be easy, when Goldberg was sworn in, the energy crisis was raging over California. Months into the job, she was appointed to a special energy work group which was supposed to study the energy problem and report back to the Assembly. It was an experience she’d like to forget. In the end, little that the group proposed was taken under advisement by Governor Davis.

“We spent hundreds of hours looking for a way out and what I didn’t realize—because I didn’t know how the system worked—was that it was all going to be a leadership play at the end by the governor and all our work would be useless,” Goldberg says.

She did find a Legislature more inclined to support gay and lesbian rights. When Goldberg and Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe were elected in November 2000, it doubled the amount of lesbian lawmakers to four. While gay and lesbian issues aren’t a big part of their legislative agenda, in the first year that the “lavender caucus” served together they pushed through AB 25 (Assemblywoman Carole Migden authored the bill), a measure that gave new benefits to homosexuals who register with the state as domestic partners. Governor Davis signed the bill last year.

This year has been a better experience, Goldberg says, because Stricker is coming to Sacramento more. Typically, the couple stays in the capital from Sunday to Thursday and spends the weekend in Los Angeles. But also, Goldberg says she simply feels more comfortable within the system this time around. And it shows. She was a main architect of the $25.3 billion school construction bonds initiative that was sent to the governor and will be placed on the ballot in November.

“Jackie was on the inside of that issue,” says Steinberg. “And those who rise here are willing to take on complicated measures like that and are team players—to ensure we maintain our majority.”

Goldberg doesn’t always act like a team player though. She authors bills—like AB 2347—that directly conflict with initiatives backed by the nominal head of her party, Governor Davis. The measure would scale back the scope of standardized testing in schools and would involve teachers more in the creation of education policy. If the measure gets out of the Legislature and lands on Davis’ desk, it will put the governor in an awkward position on two bills (also 2160) backed by the California Teachers Association—either he signs them and alienates school administrators and some parents or he vetoes them and offends one of the Democrats’ most solid backers, the teachers union.

It’s not clear that Goldberg cares a whit about such maneuvering. There is a focus on re-election and maintaining the Democratic majority among her colleagues that disturbs her. Goldberg maintains that most constituents don’t base their voting decisions based on one vote by a legislator. But Assembly institutions, like the Speaker’s Office of Member Services (SOMS), are there to keep the moderates in line, she says. SOMS is a special staff that in theory operates out of the Speaker’s Office, but is largely independent. It has a legislative unit that studies bills and how voting for, against or not voting can affect a member’s popularity in his or her district.

“There’s nothing more irritating than when you’re ready to go on the floor and vote and you have one of your friends come up and say, ‘Did you see what SOMS sent me about your bill?’ ” Goldberg says. “You look at it and it says ‘Don’t vote on this bill because it will kill you in your district.’ It drives me nuts.”

And if the moderates aren’t voting for her bills, the Republican conservatives certainly won’t be there to help her. In fact, it’s a running joke between Goldberg and her peers on the other side of the aisle that they won’t vote for anything—regardless of the issue—that has her name on it because she’s known in the GOP caucus as a raging liberal. The joke is repeated so much that one would have to wonder if it’s not true. Talk to Republicans and they call her a “bulldog,” and use adjectives like “stubborn,” “loud” and “aggressive.” They’ll say she could use a little more finesse in getting what she wants.

“I think there needs to be occasions when a member should soften their approach in both caucuses,” says Republican Richard “Dick” Dickerson. “If someone has a personality that grates on people, it’s gonna grate on Democrats and Republicans alike—she hasn’t learned that yet.”

But Goldberg’s amplified combativeness has arguably become her trademark. When Migden—like Goldberg a Democrat and openly lesbian—is asked what Goldberg has brought to the Assembly that wasn’t there before, she answers, referring to herself: “We had a petite lesbian, so now we have a booming-voice lesbian too.”

Jackie Goldberg and her staff in a light moment. While the business of being a legislator can be stressful, Goldberg’s office maintains an open informality.

Photo by Larry Dalton

If that were all there was to Jackie Goldberg, of course, she’d be easier to dismiss. Instead she uses her hard-to-ignore style to get the issues she cares about heard.

“I am fortunate in that over the years I’ve learned to articulate what I believe in a way that people can hear it,” Goldberg says. “They might not agree with me, but most of them listen.”

Jackie Goldberg’s office is set up so her space has two doors. One is the official door leading to the greeting area and one is a side door, through which she shuttles in and out all day from committee hearings and to quick chats with other members. In fact, most—if not all—members’ offices are set up the same. That way, they can come and go without being buttonholed by constituents, lobbyists or, worse, reporters.

But Goldberg’s aides use the side entrance too, so legislative aide Ilona Turner glides through the door with a small group of Native Americans behind her. Inside, Goldberg sits behind her desk on the phone, seemingly oblivious to the group milling about her office. Goldberg’s chief of staff Notsinneh comes in, concerned that the Native Americans—who are here in conjunction with a bill that Goldberg will present that seeks to ban racially insensitive school mascots—have breached the office without Goldberg’s OK. Notsinneh continually asks: “Why are they in here?”

The Native Americans are planning how they’ll address the Higher Education Committee in a couple of minutes. Goldberg will present the bill before the Higher Education Committee and a few of them will testify on its behalf. The dull murmur in the office has grown into a genuine noise, but Goldberg doesn’t look upset. She hangs up the phone, stands up and bellows: “OK you experts!”

Goldberg tells them that she can’t tell the committee what it’s like to be a Native American and live with racially derogatory school mascots named after Redskins or Braves. That’s their job, she says. She’ll just present the bill and stand back.

And that’s what she does. But still, some members of the committee appear poised to vote against the legislation until John Lewis Orendorff of the Los Angeles American Indian Education Commission tells them of the embarrassment he felt as a Native American when he took his son to a high-school basketball game and someone unfurled a banner that read, “Slaughter the Indians.” As he tells the story there are audible gasps from the audience, which is mostly made up of lobbyists.

After the testimony, the committee votes 6-0 to pass the bill on to the next committee to hear it, Education. All four Republicans—and one Democrat—on the panel abstain, which is considered a victory among Goldberg’s staffers. When Goldberg exits the committee room and enters the hallway, most of the Native Americans hug her and then circle around.

“You did this,” she yells. “They couldn’t vote against you, with you there.”

The Native Americans have been fighting for years for federal, state and local governments to take up their cause and have been largely ignored—no state government have banned the use of Native American names for mascots of publicly funded schools.

And it’s likely the issue wouldn’t even be raised in California without the presence of Goldberg. If in her first year, she was struggling to catch up and learn how the Assembly works, in her second she’s developed a penchant for raising issues that are not only divisive, but also attention grabbing. To some, her polarizing style is the product of so much leftist bluster. To others, it’s about time someone in power started raising these issues. What’s not in dispute, however, is that this left-wing, union-backed, openly lesbian legislator is getting the attention of some powerful, entrenched enemies.

A crowd swells in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building, across from the Capitol on N Street. It’s 8:30 a.m, a full half hour before Goldberg presents AB 2160 to a committee for the first time. It’s scheduled to be heard first by the Committee on Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security and then if it passes, the Education Committee.

Most of those who wait for the committee room to open are opposed to the bill. They wear slick little buttons that say: “Stop 2160: Union Power Grab.” Hardly anyone who favors the bill is waiting—school is, after all, in session (it’s a Tuesday) so teachers are nowhere to be found.

The week after the firestorm first erupted over AB 2160 an organization calling itself “Californians for Public School Accountability” took full-page ads in newspapers all over California declaring “AB 2160 is bad for kids, bad for schools and bad for California.” The ad quotes editorials against the bills from all the California big city newspapers and features a huge rotting apple core as its centerpiece.

The brains behind the ad, and the campaign against Goldberg’s bill, is political consulting firm Goddard Claussen Porter Novelli. On the opening page of Goddard Claussen’s own Web site the firm highlights Business Week’s thoughts on their work: “Goddard Claussen’s forte … is boiling down complex issues into messages so visceral that it inspires viewers to gripe to their elected officials out of fear or rage.”

Also on its site, Goddard Claussen details how it played a central role in the campaign to normalize trade status with China, helped derail the Clinton health plan by creating the infamous “Harry and Louise ads,” and worked with the Automobile Manufacturers Association to stop the U.S. from signing the United Nations’ proposed treaty on global warming. If there are union lobbyists out in force on 2160—as school administrators allege—you’d have to say the corporate lobbyists are as well. And it’s clear they’re mobilizing against Goldberg.

At a little before 9:00, the crowd is let into the tiny committee room. Every seat is taken in the audience, so watchers line the back of the room. Soon Goldberg enters to the low murmur of whispers: “That’s her.” When she takes the microphone to address the panel, Goldberg says, “This has been quite an experience, to say the least.”

In some ways, this committee is a stacked deck for Goldberg. In the week leading to the hearing, she’s talked with at least three of the five Democrats on the panel: Migden, Sally Havice and Gloria Negrete McLeod. Another, Virginia Strom-Martin, is the chair of the Education Committee and signed on as co-author on the bill after Goldberg presented it to the Assembly. If knowing what the outcome of a vote will be before it happens is the name of the game, Goldberg is getting to know the Assembly game well.

Of all the Democrats, only Migden expresses doubt about the measure. While Migden says she has a “great amount of faith in the author,” she has concerns about the “commingling” of curricula with labor issues in collective bargaining.

Migden says she’s “reticent to vote for this bill on the floor as it is written,” but will vote for it in committee because she expects it will be changed in the process. In the end all five Democrats vote for the bill while the two Republicans—Anthony Pescetti and Mike Briggs—vote no. It’s only a temporary victory for Goldberg, for now the bill will go to the Education Committee.

And she doesn’t stick around to celebrate. After the vote, almost the entire room stands to exit, clogging the aisles and making it hard for anyone to leave. Supporters rush Goldberg to talk and shake her hand, but she continues walking—she’s already an hour and a half late for the Public Safety Committee.

Opponents of the measure leave as a very disappointed bunch. But they might as well get used to it because unless she doesn’t get re-elected, Goldberg will be in the Assembly, chairing the Education Committee, throwing legislative bombs in her own party and generally raising liberal hell until 2006. And if the rule of the Assembly is you have to get along to go along—even in the entrepreneurial Legislature—the person her opponents might have to get along with is Jackie Goldberg.