The velvet gavel
Darrell Steinberg wields kingpin power and pushes ambitious reform proposals as the assemblyman from Sacramento. So, where are his enemies?
Sacramento Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg had just raised thousands of dollars for a future campaign for higher office. But as the fund-raiser wrapped up at the home of two supporters, Steinberg lingered in the kitchen. He asked his chief of staff, Andrea Jackson, to remind him to send a handwritten thank-you note to two Assembly colleagues who had showed up to make a few flattering remarks on his behalf.
It was a telling Steinberg moment.
He’s one of the most omnipotent members of the Legislature’s lower house, a successful fund-raiser and rising star, but he’ll still be the nice guy even though, practically speaking, he doesn’t have to.
A couple hours earlier, as the orange rays of a warm mid-May evening filtered down through the trees, Steinberg mingled with supporters in the backyard of an upscale home on South Land Park Drive. It was the third year in a row that gay couple John Bennett and Tod Pritchett had hosted a Steinberg fund-raiser for members of the local gay community. As about 75 donors grazed on the salad, noodles and spring rolls arrayed on tables by the pool, Steinberg worked his way through the crowd, trying to glad-hand everyone.
At the same time, a crew from the local public-access show Being Gay Today was in the kitchen shooting a segment on Steinberg and “taping people saying wonderful things about him,” as host Sam Catalano put it. As a regular supporter of gay rights and other civil-rights causes, Steinberg is a star in the gay community. In his first term, he authored a domestic-partner inheritance bill and, after several synagogues were firebombed, including his own, helped found Sacramento’s Capital Unity Council. Steinberg, one of the more liberal Democrats, also has worked hard on issues like mental health and homelessness.
The fund-raising event had an informal feel, more like a neighborhood barbecue than the typical fund-raiser where lobbyists show their faces and depart quietly. Still, fund-raising is fund-raising, and although his name won’t appear on a ballot for almost three years, Steinberg plays the money game like anyone else. The day’s take—around $10,000—would go to the war chest for Steinberg’s planned run to replace Sacramento Senator Deborah Ortiz when she terms out. That isn’t until 2006, but Steinberg already has around $200,000 in the bank and hopes to hit $500,000 before leaving office.
So far, it doesn’t look like anyone will mount a credible challenge, but that’s not keeping Steinberg from going hat in hand to the local community and to the various lobbies that lavish cash on candidates. For Steinberg’s most recent race, most of the cash came from labor, as well as from tribal and corporate sources and local donors.
Steinberg, who won his Assembly seat in 1998 after a stint on the Sacramento City Council, terms out at the end of next year. Until then, however, he chairs the all-powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee, which decides the fate of any bill that would cost the state money. The committee snares almost all bills, so, for the most part, bills don’t go to the floor for a vote without Steinberg’s blessing. In addition, anything with a cost of more than $150,000 automatically goes to something called the suspense file, which means it is put on hold and may never come up for a vote. Suspense is the procedural equivalent of flying standby, and many bills don’t get on the plane.
Early on at the fund-raiser, Assembly Democrats Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe, both members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, which helped sponsor the event, made a courtesy visit.
“Chris Kehoe’s here,” someone called out to Steinberg. “And she’s carrying a water meter.” The quip was in reference to Kehoe’s conservation bill to require cities without water meters—including Sacramento—to install them, and it looked like Steinberg would kill the bill. Letting water-happy Sacramentans get stuck with meters isn’t the kind of thing a local politician seeking higher office wants on his résumé.
Kehoe and Goldberg made a few flattering remarks, and Steinberg thanked the two lesbian lawmakers. “You’re pioneers,” he said.
Standing on the lawn in a dark suit and yellow tie, hands clasped in front of him, Steinberg thanked everyone, of course, and made a few short remarks about civil-rights issues. He stuck to optimistic themes, included a few feel-good clichés (“We’ll build a California we can all be proud of”), and sounded at times like a coach giving a pep talk (“We will break the barriers”) full of enthusiasm (“I see such hope out there”) and devoid of any negatives.
Though he’s slightly balding and graying just a bit around the temples, Steinberg, 43, still has a somewhat bright-eyed, boyish look. Assuming he served two consecutive Senate terms, he’d only be in his mid-50s by the time he termed out. But he’s already an 11-year veteran of the political game.
“Did I introduce everyone?” Steinberg asked Jackson after his remarks. Jackson said he had. Steinberg worries about stepping on toes; he’s conscious that things that are forgettable to him can be big slights to others.
As the event emptied out and the full moon rose above the trees, Steinberg headed to his car carrying a couple boxes of leftover Chinese food. The Assembly Appropriations Committee was meeting first thing in the morning, and he still had a stack of briefing papers to absorb.
The next morning, Steinberg opened the Appropriations hearing to a stream of assemblymembers presenting bills. The committee is Steinberg’s fiefdom, and in the time period SN&R spent with him, he came off as continually trying to strike a balance between being tough enough that he’s respected, but polite enough that he’s well-liked.
In general, it’s hard to find someone with something negative to say about Steinberg. In scores of interviews and conversations for this article—formal and informal, on the record and off, with Republicans and Democrats, supporters and opponents, top lawmakers and lowly staffers, lobbyists and voters—no one said they didn’t find Steinberg likeable. One of the few negative critiques came from one insider saying Steinberg overextends himself by doing too much—not exactly stinging criticism.
After spending days with Steinberg, it’s clear he’s not interested in starting a pissing contest with anyone, in spite of his perch at the top. And the lack of back-stabbing in comments from others seems to show he found a way to climb the political ladder in Sacramento without stepping on everyone’s toes.
As the hearing got under way, the oversized committee room was filled with dozens of bored-looking lobbyists waiting to plug whatever it was they were there to plug. Bills sent to Appropriations go to at least one committee beforehand, so Steinberg is the last hurdle to jump before getting to a vote on the floor.
During these hearings, Steinberg frequently leans over to talk to someone in the staff seat on his right. It’s usually Geoff Long, a two-decade veteran of fiscal committees who heads the committee’s staff. As the top adviser to the committee—or to the Democrats who dominate it, anyway—Long is the main adviser (Republicans have their own). He and Steinberg choreograph almost all of what happens in advance by forming the chair’s recommendation. Republicans can vote up and down, but in general, they’re dispensable on the panel, with just seven seats out of 25. Though members on both sides occasionally abstain from voting, Democrats customarily don’t vote against the chair; they can vote no on the floor at a later time.
This is how most votes go: Steinberg calls for a vote, and then vice-chair Patricia Bates, a Republican from Orange County, tells him how the few Republicans on the committee are voting. Most votes are recorded along party lines. Still, the pair get along well. They even have a cute name for the occasional unanimous votes: “Steiney-Bates” bills.
With just a couple weeks left before the deadline for bills to emerge from his committee, this time of year is when Steinberg wields the most influence. But although little gets done without Steinberg’s imprimatur, he doesn’t come off as lording it over anyone. Bates said Steinberg’s polite style is a stark contrast to the chair before him, fiery San Francisco Democrat Carole Migden. Bates credits Steinberg with being more respectful and keeping his foot off the partisan gas pedal.
Steinberg’s own bill, Assembly Bill 1426, came up later. It would set affordable-housing production standards in the Sacramento region and has been one of Steinberg’s top priorities this year. It’s also a follow-up to Assembly Bill 680, a similar, more controversial bill of his that failed last year. Earlier, Bates, who opposed the bill, had urged Steinberg to hold off on passing it. Steinberg didn’t need to, but he put the bill on suspense—for the time being—instead of ramming it through.
“Thank you,” Bates said.
It was a small gesture for appearances, but it wasn’t lost on Bates.
Heading downstairs after the four-hour hearing adjourned, Steinberg’s staffer told him reporters already were calling about the governor’s revised budget, which had been released that morning. At his office door, members of the California Film Commission stood waiting for a meeting about how to keep Hollywood film crews from shooting in cheaper locales outside the state. “I just need to run to the restroom,” Steinberg said.
“We’ll follow you,” one guy joked.
Steinberg returned, invited the group in, and picked at a takeout salad with a plastic fork as they pressed him to protect from budget cuts the state’s reimbursements to film crews that shoot here. They left a few minutes later without any promises.
Steinberg kicked up his feet to read a short brief on the governor’s revised budget. A staffer then dropped in with good news: The city of Oakland would back Assembly Bill 1221, Steinberg’s second big priority this year and another Assembly Bill 680 heir. The bill is an attempt to reduce cities’ dependence on sales-tax revenue, which is one of the root causes of sprawl. In Steinberg’s view, that dependence forces cities to approve things like auto malls and big-box retail that eat up land, increase dependence on cars and create a lot of low-paying jobs. Assembly Bill 1221 would let cities trade some of their sales-tax revenues with the state in exchange for property tax.
Later, as Steinberg headed across the street for a meeting with United Food Commercial Workers (UFCW) Executive Director John Perez about Steinberg’s Senate race, he bumped into a lobbyist who thanked him for being kind to everyone in Appropriations, “compared to your predecessor.” Steinberg, looking for some early support from UFCW, talked for a while with Perez at an outside table at a place on L Street, but they didn’t make a formal agreement.
Back at the office, Steinberg was reunited with his half-eaten salad. Long, the Appropriations consultant, dropped in to talk about some of the bills on hold. As the committee’s top staffer, Long is one of the more powerful unseen forces in the Capitol. Long and his staff of eight churn out analyses and recommendations on the hundreds of bills sent to the committee every spring. Because he answers to Steinberg, lawmakers sometimes plead their cases directly to Long.
Not that anyone forgets the chair. Steinberg said members already had been requesting meetings, stopping him on the floor and writing letters. He listens, Steinberg said, but the state is broke, so he usually can’t do anything. The committee turns down billions of dollars worth of new spending requests.
Before Steinberg returned reporters’ calls, he and Long formulated a few middle-of-the-road- sounding responses about the governor’s revised budget plan.
Steinberg called The Sacramento Bee first, offering lukewarm support for the revised budget (“There’s a lot of positive in the revise”) and a mildly partisan prod (“It really puts the onus on the Republicans to come to the table again”). The Bee reporter was writing about how the governor’s revised budget was a politically motivated effort to counter the recall. She tried to get Steinberg to take a shot at the governor, but he wouldn’t go there.
“It’s good policy, so if it’s good politics, so much the better,” Steinberg was quoted as saying.
Steinberg said he has a good relationship with the governor and keeps quiet when he disagrees. The recall effort, however, prompted what were probably the most strongly worded comments Steinberg made for this article. “I think it’s a terrible idea, and I’m going to fight to kill that recall,” he said. “It’s terribly irresponsible. I think it is sour grapes. This is a waste of time, waste of money—incredibly distracting from the huge challenges we have in front of us.
He added, “It offends me, actually.”
When Steinberg got back to the San Francisco Chronicle, the reporter wanted his take on structural reform for a piece critical of the governor’s budget. Again, Steinberg steered clear of criticizing the governor’s desire to put off structural reforms until later this year but offered that “we shouldn’t wait to address the 2004-05 problems until next year.” There’s probably not much choice but to handle next year’s budget problems before getting this year’s budget out the door, so it was a safe response. If there’s one thing Steinberg isn’t, it’s the guy reporters can call for a nasty jab when they need one, or the guy who gives a canned quote and then goes off the record for some profanity-laced back-stabbing. That’s not his style. He’s careful.
The reporter also brought up finding more stable revenue sources for local government, which Steinberg said was one of the aims of his Assembly Bill 1221. The bill is characteristic of Steinberg’s penchant for ambitious bills. It’s a successor to Assembly Bill 680, the controversial regional tax-sharing plan that died last year. Though Assembly Bill 1221 was less controversial, its future was unclear. It was a bipartisan bill, but it also had bipartisan opposition, and the League of California Cities opposed it as written. Since the state raided their coffers during the budget disasters of a decade ago, municipalities have been increasingly wary of Sacramento revenue grabs. Trying to tinker with local-government funding is often the political equivalent of throwing rocks at a beehive.
This year, Assembly Bill 1221 had more support, including an opponent of Assembly Bill 680 who turned co-author of 1221: Orange County Republican John Campbell. Campbell and Steinberg decided over dinner one night to co-sponsor something. But they didn’t know what to pursue. They later found common ground on local-government finance reform. Though they rarely agree, the conservative Campbell, who is the Assembly Republicans’ budget point man, said he trusts and respects Steinberg.
“He works hard because he believes in what he’s doing, not because he is so consumed with ambition,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of the other in the Capitol building.”
Though Steinberg may not be consumed by ambition, he’s no stranger to it.
Steinberg grew up the oldest of three brothers in Millbrae, one of the nicer suburbs on the peninsula south of San Francisco. His parents weren’t political, Steinberg said, so much as they were “the first ones over to the house” when family and friends needed help. Arlene and Bud Steinberg, who still live in the same house, were Jews who enrolled the boys in Sunday school. Steinberg said he remains “connected to Judaism,” and cites his religious upbringing as an influence on his politics. The future politician earned an economics degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then went straight to law school at the University of California, Davis. After law school, he moved to Sacramento to work as an employment lawyer at the California State Employees Association.
Steinberg’s mom and a high-school friend of hers later fixed up their two kids on a blind date. Darrell and Julie clicked, marrying two years later. The next year, in his early 30s, Steinberg ran for the Sacramento City Council seat for District 6 and won the nonpartisan, four-way race outright in the June 1992 primary.
When Steinberg made his 1998 bid to succeed Phil Isenberg in the 9th Assembly District, a safe Democratic seat, the primary field was crowded with eight contenders. One of those, Frances Gracechild, won the Bee’s endorsement but couldn’t compete with Steinberg’s superior fund-raising and political consultant, Richie Ross. (The race was Steinberg’s first pairing with Ross, a powerful, sometimes controversial figure. More on their relationship later.) Gracechild said Steinberg did a couple things that irked her, such as criticizing her for taking National Rifle Association money and listing himself as a judge on the ballot (he was then working as an administrative-law judge). But upon looking back, she said he’s not so bad. “He’s the real thing,” she said. Gracechild, a wheelchair-bound disability activist who runs the nonprofit Resources for Independent Living, praises her former opponent as “a friend to the disability community.”
Steinberg’s first bill created a mental-health program for the homeless—the kind of thankless issue most pols won’t touch. The bill was watered down to a three-county pilot program that was expanded in later years. Part of the credit goes to Senator John Burton, whom Steinberg made a point to befriend after taking office. Though Steinberg shares Burton’s liberal politics, his personal style couldn’t be more different from that of Burton, the combustible, profane Senate president who loves to bash the governor. Burton twisted the governor’s arm for support and enlisted first lady Sharon Davis, a mental-health advocate, to help promote the bill.
In spite of his status as a legislative top dog, Steinberg sticks to a regular-guy lifestyle. He lives in a typical suburban home on a cul-de-sac in Greenhaven, drives a Taurus, listens to Bruce Springsteen and roots for the Kings and Giants. The Steinberg kids—Jordana, 9, and Ari, 6—go to public school, where Dad drops them off most mornings on his way to work.
With Republicans across the aisle, Steinberg’s personality goes over better than his liberal politics do. Assemblyman Tim Leslie, a Roseville Republican who opposed Assembly Bill 680, said he and his occasional nemesis get along in spite of Steinberg’s “legislation that has a socialist theme.” Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox also said he considers Steinberg a friend, politics aside, and that he asked Steinberg for help in blocking a Democratic lawmaker’s push to move death row to Folsom, in Cox’s district.
Steinberg’s most recent political opponent, David Pegos, concedes “he’s really a good guy.” Cox asked Pegos, a legislative staffer, to run last year so Steinberg wouldn’t be unopposed. “I was just beating up on him because he’s a tax-and-spend liberal.” Asked about opposition research, Pegos said he wouldn’t talk about what he found, but he gave the impression it was insignificant.
Steinberg can have all the Republican pals he wants, but it’s Ross who helped make him who he is. Ross is one of the top political consultants in local races around town and other legislative races around the state. He is also a registered lobbyist who uses his close relationships with political clients as built-in access he sells to lobbying clients. Ross is a kind of foil to Steinberg’s squeaky-clean reputation.
Ross recently aroused the ire of several Democrats when he loudly threatened the political future of two members who weren’t supporting a bill introduced on behalf of his lobbying client. The incident made headlines and likely made Steinberg’s eyes roll. In response to an angry caucus, the speaker named a committee to consider whether political consultants should be allowed to lobby their clients. Steinberg ended up on the committee, examining his own political adviser and putting him in an apparent conflict-of-interest position.
Steinberg said he has no problem voting against Ross, and though he allowed that “situationally, there could be a conflict” with the committee, he said he’d consider any bill that came out of it on its merits alone.
On strategy and tactics, Steinberg said he has disagreed with Ross and has opposed bills for which Ross has lobbied. Steinberg said Ross has lobbied him in the past, though not about the bill that led to the threats (a United Farm Workers bill to provide health care to farm workers; Steinberg already was a supporter).
Steinberg said he meets with Ross about political matters such as the campaign once a week at most and listens to him as much as anyone else on his team. On the water-meter issue, Steinberg wouldn’t say what Ross had advised about the bill, only that “he wanted to make sure that I didn’t act precipitously.” (Ross didn’t respond to interview requests.)
With a week and a half to go until the Appropriations deadline to move bills, Steinberg sat down with his legislative staff on a Monday morning to get caught up on his own bills. He rocked back on the heels of his chair as staffers gave updates about the status of bills. On Assembly Bill 1426, one staffer said Placer County’s opposition to the affordable-housing mandate seemed to be softening.
Talk turned to the city of Roseville, which opposes the bill as a too-costly mandate. Last year, that city was one of the key opponents that worked against Steinberg’s Assembly Bill 680. For its opposition to the anti-sprawl bill, someone said, Roseville, which defines sprawl, now wants to be nominated for a League of California Cities award that recognizes efforts to protect the quality of life.
“I think the wanted poster is still out for me in Roseville,” Steinberg said. “Maybe if they get it, I should present the award.”
Assembly Bill 680 gained national attention last year before going down in flames, but Steinberg’s standard refrain is that there’s no way he’d be getting anywhere with this year’s Assembly Bill 1221 if he hadn’t introduced Assembly Bill 680 last year.
Two days later, walking into Appropriations, Steinberg was accosted by a reporter working on an article for Kehoe’s hometown paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Why should a chairman of the Appropriations Committee have that much influence over water, especially when you have all these environmental credentials?” the reporter asked. The implication was that Steinberg’s opposition contradicted his environmental politics because of concerns about how his support of meters would go over at home—something known as “voting your district.”
Steinberg said he was still talking to Kehoe about the bill and cited policy for his opposition.
“Is it political suicide to support water meters?”
“No, no, no,” Steinberg said, walking away. He was friendly about it, but clearly not interested in continuing the conversation.
It may not be political suicide, but it doesn’t take a pollster to know that ending Sacramento’s unmeasured water use—considered a birthright here—is no shrewd political move, no matter how much water it saves. As it stands, the bill probably will be back later, and Steinberg only has one year left in the Appropriations chair.
Before the weekend came, the Assembly convened a rare Friday floor session devoted to ceremonial items and other trivia (lawmakers usually are back in their districts on Fridays). By avoiding a four-day weekend, lawmakers also were able to keep collecting their $125-per-day per-diem payments for traveling to the capital. These sessions, which are nothing new, are essentially called to let lawmakers pad their paychecks.
Afterward, Steinberg briefed a gaggle of reporters on budget talks and other issues. Before going in front of the cameras set up in the ornate hallway between the Assembly chambers and the speaker’s office, Steinberg checked in with a member of the speaker’s communications staff before starting. (He was a stand-in for an unavailable Herb Wesson.) Reporters asked about the conference committee, an Assembly-Senate negotiating team that would merge the budget plans from both houses. Steinberg would sit on the six-member committee, his next assignment after wrapping up Appropriations.
When a local TV reporter asked what he thought about the unnecessary morning session, Steinberg, who refuses the per-diem payment, could have taken a shot at his peers, but in typical Steinberg fashion, he steered clear.
During the weekend, going through hundreds of suspense bills, Steinberg made a few phone calls to authors of some of the bigger bills to explain that he was killing them. One call went to Jenny Oropeza, about her bill to protect funding for a teen-pregnancy-prevention ad campaign. Eyeing the $12 million contract, Sacramento advertising firm Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn reportedly hired lobbyist Esperanza Ross—the daughter of Richie Ross, who is Oropeza’s political consultant. Steinberg told Oropeza that she wasn’t going to get the money.
He also met that weekend with Wesson, who can veto Steinberg’s calls—though he paints himself as hands-off. “I pride myself on not being a micromanager,” Wesson said, adding that he hands a lot of things to Steinberg that he can’t tackle himself.
When Wesson ascended to the speakership two years ago, Steinberg was one of the only real contenders in the race to lead the lower house. It’s also how Steinberg landed Appropriations. Before Wesson was elected speaker in January 2002, he and Steinberg attended a unity event at UC Davis, which had been the site of a hate crime. Later that evening, the two drove to Simon’s, a politico hangout near the Capitol.
“I knew what the conversation was going to be about, and I was prepared for what I was going to say,” Steinberg said. Over Chinese food and beer, he said he’d back Wesson—and made a deal. “I said I’d like to support him for speaker, and he asked me what I wanted to do. And I told him I wanted to be chair of the Appropriations Committee.”
Steinberg never mounted an all-out campaign for speaker. He downplays how much of a shot he had at the top spot and insists Wesson had the race locked up. The issue, Steinberg said, was that he wanted to see his kids instead of constantly roaming the state to raise money.
“I’m feeling very popular,” Steinberg said during a floor session the day before Appropriations took up the suspense file. Though the suspense bills wouldn’t come up until the next day, Steinberg already had decided the fate of each of them. During the preceding weekend, he’d spent four hours with committee staff Sunday and another four hours with the speaker on the Monday holiday. Now, in the Assembly chambers, Steinberg was working his own bills, roaming the floor with a list of members whose votes he still needed to secure. He’d planned to wait and do this after the upcoming Appropriations hearing, but he changed his mind over the weekend to take advantage of his heightened influence while bills were still pending in the suspense file. If there was one day during the year that his power was at its peak, this was it.
Steinberg brought up for a vote his bill to ban police interrogation of students without parental consent. It squeaked by with few votes to spare. Then, Steinberg checked to see how things looked for his bill to ban secret settlements in elder-abuse cases. There weren’t enough Democrats on the floor, so Steinberg put it on hold for another day. Cards in hand, he made the rounds on the floor to chat up other members. Mr. Popular or not, he still had to gather votes like anyone else.
The next day, Steinberg opened the Appropriations suspense file at 11 a.m. Adjournment wouldn’t come until almost 5 p.m. The committee started blowing through all 449 remaining bills, which requested a total of $16 billion in new spending in spite of the deficit’s gaping maw. Of the requests, the committee approved $140 million, or less than 1 percent of the spending sought. Everything else sent to the committee effectively died for the year, including billions in proposed bonds and all major new initiatives for continuous appropriations.
Steinberg’s pet bills, Assembly Bill 1221 and Assembly Bill 1426, also passed, obviously, on the chair’s recommendation. But while Assembly Bill 1426 passed on the floor and went to the Senate, Assembly Bill 1221 still faced stiff opposition from cities. Short of votes on the floor, Steinberg decided to ease off until next year. (It probably didn’t help that Campbell, the co-author, recently had made a big donation to help recall the same governor he would need to sign the bill.)
Mr. Popularity, however, was now Mr. Unpopular. Steinberg said he angered firefighters by killing a Kehoe bill to expand police and fire leave benefits—and already was getting calls about it. It was too pricey, Steinberg said.
As everyone filed out, Steinberg said he felt bad for members who didn’t get what they wanted. He’d been delivering the bad news for days.
Republican committee member Abel Maldonado, who’d gone 0-for-4 that day, was one of the last to leave.
“Abel,” Steinberg called after him. “Sorry!” It was so Darrell.
Maldonado poked his smiling face back in the door. “Bling bling, brother,” Maldonado said, using apt slang for cash or expensive goodies. “No matter what, I love you.”
“Thank you, brother,” Steinberg said, remembering his manners.