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Influential Lobbyist Rose From Humble Beginnings

June 24, 1991|WILLIAM TROMBLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of Sacramento's most influential lobbyists is a high school dropout and onetime rock 'n' roll singer who has been director of governmental relations for the California Teachers Assn. since 1985.

Alice A. Huffman, 55, plots legislative strategy and has a major say in deciding which candidates to endorse and who should be supported with CTA campaign contributions. Armed with the union's $2-million-a-year political action fund and friendships forged with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and other lawmakers, Huffman plays an important role in setting state policy in the complicated area of school finance.

Little in her early life would seem to have prepared Huffman for such a role.

Born into what she describes as a "lower-middle-class black family" near Beckley, W. Va., Huffman was one of 18 children, 12 of whom survived past infancy.

Her father, a supervisor in the coal mines, died at 47. "In a coal mining town, when a miner dies, you're supposed to move on," she said during a recent interview.

Huffman's mother, a music teacher and gospel singer, did move on--after marrying a fundamentalist minister, who took the family to Michigan and then to Cleveland. Over the years, Huffman dropped out of high school, worked a job stitching silk letters on bowling shirts and spent 2 1/2 years singing with rock groups in New York and New Jersey before launching a solo career.

"That was a big mistake," Huffman said. "I didn't have the voice training for it."

Huffman moved back to Ohio and got involved in her first political campaign, working for Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of Cleveland. By then 30 years old, Huffman also decided she had better resume her education.

She packed her 1966 Chevrolet, headed for California and enrolled at UC Berkeley, where she completed four years' work in two, majoring in social and cultural anthropology, with a minor in management.

From 1975 to 1982, Huffman held two jobs in the administrations of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.--chief deputy in the Department of Parks and Recreation and later director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. After that she worked briefly for Speaker Brown before joining the teachers' union.

The CTA has been a potentially powerful political force in Sacramento for many years, but school and union officials said much of that power went unused until Huffman arrived.

"When they got Alice, they began a comeback," said Mary Bergan, president of the rival California Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO). "Alice is the key to their political operation."

"I've never seen anybody else from an education group with that kind of access to legislators," said Kevin Gordon, director of governmental relations for the California School Boards Assn. "When Alice appears on the threshold, everybody steps back and she walks right into the member's office."

Some think Huffman's close ties to Brown have alienated the union from Republicans, while others criticize her for the outcome of budget negotiations that still include cuts of more than $1 billion from public schools and community colleges.

Huffman dismisses her critics, saying Democrats have protected teachers' rights. As to the negotiations, she said: "It doesn't make much sense to hold out for $2 billion or more" when the state faces an estimated budget deficit of more than $14 billion.

"My job is to get the maximum amount for teachers when the money is there and to do damage control in bad times like these. I think I've done that," Huffman said.

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