SACRAMENTO — Debra Bowen was on the hot seat.
Her fellow Democrats were urging the rookie Assembly member to vote for the controversial $52.1-billion state budget that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and legislative leaders had cobbled together over the weekend.
But Bowen, whose district encompasses parts of the Westside and South Bay, worried that the spending plan would take too much away from the cities she represents.
"I felt I was being given a choice between ax-murdering my mother and torturing the rest of my family, and I was miserable voting no and miserable voting yes," Bowen said.
At first she voted no.
Then the pressure really began to mount, as it became increasingly apparent that the budget's fate might rest on her decision. A parade of ranking Democrats passed by Bowen as Sunday night slowly wore into Monday morning. "The Democrats tried to work her all night," said Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills).
During the course of the marathon session, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), a chief lieutenant of Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, spent about 90 minutes talking with Bowen about the merits of the spending plan.
Also, Los Angeles city officials supporting the measure prevailed upon City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter to make an early morning sales pitch from Washington, where she was meeting with federal government officials. Galanter, a friend of Bowen, argued that the budget was the best deal the city could expect from the state this year.
The message from Los Angeles County was mixed. District Atty. Gil Garcetti agreed with Galanter's assessment. But county Supervisor Ed Edelman vehemently opposed the package as being unfair to local government and sought Bowen's support in killing it.
Bowen paced. She ate celery and drank Diet Coke. Her staff even delivered a package of Rolaids, but for once it didn't spell relief from what she described as "nothing but bad choices."
Finally, liberal Assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Berkeley) cast the 53rd vote on behalf of the budget. Bowen said: "For me, the calculation changed substantially when the vote went to 53-25," just one short of the 54 votes needed for passage in the 80-member Assembly.
She mulled it over. She agonized, not wanting to be known as the obstinate lawmaker who blocked passage of the budget. Finally, shortly before 5 a.m., Bowen briskly strode out of an Assembly anteroom with Katz at her side and headed for her seat. She quickly pressed the green button on her desk and her "yes" vote flashed on the Assembly's tote board. The Assembly had approved the budget. Her weary colleagues cheered.
Afterward, Bowen said of her anxiety-ridden vote: "This for me in the end was a fine line between a deeply held philosophy and trying to be pragmatic about the problems the state is facing."
She said one factor that prompted her to switch sides was that during her campaign last year voters in her district had vented their anger at legislators who took two months to reach a budget accord. "They wanted it done on time," Bowen said.
Bowen, 37, is part of a large class of more than two dozen newcomers in the Legislature--the first elected after the passage of legislative term limits. Many have pledged to chart a more independent course than their predecessors, saying they will not necessarily march lock-step with legislative leaders.
Such an approach could be politically crucial for Bowen. Her 53rd District, which stretches along the coast from Venice to the base of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, is viewed as an area that could swing between Republicans and Democrats in future elections.
But some of her colleagues speculated that in the end, Bowen's budget vote demonstrated the power wielded by Brown on key issues. One Republican lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said that Brown could not "tolerate having a freshman that was so independent" and it was "important to break her spirit."
Democrats who coaxed Bowen to vote for the budget deny that they were doing the Brown's bidding.
"In the end I think she decided that . . . it was important to break the gridlock" and avoid a repeat of the 1992 budget battle, Katz said.
Another factor may have been the call from Galanter. With the outcome in doubt, Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle urged Galanter to call her friend. Galanter recalled that Tuttle said, "We are one vote short and Debra is holding out and will you talk to her?"
"I tried to give her some flavor of how desperate the city was," Galanter said. But most of the conversation revolved around the kind of ideal budget they would have liked to have crafted, Galanter said.
Despite their friendship, Bowen did not immediately bow to Galanter's plea. "I told her my job wasn't to represent the city on the Assembly floor," Bowen said.
But a few minutes after the final vote sent the budget to the Senate (where it was approved Tuesday), Bowen called back Galanter to let her know she could relax and that the budget was approved. Galanter, for her part, urged her friend "to go home to sleep."
As she headed home with the new day dawning, however, Bowen got stuck waiting for a passing train.