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Aides Absorb the World According to Sen. Hayden : Legislature: Staffers take part in an intellectual odyssey of mandatory readings, viewings and discussions to help their boss advance his reform agenda.

October 03, 1994|CYNTHIA H. CRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tour group was running late and the little yellow school bus was waiting. One of the visitors to Cal State Northridge's quake-rattled campus tapped her watch as if to say, we'd better cut this short.

"You got a wrist problem?" the group leader snapped, resisting efforts to rush everyone along. It was for their benefit, state Sen. Tom Hayden scolded, that this look at campus rebuilding had been arranged.

While many state lawmakers see little of their Capitol staffs during the Legislature's recess, Hayden required his to accompany him last week on a two-day district tour and retreat to discuss next year's legislative agenda.

"We are still trying to pull out all the lessons from the earthquake," Hayden said, as he guided the entourage past some of the 53 CSUN buildings damaged by the powerful Northridge temblor.

The tour marked the latest in a series of unconventional steps that the activist Democrat has taken in the past few months to redefine his Senate office.

First came the required readings. Then the discussion groups. Then the documentary film screenings. Now everyone, from the scheduling secretary to the chief of staff, gets an education on the world according to Tom Hayden.

The idea has been to clue his aides in on what matters most to Hayden so they can help advance his self-proclaimed reform agenda.

The result, in part, has been to remake the experience of working in the Capitol into an intellectual odyssey of sorts.

If Hayden finds a problem troubling, his staff is expected to react as passionately as he. If Hayden gets charged up about a cause, it ought to catch fire in the office too. If Hayden, himself an author and college instructor, finds inspiration in a book or essay, they should search for it too.

The changes have their roots in Hayden's failed quest for the Democratic nomination for governor, which--although he lost badly--confirmed for him that 302,035 California voters supported his notion that the status quo needs challenging.

Now, in addition to mundane matters such as the care and feeding of the senator's electric car, staff members are expected to conduct investigations, ferret out scandals and organize community activists--as well as keep up with the intellectual dares being tossed their way.

So far, Hayden's staff has met the new demands with aplomb.

"We're at peace with the notion that the workplace is not a big social mixing bowl but a place for reform," says chief of staff Duane Peterson.

Longtime legislative aide Kip Wiley, who has been with the senator for eight years and in the Capitol for 14, says: "I've worked for some of the most conservative and some of the most liberal members of the Legislature. It's always good to know not only the beliefs of the member but also their world views."

For a quick glance at the boss' global views, check out the reading assignment "Living in Truth" by Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel. In a chapter titled "Politics and Conscience," this friend of Hayden's observes that politicians need to stay in touch with the natural world, not so much with the artificial realms of power.

Other mandatory readings are excerpts from "The Power Elite" by sociologist C. Wright Mills, a book that inspired the radical Hayden in his youth, and a recent tome on Los Angeles' urban crisis called "City of Quartz" by Mike Davis. And, of course, aides are also expected to familiarize themselves with "Reunion," Hayden's memoir published by Random House in 1988.

But what place do esoteric ruminations and sociological truths have in a legislative process that, at its lowest point, is influenced more by trickery and deep pockets than deep thoughts?

"The Havel piece talks about how we have gotten away from a bond with nature," said Peterson. "And then you fast-forward to trying to deal with a bill to protect the Chinook salmon that is threatened with extinction." It all connects, he says.

Maybe so for the devotees on Hayden's staff. (If anyone disagrees, they won't say so on the record. Hayden himself prefers to talk about issues, but not about the way he runs his show.) But in the corridors of the Capitol, where legislators are more likely to demand staffers' help with everything from pet care to wardrobe matching, some might regard the goings-on in Room 2048 as an oddity.

"How do other staffers view us? They don't like us at all," said Peterson, noting that some jealousy might result from the fact that Hayden's staff doesn't have to worry about fund raising for their financially independent boss. "I sense some hostility. We're (jerks) in a lot of people's eyes."

Still, Wiley reports, whistle-blowers show up, drawn by the senator's frequent railings against political corruption. "They'll say, 'Here's this bill you should know about. My fingerprints can't be on it, but can you help blow it up?' That's kind of an honored role."

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