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Hertzberg Embraces Life at the Capitol

June 29, 1997|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — No matter where he's going, Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg can't wait to get there.

Take a recent morning at 8 o'clock at the nearly deserted Capitol. Hertzberg is on the way to the cafeteria for breakfast, yet he bounds through the eerily quiet halls as if he has a plane to catch and not a moment to spare.

In a booming voice, he greets a few other early-bird legislators, gives a hearty bearhug to a state worker and breaks into a chorus of "Maria" in honor of a blushing cafeteria cashier.

Anyone watching this whirling dervish might suppose Hertzberg has been a statehouse regular for years.

That is not the case. Hertzberg is a new and endlessly energetic lawmaker who has thrown himself body and soul into representing, as he describes it, "the heart of the Valley," the 40th Assembly District.

At the same time, he has also thrust himself into the highly flammable battle over Valley secession, a fight that has already cost one veteran lawmaker a job. And in the process, he has pitted himself against some of Sacramento's veteran political power brokers.

So who is this brash newcomer?

Active most of his adult life in Democratic politics, he was elected in November to replace termed-out Assemblywoman Barbara Friedman in the Van Nuys-centered district that includes parts of communities stretching from North Hollywood to Northridge.

The son of a constitutional lawyer, Hertzberg, 42, said his dad was "very tough" on him during a legal apprenticeship.

As a result, Hertzberg said, he turned out tough himself. "I'm fearless," he said.

With his hale-fellow-well-met style, Hertzberg is becoming a highly visible Capitol player.

One of his unlikely fans is conservative GOP Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), who said Hertzberg is a star of this year's class.

"He revives the term 'the Happy Warrior,' " said McClintock. "In all my years of politics, I've never encountered anyone who was so helpful, knowledgeable and cooperative."

From the other end of the political spectrum, Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) praises Hertzberg's sensitivity and drive.

"He goes out of his way to accommodate people," Polanco said. "That's a unique trait in Sacramento."

That's high praise from Polanco, who opposes McClintock and Hertzberg's proposed legislation that would facilitate Valley secession.

For his secession efforts, he gets good reviews from local activists.

"He's wonderfully refreshing," said Sherman Oaks real estate broker Jeff Brain. "He's direct, open. He's not playing games."

But Hertzberg's full-steam-ahead approach led to a standoff with Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) when Hertzberg refused to yield to Lockyer's wishes about the secession bill's provisions.

New Assembly members usually don't take on the most powerful guy in the Capitol without wishing they hadn't, but Hertzberg seems unfazed.

"I don't think you ever hurt your career when you stand up for what you believe in," he said.

That may be a bit of bravado. Historically in Sacramento, turning belief into action has required a certain deference to those who run the place. It remains to be seen how Hertzberg's challenge of Lockyer will play out.

While known locally for the secession-bill fight, in Sacramento the Assembly Public Safety Committee is Hertzberg's metier.

In part due to his long involvement in Latino politics and partly because he favors the death penalty, Hertzberg was named chairman of the key committee, an unusually high-profile spot for a newcomer.

As a nod to Hertzberg's affectionate style of greeting, Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) said he has given Hertzberg another unofficial title: chair of the Hugging Caucus.

"Bob has probably hugged everyone . . . in the San Fernando Valley, and he is taking his hugging to Sacramento and statewide," Bustamante said. "Everyone takes it in fun and for who he is."

Not everyone.

Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park) said that she found Hertzberg's physicality offensive and told him so.

"This is a full body grab," she said. "He has no idea how offensive that is.'

Martinez tangled with Hertzberg on the Public Safety Committee until, she said, he demanded--successfully--that Bustamante oust her for embarrassing him.

"He absolutely falls apart when anyone questions his authority," Martinez said. "He comes to this Legislature thinking he knows all the answers. . . . I hope Lockyer teaches him a couple of badly needed lessons."

A voracious reader of history, public policy, anthropology, philosophy and whatever else grabs his fancy, Hertzberg's office--and house, says his wife--is chockablock with books.

He has 11 Rolodexes lined up on an office credenza, sits in a replica of the rocking chair used by President John F. Kennedy and has cartoon-character ties, mugs, pens and pencils to pass out to visitors.

On the coffee table is a several-inch-thick white binder filled with Hertzberg's observations on his first six months in office.

Everyone on the staff has a copy.

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