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California and the West

Lobbyists Unite Behind Holocaust Bill

Capitol: Measure came under intense attack from insurance representatives until a divergent coalition, drawing upon their Jewish heritage, took up the cause.

September 02, 1998|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Most times, lobbying is about big bucks and big deals. Sometimes, it's a little more personal.

So it was when one particular bill (AB 1715) ran into trouble on the Senate floor in the end-of-the-session crush.

The bill was aimed at helping Holocaust victims and their heirs collect on old insurance policies sold to Jews in Europe before World War II. It would establish a registry of information on Holocaust-era insurance policies.

The registry would provide information about which people had insurance policies before the war. Without the registry, said the bill's author, Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), heirs would have no way of knowing whether they were entitled to compensation.

The bill had sailed through committees. It had no apparent opposition. But then, as the session drew to a close, lobbyists for two European insurance firms emerged to try to kill it.

Their arguments dealt with the technicalities of insurance law and mergers and international agreements. Their arguments were holding sway with some Senate Republicans. The bill stalled late Friday, four votes shy of passage, three days before the Legislature would adjourn.

It might have died altogether, except that in the cramped hallway outside the Senate and Assembly chambers, where lobbyists jostle for position in the hope of buttonholing legislators, word spread.

A legislative aide to Knox appealed for help from lobbyist Barry Broad. Broad was busy working on a variety of bills affecting his paying clients, organized labor. But the story stopped him cold.

"I had the feeling that this stuff never ends," Broad said Tuesday. "In a shadow way, 50 years later, the same things are going on. People are being denied. We couldn't stand by and let that happen. We bear some historical obligation and duty."

In short order, Broad found lobbyist Alan Edelstein, who found others, until half a dozen or more lobbyists heard the story. Some are liberals who represent labor. Others represent business interests. But they shared a common bond.

They are Jewish, and they all wanted the same thing--to get the Holocaust bill out. So they dropped what they were doing and went to work.

Edelstein's first reaction was to find an insurance bill, any insurance bill, and in retribution work to kill it. "I was in a mean mood," he said.

Instead, they decided to find state Sen. Ray Haynes of Riverside, a GOP leader who had convinced other Republicans to oppose the bill.

Haynes was outside the Senate chambers, talking to Cliff Berg, the one lobbyist getting paid to keep the bill alive.

The other lobbyists "were there to help me in a flash," said Berg, who works for the Jewish Public Affairs Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Lobbyist Richard Robinson, who represents businesses including insurers, joined in when Haynes suggested that the bill could be reworked and taken up afresh in January when the Legislature returns to Sacramento.

"I don't think Sen. Haynes understood the implications of delay," said Robinson, a former lawmaker from Orange County. "That could be catastrophic to some of the survivors. They are very old and they are dying."

Haynes worried that Knox's bill was punitive. He said he wanted to "make sure we didn't go overboard because 50 years ago someone was a bad guy." But after listening to the arguments of Broad, Robinson, Edelstein, Berg and the others, Haynes returned to the Senate floor. A few minutes later, the bill passed without opposition.

"They were very intense," Haynes said Tuesday in describing the events. "It was obvious what I saw was something other than, 'We're doing this for a client.' It was deeply personal."

The bill went on to the Assembly. Broad hung around until the final vote early Saturday. The vote was unanimous. The bill is awaiting Gov. Pete Wilson's signature--or veto.

Knox said the firms seeking to block the legislation were Axa International, a Paris-based conglomerate, and Allianz, the German-based parent of Fireman's Fund insurance. Lobbyists for both firms did not return calls seeking comment. Efforts to reach other company representatives were unsuccessful.

Axa announced last week that it signed an agreement saying it is "committed to resolving any unpaid insurance claims of Holocaust victims and their heirs as quickly and fairly as possible."

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