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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Backsliding Into Another Gray Area

July 19, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — This is a tale about back-room bartering, a deal gone sour and--some say--a governor's dishonored commitment.

It's also about Latino Democratic politicians flexing their political muscle. It's about firing off another shot at a favorite target, former Gov. Pete Wilson. And it's about a respected Republican woman again being a partisan punching bag.

"This is politics at its absolute worst," asserts Senate GOP Leader Ross Johnson of Irvine.

It raises questions once more about Gov. Gray Davis' willingness to weasel on his word, coming not long after the governor allegedly reneged on another deal: vetoing $13 million in pork projects Johnson believes had been promised Senate Republicans in exchange for their budget votes. Under GOP pressure, Davis now has agreed to restore about a third of the pork.

This tale began last fall, shortly after Davis' election. He met privately with Wilson and they cut a deal:

* Wilson would allow Davis to decide who heads up the new commission overseeing Prop. 10, which increased tobacco taxes to pay for early childhood programs. Davis wanted to appoint the measure's sponsor, Rob Reiner. The actor-director is tight with rich Democratic contributors in the entertainment industry. Also, Davis wanted some influence on a commission that will hand out $700 million annually.

* In return, Davis agreed not to withdraw two Wilson appointments: Joanne Kozberg to the UC Regents and Marian Bergeson--Wilson's education advisor--to the State Board of Education. These two appointees required Senate confirmation. So Wilson also cleared the deal with Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco).

*

Kozberg's confirmation sailed right through.

But Davis may have developed buyer's remorse when Reiner allowed him little influence on the Prop. 10 commission.

And Bergeson now has run into trouble with the Democratic Latino Caucus, which complains about her right-of-center record on education, labor and minority issues as a state senator in the '80s and early '90s.

The Latinos carry clout beyond their numbers--seven--because other Democrats don't like to buck them. They're also closely allied with Latino activist and labor groups, many of which have written anti-Bergeson letters. Says one: "The Pete Wilson era is finally over. There's no reason to extend it."

Senate confirmation of an education board member requires a two-thirds vote, or 27. There are 25 Democrats, and many have not taken a position. All 15 Republicans will vote for Bergeson.

Right now, it's looking like a close vote. And while Burton quietly has been helping Bergeson, Davis has not lifted a finger.

The word is that Davis feels he already is battling Latinos enough--over bills benefiting illegal immigrants, for example--and isn't about to spend political capital helping a Wilson Republican.

Spokesman Michael Bustamante denies this, insisting that "the governor still supports Bergeson and he's going to work for her."

But Sen. Joe Baca (D-Rialto), who is leading the opposition, says he wouldn't have gone after Bergeson if the governor hadn't flashed the green light. "I would not have pursued it if I'd felt the administration was in strong support of her," he asserts. "The administration said it sent up her name, then it was up to the Senate."

GOP leader Johnson responds: "A commitment to appoint also is a commitment to secure confirmation--to do everything in your power to make sure it happens."

*

Bergeson, 73, a soft-spoken former teacher and Orange County school board member, has been pummeled before by Democrats. And some now feel guilty about that.

In 1993, Wilson appointed her to fill a vacancy as state schools chief. But that required confirmation by both houses. And the then-senator was brutalized in the Assembly, being forced to deny she was a "racist" and a "weirdo creationist."

"She really was treated unfairly," says Senate Education Committee Chairman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), then an Assembly member. "I voted against her and always regretted it. She's a marvelous public servant and a fitting person to be confirmed. She's had the best interest of children at heart all her career."

Republicans are threatening to retaliate if Bergeson is not confirmed. "We'll respond in kind," vows Johnson, by blocking Davis' other ed board appointments.

Some Democrats also are angry at the governor. "If he's going to throw her to the wolves, he should have the decency to tell her," says one. "Or he's got to stand up and say he needs to have her confirmed. He can't be waffling."

Davis has let this get out of hand. The tale has gone on too long. He needs an ending--about a governor who keeps his word, who believes a deal's a deal.

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