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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Savvy Lockyer Knows How to Choose His Battles

May 10, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer is a relic--a throwback to an era before term limits, when Sacramento politicians were allowed enough time on the job to fully develop their talents.

They climbed or fell--became insiders or got booted out--because of skill levels, not because they were next in line or their time was up.

What skills? The art of finesse, the language of nuance, the grasp of policy details, the mastery of legislative rules, the building of relationships--all the tools needed for crafting coalitions and producing results, for prevailing in an inherently Machiavellian system.

Things do get done today, but more power has shifted from the inexperienced Legislature to the governor.

Before term limits, pols like Lockyer--an Alameda County legislator for 25 years--could stick around long enough to take lessons from mentors and learn from their own mistakes. And Lockyer made a few--for example, once publicly berating a colleague for "mindless blather." But he made amends, tamed a hot temper and not only survived, but grandly succeeded.

Only a handful of such relics remain. There's Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), who replaced Lockyer as the Senate leader. Lockyer, 58, got his career start in the Burton family political machine four decades ago.

There's also Gov. Gray Davis.

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"Friend" is the most overused--and misused--word in the political lexicon. Davis and Lockyer never have been friends, as real people understand the word. But they do go way back, usually as allies and never as enemies.

In fact, Lockyer says, Davis made his first-ever political contribution to Lockyer's first Assembly race 26 years ago.

"Gray was this new L.A. lawyer, just back from Vietnam, who wanted to seriously involve himself in politics," Locker recalls. "Someone told him, 'There's this young kid up in Northern California. Be good for you to have a North-South connection.' Gray gave me all the [political] money he had at the time, $1,200. Then he came up and walked precincts. So we've had a relationship since the very beginning."

That's one reason why Davis is closer to Lockyer than he is to any other statewide elected official. Another is that Lockyer has a job that is important to Davis; as attorney general, he's the governor's lawyer. Still, Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren never were close. Indeed, Davis and Lockyer may wind up having the closest working relationship of any governor and attorney general since the Pat Brown era.

Lockyer has been around long enough to know that a governor of the same party should be deferred to if at all possible.

"That's not to say I don't get to have independent views or occasionally do something independent," Lockyer says. "But I don't feel any need to define myself any differently than Gray Davis."

Contrast that with the lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, a much less experienced pol who last month loudly, repeatedly, denounced Davis for not dropping the state's appeal of a court ruling that gutted Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative. Davis instead moved the suit to an appeals court mediation, where Lockyer will be his attorney.

"Cruz complains he can't get in to see Gray," Lockyer says. "Well, we all have that problem. Someone who was driving the car [for visiting pols] down in Fresno only six years ago, then becomes the [Assembly] speaker, expects a certain kind of attention that maybe you don't get. Frankly, I don't get much as AG."

Lockyer, however, knows what kind of attention to avoid: the kind that comes with antagonizing a popular governor.

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The attorney general--a liberal who supports capital punishment--sat in his 17th-floor office downtown and talked about the new job.

"Pollsters tell us," he said, " 'Focus on one thing and do it well so you can point to a success.' I've got 30 I want to do well."

Name one! "Use my antitrust authority to create more competition in the gasoline market."

Lockyer suspects the gas companies are price-gouging in California. The giants should be broken up, he believes, so they no longer monopolize all phases of the business--production, refining, transportation, retailing . . .

He has some leverage because the attorney general must approve the proposed mergers of Arco and BP, and Exxon and Mobil. As a condition of the mergers, he hopes to force the conglomerates to sell off some operations--"create viable mid-size companies that compete more; restructure the market."

"What I'm talking about," he adds, his eyes lighting up, "is being a California Teddy Roosevelt."

Now, that would get some attention. It's the sign of a skilled, veteran politician deftly picking his shots.

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