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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

We'll Never Know How Good Speaker Could Have Been

March 27, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa soon will become the fifth ex-speaker of the post-Willie era. That is, the fifth ex-caretaker of a legislative house still struggling to define its role under term limits.

A very good caretaker, to be sure--but not the owner of the place. Not like the legendary speakers Willie Brown and Jesse Unruh. These days, speakers aren't allowed enough time on the job to rise above their caretaker positions.

Keep the house running smoothly, tempers controlled, partisan cheap shots to a minimum, out of budget gridlock. Maybe pass a few hot button bills. But planning long range policy for a growing, changing state? That's the old way, pre-term limits.

On April 13, Villaraigosa will be succeeded by fellow L.A. Democrat Bob Hertzberg, his ally, friend, Sacramento roommate--and antsy angler for his job. Term limits breed impatience. Speakers tend to be maneuvered out before they're ready to leave; in this case, eight months before Villaraigosa's Assembly term expires.

Hertzberg will be the sixth speaker in five years. They've ranged from pathetic to promising, like Villaraigosa. For him, add pleasant, persistent and often productive.

During the previous 34 years, there were only five speakers; all solid, a couple legendary.

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Villaraigosa, 47, does have one striking similarity to the two legends, Brown and Unruh: a street-smarts pragmatism, rooted in childhood family struggle and strong, motivating mothers. The three were inspired to escape and excel.

They represent California's diversity. Unruh, an "Okie" in the broad sense, son of an illiterate Texas sharecropper, his first California home a chicken coop. Brown, a product of segregated rural Texas, who fled to San Francisco hours after high school graduation and became California's first black speaker. Villaraigosa, an East L.A. barrio kid and son of a Mexican immigrant, a high school dropout who ultimately graduated from UCLA.

Brown and Unruh are the two most famous state legislators in California history. Villaraigosa? Well, as he says, "When you've been here only five years, you can't talk about your 'legacy.' "

What constitutes a legendary speaker? In the past, longevity was a criteria. Unruh was speaker seven years; Brown, 14 1/2. These days, two years is about tops.

The ugly secret--at least a secret to much of the public--is that inside the Capitol, speakers are graded largely by their ability to hit up special interests for campaign money and keep their party in power. Villaraigosa passed that test when Democrats gained five Assembly seats in 1998. He also is leaving Hertzberg $1.5 million in seed money for this fall's elections, unprecedented for a departing speaker.

But Villaraigosa did commit a major political boo-boo. He sat back last year while his cocky caucus allowed a Green Party candidate to capture a "safe" Democratic seat in a special election. He says several assemblywomen objected to bankrolling the Democratic candidate, former Oakland mayor Elihu Harris, because they considered him sexist.

The inexperienced speaker learned from that--learned to act and not ask. "Today, I'd win it," he says. "I wouldn't let anybody talk me out of spending the money. In the end, they'd have gotten over it."

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Speakers also are judged by their ability to shape policy and events--by a willingness to butt heads with a governor of the same party. But Villaraigosa announced from the start, "I'm hitching my horse to Gray Davis' wagon."

Villaraigosa intended to run for L.A. mayor and wanted to ingratiate himself to the popular new governor. But besides that, a term-limited speaker doesn't have time to accumulate the power needed to compete with a governor. He could throw verbal jabs--as veteran Senate leader John Burton does--but that's not Villaraigosa's style.

"I've learned after a lifetime of scraping on the streets of the Eastside that you get a lot more with honey than with vinegar," he says. "As a kid, I learned you don't talk about fighting somebody. If you're gonna fight, you just punch 'em in the nose. I'm not afraid to take on Gray Davis. I just think you get more trying to work with him. Rather than hitting him in the nose in public, I've just said, 'I've got to have it.' And I got it."

Villaraigosa got two big bond issues--$9.2 billion for schools and $2.1 billion for parks, both approved by voters and oriented toward urban areas. He also won enactment of a Healthy Families Program to provide medical care for children of the working poor. And he delivered millions in pork for L.A.

He was a good caretaker who, given the constraints of term limits, also was a pretty good speaker. Unfortunately, we'll never know how good he could have been.

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