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California and the West | Capitol Journal

New Speaker Is Off to Fast Start With Schools Deal

May 22, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The news clips say Bob Hertzberg was sworn in as Assembly speaker April 13. But ask Hertzberg and he'll tell you he really didn't become speaker until May 9. That's the day he pulled together the biggest deal of the year in the Capitol.

It's the day the Sherman Oaks Democrat first felt the power of the office--and passed a leadership test he easily could have avoided without anybody noticing.

It may have been indicative of a speakership style Sacramento has not seen for a long while--a political natural who moves comfortably among the powerful and relishes the action, somebody raised in public policy activism and schooled in precinct combat. An old pro at 45, after only 3 1/2 years in elective office.

He's somebody who can relate to the Capitol's indigenous, No. 1 old pro, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), an acerbic veteran of nearly 30 years in the Legislature and Congress.

What Hertzberg achieved on May 9--with Burton's indispensable help at the end--was to sign up Gov. Gray Davis, the California Teachers Assn. and the legislative leadership on a $1.84-billion boost for schools.

This is not just an ordinary spending bump. This is extra money now that will become part of the schools' permanent, yearly entitlement. It's also a done deal, unlike all the other ballyhooed budget proposals that have yet to be negotiated.

But the larger significance for Capitol insiders--and Hertzberg's motivation--was political. In exchange for the new school money, the CTA agreed to dump its November ballot initiative that would have played havoc with Democratic legislative candidates. The CTA measure would have required California to raise per-pupil spending to the national average and forced a tax increase.

Democratic lawmakers would have felt obliged to endorse the initiative because the CTA is a financial angel. Republican campaign opponents then could have accused them of endorsing a tax hike.

"We had this train wreck coming down the line," Hertzberg says. "It could have cost Democrats seats. I couldn't let that happen."

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The new speaker started calling Friday night, May 5. First to staffers, then to Burton, Davis and the CTA on Saturday. And everybody again on Sunday. Davis gave Hertzberg the license to broker a deal.

On Monday--one day before the CTA was to turn in enough signatures to qualify its initiative--8,000 teachers rallied for more money at the Capitol. Afterward, Hertzberg and CTA officials met with the governor.

Davis started at $1.25 billion; the CTA $3 billion. Their relations had been strained by past feuding. But both had an incentive to settle. The CTA measure would hinder the union's all-out fight against a voucher initiative--and also the governor's sponsorship of a ballot proposal to lower the vote requirement for local school bond issues.

"It would have looked to the voters like too much in one fell swoop," says Garry South, Davis' political advisor.

Still, the sides couldn't agree. Talks broke down. Hertzberg wouldn't let it go, however. He called Burton. Burton called CTA officials and asked them to meet in his office Tuesday morning, May 9.

There, Hertzberg offered the $1.84 billion he knew Davis would accept. And Burton closed the deal.

How? "He guaranteed it," recalls CTA President Wayne Johnson. "He said, 'If people don't live up to this, they'll rue the day'--in a little more colorful language."

Quips Burton: "Bob pitched 8 2/3 innings. Then with the bases loaded, a 3-0 count, they called me in and I struck out the batter on three pitches.

"But there wouldn't have been anything for me to do if not for Hertzberg."

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Unlike Hertzberg's predecessor, Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, the new speaker says he enjoys and relates to Burton, 67. Villaraigosa often talked about having "to pop [Burton] in the nose a couple of times."

"My old man was sort of an old school guy and all his buds were old school, and that's why I relate so well to Burton. I totally get him," says Hertzberg. His late father, Harrison Hertzberg, was a prominent West L.A. constitutional lawyer who used the courtroom to change public policy. "They're the same kind of guys. Speak the same language--the same four-letter words."

Just as Hertzberg was telling me this on May 9, Burton walked in to report that the CTA negotiators were headed to his Senate office. Final strategy was discussed.

Later, the speaker remarked: "They changed the sign on the office door April 13, but I'll always think of May 9 as the day I earned my stripes."

A fast start for a new leader.

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