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California and the West

Capitol Tunes In to Quackenbush Drama

Politics: The squirms and turns of each new episode in the case of the embattled insurance commissioner give scandal-deprived Sacramento the makings of a miniseries.

May 31, 2000|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Monicagate it's not. There is no stained dress, no secret tape recordings, no buxom intern.

But as political soap operas go, the Chuck Quackenbush Affair ain't half bad. And given the absence of a sexy policy war this spring, the insurance commissioner's travails have the capital abuzz at a voltage not seen in years.

"It's unbelievably good theater," says David Townsend, a political consultant who confesses he can't wait to open the paper each morning. "Just when you think it's dying down, another outrageous event is uncovered."

At the heart of the spectacle are some serious charges about misconduct that caused Northridge earthquake victims pain. An elected official's job is on the line. Public faith in politicians is, once again, shaken.

But the pure drama of it all--including whispers about impeachment, a possible office break-in, simmering political rivalries--is equally magnetic here in the Capitol bubble. As one legislative staffer says, "It sucks you in like an accident on the freeway. You know you shouldn't look, but you can't help it."

For those Californians who have been tuned to other channels, the basic plot line goes like this:

* Tall, handsome insurance commissioner is accused of misdeeds involving insurance companies that mishandled claims arising from Northridge earthquake.

* Lawmakers--smelling injustice and sensing great photo ops with quake victims--convene hearings, invite Quackenbush.

* Commissioner's wife, sounding eerily like Hillary Rodham Clinton, declares embattled husband the victim of a "concerted plot" to derail his political career.

* Media, deprived of a decent Capitol scandal for years, swarm story like flies on road kill.

Add some intriguing e-mails and a defense attorney nicknamed "Mad Dog" and you've got a miniseries worthy of sweeps week.

"Sacramento is a company town and the company is politics," says Doug Elmets, a public relations consultant. "So we thrive on this and the suspense of when the next shoe's gonna drop."

A few new shoes dropped last week, a wild stretch highlighted by Quackenbush's dramatic--is he thinking made-for-TV movie?--exit from a Senate hearing.

Declaring the session a "political ambush" and waving a printout of an old e-mail that he claims proves his point, the commissioner stomped out without answering a single question. Outside, his wife, Chris, faced the cameras and declared herself proud of what he had done.

The next day, Senate Sergeant at Arms Tony Beard Jr.--a former Hollywood stuntman--searched high and low for the commissioner, subpoena in hand. After an hour, he found his quarry in a closed-door meeting. Quackenbush was ready, and delivered his line with perfect timing: "You've got something for me," he told Beard.

As with any good miniseries, the characters in this one evolve. Take the guy in the lead role, the former Army helicopter pilot who is one of only two Republicans in statewide elected office in California.

When the revelations about the commissioner's dealings with insurers surfaced, Quackenbush initially said nothing. Then he appeared before a state Assembly hearing and acknowledged making errors of judgment. It was the "contain and cooperate" phase.

Recent episodes suggest a new approach, "the defiant mode." Observers suggest that the new Quackenbush--scrappy, outraged political victim--reflects Quackenbush's newly hired lawyer, Donald Heller.

Known fondly as "Mad Dog," Heller is a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme for the attempted assassination of former President Gerald R. Ford. He also defended a lobbyist in the capital's last political corruption scandal, the FBI sting that led to the convictions of 14 people, including several lawmakers.

It was Mad Dog who advised Quackenbush to march out of the Senate hearing. And the lawyer wasn't afraid to do a bit of barking as they left: "When people swim in glass toilet bowls," he warned, "they have to be prepared that someone's going to flush."

Though Quackenbush is clearly the star of this show, colorful bit players abound. In the Assembly, there's Jack Scott, the courtly chairman of the Insurance Committee investigating the commissioner's conduct. A former college president, Scott has a thick Texas drawl and dignified manner that evokes memories of the legendary Sen. Sam Ervin, who led the Senate's Watergate investigation.

Scott's counterpart in the Senate is Jackie Speier, a smart, stylish senator who favors bright suits and has a wilting stare. Seated on an elevated dais, peering down at her witnesses, Speier exudes supreme confidence in the righteousness of her inquiry. When Quackenbush called her hearing a political ambush, she was not pleased.

"I've been in an ambush, and I was almost killed," said Speier, referring to the 1978 Jonestown massacre, in which she was wounded. "This is a piece of cake in comparison."

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