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Lobbyist Threatens Legislators Before Vote

The Assembly weighs curbs, saying the incident involving a Democratic campaign advisor and UFW advocate shows special interests are out of control.

June 07, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A lobbyist and Democratic political advisor threatened political retaliation Thursday against two members of the Assembly before a key vote on a bill backed by his client, the United Farm Workers.

The incident, an unusually public instance of a lobbyist lashing out at legislators, angered members of the Assembly who debated it in closed session and buzzed afterward with indignation. Some even proposed legislation to curb the lobbyist's influence and warned that they will hold Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) responsible for taking action against him.

Richie Ross, who runs the campaigns of many Democrats, cursed and threatened the chief of staffs to Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete-McLeod (D-Chino) and Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Davis) when they refused to vote for a UFW-sponsored bill, according to legislators and staff. Ross told Wolk's aide that if she insisted on language limiting the scope of his bill, he would retaliate by having his supporters back similar measures in all of her bills.

"There was a confrontation ... between the chief of staff of one of the members where he was subjected to a number of epithets and a threat because of the vote," said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg).

The incident so upset Negrete-McLeod that she called an immediate meeting of Assembly Democrats, briefly stalling the Assembly's work to move bills to the Senate before a Friday deadline. At the meeting, according to five separate accounts from legislators and staff, many members complained that Ross and other lobbyists have become inappropriately aggressive in demanding support from elected officials.

Interviewed Friday, Ross acknowledged the confrontation but said it was not serious.

"I lost my temper when people we thought would have been with us weren't," Ross said. "OK, I'm guilty. Crime of passion."

But many Democrats were so angry, according to several sources, that they discussed withdrawing their support for AB 923 by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles). That bill would revoke about $80 million in agricultural tax breaks and use the savings to extend health insurance to some farm workers. It passed 41 to 33 after lengthy debate and without a vote to spare. It will be considered next by the Senate. Gov. Gray Davis has not announced a position on the bill.

Legislators angered by Ross' outburst also debated other ways of responding, according to officials who attended the Thursday caucus meeting. One option, they said, was to draft legislation that would ban political advisors to candidates from lobbying those members after they are elected.

Ross is a registered lobbyist, representing the UFW, the trial lawyers association, a restaurant employees union and several Indian tribes.

He is also the political advisor for many Democrats in the Assembly, including Appropriations Committee Chairman Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, Budget Committee Chairwoman Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach, Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles and Sally Lieber of Mountain View.

Some members said such an arrangement gives Ross unusual ability to sway legislators in favor of his lobbying clients.

Several members also said that the incident crystallized frustrations with Wesson, which have mounted in recent days as talks over the state budget have stalled. They questioned why Ross had such easy access to the speaker's office.

Wesson spokeswoman Patricia Soto said he would not comment on the incident and caucus meeting.

But several sources said Wesson told Assembly Democrats that he would investigate and rebuke Ross.

During the confrontation, Ross demanded support for the farm worker legislation and was particularly angered that Wolk insisted that she would support it only if it included a "sunset" provision under which a proposed sales tax exemption for farmers would expire in a few years.

Ross told Wolk's chief of staff that if she inserted such language in the bill, he would retaliate by seeing to it that every one of her bills included similar language.

"I told her chief of staff I was going to get her a subscription to Sunset magazine, and if she was so enamored with sunsets she wouldn't object to people adding sunsets to her bills," Ross said.

Wolk said she voted against AB 923 because it did not include a sunset date.

Wolk refused to discuss the incident and caucus meeting except to say, "The speaker and caucus met and were taking these incidents very seriously."

Negrete-McLeod, who did not vote on the bill, could not be reached for comment. But her chief of staff, Don Wilcox, downplayed the confrontation.

"Richie and I have been friends for 10 years," he said. "We had a fight. He was passionate about his bill. I was passionate about defending my boss. We had words, as friends sometimes do."

"It was passionate, quick and in each other's face and then it was over," Wilcox said.

Canciamilla, however, said the incident is indicative of a growing problem for state legislators.

"The situation not just with Richie but with a lot of lobbyists and special interests has gotten way out of control," he said, citing unions and their representatives in particular.

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