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Political Middle Ground Is Fertile for Pair

May 11, 2003|Eric Bailey and Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — These are lonely times in the capital's political middle. So it was that Keith Richman and Joe Canciamilla, assemblymen from opposing parties and opposite ends of the state, found each other.

Now this unlikely duo, their friendship forged out of frustration with what they see as Sacramento's stubborn partisanship and gridlocked governance, are taking aim at the state's daunting budget mess.

Canciamilla, a Democrat from the Bay Area city of Pittsburg, and Northridge Republican Richman are pushing for that rarest of events: timely, bipartisan approval of the state's spending plan.

Starting in January, they pulled together a few like-minded Republican and Democratic colleagues, meeting weekly to talk over the nuts and bolts of the budget in a cooperative attempt to close the state's $35-billion shortfall.

In a town where toeing the party line and deferring to political leaders is de rigueur, the mavericks risked being branded as traitors and targeted come election time.

Republicans, dominated by the party's conservative wing, worried that the moderate Richman might do the unthinkable -- support a tax increase. Democrats, led by liberals, grumbled that middle-of-the-roader Canciamilla was legitimizing the GOP's hard-line calls for spending cuts.

"We're viewed with suspicion from both sides," Canciamilla said. Richman said: "Initially there was some mistrust."

As it has turned out, the Assembly's Republican and Democratic leaders have embraced the pair's freelance efforts -- at least publicly. Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) views the cross-party conversation as "possibly an invaluable resource at the end of the day. The mind-set behind this was to get more people engaged in the budget earlier, and they have definitely accomplished that."

In some ways, the two men leading this rebellion of the moderates seem oddball allies.

Richman, 49, is a physician from an affluent San Fernando Valley community and a political novice, though he did win the mayoral nod in the failed Valley secession vote.

Canciamilla, 48, is a lawyer and career politician -- most recently a county supervisor. He is from a blue-collar town where his family owns a mortuary.

With thick, graying hair swept back, Richman projects a country club style. Canciamilla comes off as quieter, wears a bracelet of Buddhist meditation beads and shocked his Assembly colleagues two years back by returning from a Hawaii vacation with his hair dyed blond. Richman was an all-conference baseball pitcher with a nasty slider, while the bespectacled Canciamilla is more wonk than jock.

But both boast resumes of high achievement early in life. Canciamilla landed a seat on the local school board at age 17; Richman earned admission to UCLA's medical school during his junior year in college.

Unafraid of Dissent

Colleagues use similar terms to describe them -- bright, studious, thoughtful and committed. Neither shies away from voicing dissenting views. Both tend to be perfectionists. When they traveled at spring break to vacation three blocks apart at Poipu beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Canciamilla carted along a stack of budget material, "much to my wife's chagrin," to wade through with Richman.

They arrived in the Assembly at the same time -- January 2001. And both quickly ran aground on a common frustration: the wide partisan gulf and the Legislature's seeming inability to get tough business done. Canciamilla says the Assembly is "less deliberative than the Pittsburg school board."

Both men cited three reasons. Stricter campaign fund-raising rules, they said, make legislators more beholden to party leaders and less independent. Redistricting has created safe harbors for each party, pushing Republicans further right and Democrats further left as candidates strive to prove their ideological purity in pivotal primary elections. Finally, term limits have created a perpetual election season, prompting legislators eyeing their next step up the ladder to aim for quick victories instead of tackling more complex, politically risky problems.

"We shared similar frustrations with the place," Canciamilla said. "It just seemed a natural fit. It's hard to find people here who you mesh with, because a lot of your colleagues will view you as a potential competitor at some level or another."

But it has been this year's budget fight that truly unleashed their compatibility.

In a typical year, the party in power -- for more than a quarter of a century, the Democrats -- conducts a war of attrition, waiting out foes and picking off stray members of the opposing party to reach the two-thirds majority threshold for approval of a spending plan. A select few leaders handle negotiations, and the final assent by members usually occurs in chaotic fashion well beyond the constitutional deadline.

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