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Ex-Boxer Nunez Stood Toe-to-Toe With Governor

August 01, 2004|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When he was in elementary school and 79 pounds, California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez started boxing at the Barrio Station community center in his San Diego neighborhood. It was good preparation for his current job.

"You very quickly have to find out what the weakness in the other fighter is," Nunez said. "There is always something that they don't do well. So you find that weakness and you just exploit it."

He was speaking about the distant past, but it might as well have been about last week. Nunez caused some jaws to drop in the Horseshoe -- the semicircle of offices occupied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his acolytes -- when he publicly chastised the governor for being a "bully" and, speaking about the issue of state budget negotiations, said the governor "didn't know how to deal with the crisis."

The governor has ridiculed the Legislature in public forums but has refrained from mentioning Nunez personally -- although sources close to Schwarzenegger said he was livid at the speaker's questioning of his leadership.

The conflict may not be their last: Both men entered elective politics at about the same time, and they will probably be bound together as respective leaders until Nunez leaves office in 2008, assuming Schwarzenegger is reelected in two years and Nunez is not deposed by the vagaries of Assembly politics.

Nunez now says his criticism of Schwarzenegger, in comments to The Times, were made when he was "feeling emotional." But the 37-year-old first-term lawmaker isn't backing off. He thinks the way the Republican governor belittled the Legislature, calling lawmakers "girlie men" and children who needed a time out or risked being "terminated" at the polls, needed to be addressed.

"My message to the governor is, look, I'm going to treat him with respect but the Democrats are going to be respected," Nunez said.

Those who knew Nunez when he worked as a Los Angeles labor activist said they weren't surprised by his reaction.

"He's been shoved on picket lines," said Miguel Contreras, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who hired Nunez as his political director. "And so the idea of someone calling him a girlie man doesn't faze him. He's not someone who gets his ideas from reading scripts. He gets it from real life."

Nunez once watched his father, a gardener, face a humiliating diatribe from a customer whose tree he was trimming, and was ashamed that his father did not confront the man. Later that day, his father told him that sometimes you have to keep quiet so that others can fight.

During the heat of the budget negotiations, Nunez received a variety of e-mail messages telling him to "go back to Mexico" and to stop challenging Schwarzenegger. "It's like if you throw a punch, expect somebody to throw back in your direction," Nunez said.

Republicans, pointing to the November elections, when a handful of Assembly seats will feature fierce competition between Democrats and Republicans, say he fumbled by speaking against the popular governor.

"It showed a real petulance and a real immaturity on his part," said Dan Schnur, a GOP political consultant. "He might have felt better after venting, but he was not serving his caucus or his cause very well. If I were a member of the Democratic Assembly caucus, I would be very worried about whether I was being adequately represented."

Some Democrats said they were pleased by the way budget talks went.

"If you think about it," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), "the fact that [Nunez] is in his second year in the Legislature, is in his first year as speaker, and with a very popular governor and difficult budget situation, he did a masterful job of negotiating in a way that was fair."

At the Saturday budget signing, Nunez was not among the legislative leaders present. The speaker said he did not receive an invitation, but the governor's office insisted he did.

In six months as leader of the 80-member Assembly, Nunez's chief job has been to try to bring some sense of order to a body dominated by Democrats but populated by a jumble of groups, including liberals like Nunez, moderates and hard-right Republicans.

An aide in the state Senate likes to call the Assembly "the acute ward," because the partisan fights in the Assembly always seem to be nastier and longer than those in the Senate. Nunez has tried to bring decorum to his house, but the result has been more Don Rickles than Emily Post.

When he started insisting that legislators refer to themselves each as the "gentleman" or "the good lawmaker" from such-and-such district, they began saying things such as: "The man from San Diego County with the obnoxious tie" and "The lovely lady from Santa Barbara with the shock of white hair on her forehead."

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