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The Price of Power Politics

The best candidate to succeed John Burton as state Senate leader probably won't win.

August 24, 2004

The state Senate enters a new era today with the election of a leader to succeed grizzled veteran John Burton (D-San Francisco), who is serving his final days in the Legislature and as Senate leader before he is forced to leave by term limits.

GOP leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, who also is termed out this year, was right when he told The Times' Jordan Rau, "When he leaves, a void will occur that will not easily be filled."

There are candidates who could do a pretty good job. Unfortunately the one most likely to be successful as Senate president pro tem, the rough equivalent of Assembly speaker, is least likely to win. That would be Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), the underdog in a three-way race with Sens. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and Don Perata (D-Oakland).

Kuehl has the experience, judgment and good humor to be an effective leader. She learned to be the consummate presiding officer while running the raucous 80-member lower house as Assembly speaker pro tem, the backup for the speaker, before her election to the Senate. The reason she is not the odds-on favorite, although no one will say it, is some combination of her being lesbian and her less-aggressive political fundraising. Both Escutia and Perata are top fundraisers who lend help to colleagues in return for political support.

That's part of the problem.

Escutia is under an ethical cloud because of the activities of her campaign-consultant husband. Coincidentally or not, his contacts appeared to accrue to Escutia's political benefit, including her ability to raise funds from corporate and other sources. She claimed that the two never talked about what each was doing professionally. It must be a quiet marriage.

Perata has a reputation as a bit of a bully in fundraising, extracting the maximum in pledges of support from those whose campaigns he aids. He too has run into campaign finance violations.

Kuehl is no wallflower at fundraising, but she can't match her rivals.

All three are competent lawmakers. Escutia is a passionate liberal and has the backing of trial lawyers and strong support in the Legislature's Latino caucus. Perata may be a better broker and deal maker, which could make him more effective at working with minority Republicans and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Oddsmakers give him a slight edge over Escutia.

The problem is that the outcome rests on a sick system. Would-be leaders spend far too much time -- and must make too many promises -- in pursuit of enough campaign money to gain power.

Kuehl has showed steady commitment to solving the long-range problems of the state, even mastering the arcana of water politics. It's unfortunately not the kind of success that earns party support and positions of power in the Legislature.

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