SACRAMENTO — As state Sen. Martha Escutia has risen from the back bench to the Legislature's leadership, her husband has made millions representing politicians and enterprises whose interests often intersect with her duties.
A Georgetown-educated attorney who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, Escutia (D-Whittier) is a leading candidate to succeed John Burton as Senate president pro tem, among the most powerful jobs in California government.
As Escutia has ascended, her husband, Leo Briones, a former El Paso television journalist turned political consultant, has gained an ever more prestigious clientele of legislative candidates, initiative campaigns, corporations and public agencies.
And though the couple say they keep their professional dealings separate, Briones could be in a position to garner more business if Escutia becomes Senate leader when Burton's term expires this year.
The post's responsibilities include overseeing campaigns to ensure Democratic control of the Senate.
As it is, Escutia regularly endorses Briones' clients. And by design or not, causes and candidates endorsed by Escutia often retain Briones.
Escutia's legislative salary is $99,000 a year. Briones' firm, Centaur North Strategic Communications, has billed clients for more than $3.4 million since 1997, the year Escutia began disclosing some of his clients in her required annual statements of economic interest filed with the state.
Briones and Escutia dismiss any suggestion that they coordinate their efforts. They say an agreement by Briones to work on a campaign does not ensure Escutia's endorsement. Nor does Escutia's endorsement come with a suggestion to retain Briones.
"Do I get him jobs? The answer is no," Escutia said, insisting, as her husband does, that Briones is capable of landing clients without her help. "I know there is a lot of cynicism about politicians," she said, "but I don't operate this way.''
In an interview in her Capitol office, Escutia said that she and Briones rarely discuss one another's work. They don't have time, given their work schedules, her weekly commutes between L.A. and Sacramento, and their role as parents, she said.
"Do you think I go home and ask my husband, 'How many clients did you land today?' Absolutely not," Escutia said.
"We just don't have time to talk about that."
Escutia and Briones are not unique. Other lawmakers have family involved in campaign work. State Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), widely regarded as Escutia's chief rival in the leadership contest, himself does both business and political consulting.
But Escutia and Briones at times give the appearance of working as a team.
Escutia, senior member of the Legislature's 24-member Latino Caucus, regularly taps her donors to help fund Latinos seeking legislative seats. Many candidates endorsed by the Latino Caucus hire Briones to run some or all of their campaigns.
And the caucus itself also hired Briones. Latino legislators are crusading to allow some illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses, and few Democrats have been more adamant about the issue than Escutia. Briones is involved too; he held a Capitol news conference last month to announce poll results suggesting public support for such licensing.
Escutia and Briones have not always worked in lock-step with the Latino Caucus. Escutia tried to block the caucus from endorsing Assemblyman Manny Diaz (D-San Jose) in the Democratic primary for a Senate seat this year. She favored former Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist, who won.
Alquist hired Briones as her campaign manager, and has paid his firm $114,000 so far. Alquist did not respond to several phone calls about the arrangement.
Escutia explained her endorsement by saying she and Alquist became close when they were seatmates in the Assembly. "Elaine and I have known each other for years," Escutia said, adding that she endorsed Alquist before Diaz entered the race.
Briones and Escutia attribute their shared positions to a shared philosophy. Escutia called Briones a "very progressive man." Briones said his wife's "reputation speaks for itself."
"If people think she's willing to fight for her constituents no matter what special interests are taking her on, then people know the real Martha," he said. "If people think she has an ulterior purpose of helping my business, then people don't know the real Martha."
In addition to their roles in state politics, Escutia and Briones have appeared to work in concert in local campaigns -- notably in the 2001 effort by Sunlaw Energy Corp. to build a power plant in South Gate.
Escutia's endorsement of the Sunlaw project drew criticism, given her past environmentalist stands. She has sought state money to clean polluted urban lots, pushed health authorities to track the effects of pollutants on women and children, and carried a bill this year to reduce rail exhaust along the Alameda Corridor in her district, which stretches from Montebello and Whittier to Norwalk and South Gate.