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Age Before Duty

Term limits are forcing the Legislature's four big veterans to end their careers. They'll take with them a command of issues and decorum.

June 08, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — This is the age of revolving-door democracy in California. It's the era of term limits and recalls and contempt for the Legislature, a time when an erstwhile action movie star can run the nation's largest state government and a freshman lawmaker can rule the Assembly.

Now another threshold looms for California politics: The last of the Legislature's big-time veterans, all four of them, are about to exit.

Forced out by term limits, they will depart with more than a century of cumulative experience in the Capitol. They will leave behind a crowd that is younger and less seasoned, with few links to the past.

Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Democrat from Santa Clara, hit town with a governor named Reagan. Republican colleague Ross Johnson of Irvine arrived in 1978 with Proposition 13. Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco brought his irascible liberalism to Sacramento in 1964, a few years before his current counterpart in the Assembly leadership was born. Byron Sher, a Democratic senator from Stanford, launched his nearly quarter-century in the Legislature the year Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in "Conan the Barbarian."

As they exit, the final verdict on term limits awaits.

There is no doubt that the law, which restricts senators to a pair of four-year terms and Assembly members to a trio of two-year stints, produced a statehouse more diverse in gender, ethnicity and professional background. The Legislature now looks "more like California," said Wayne Johnson, a GOP consultant and early participant in drafting the law. By limiting Capitol careers, he added, the state has blazed "a shorter path to real-time democracy."

But the plethora of forced evictions also produced two houses churning with greenhorns more captive to wily lobbyists and political consultants, said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political scientist. Lawmakers are more intent on raising funds for the next election and promoting quick-hit legislation than tackling daunting issues, Gerston argues.

"There's no institutional memory, no sense of collegiality, little understanding of the political process," he said.

Since voters approved the law in 1990, plenty of termed-out lawmakers have departed Sacramento with little fanfare, their absences hardly conspicuous. But there exists in the normally cynical statehouse a sense that something important will be lost with the looming exodus of the four big veterans.

Over the years, Sher, 76, developed a command of environmental issues. The iconoclastic Vasconcellos, known for his quirky 1980s self-esteem crusade lampooned in the comic strip "Doonesbury," became a whiz on the budget and education. Ross Johnson served long stints as Republican leader in both houses, bringing a flushed sincerity to his impassioned floor jousts with the Capitol's liberal majority.

The 71-year-old Burton, the pugnacious and frequently profane president pro tempore of the Senate, is probably the last of his kind. He served three decades in one elected office or another before winning the Senate's top post in 1998. Compare that to today's Assembly, which in February named 37-year-old freshman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) as speaker.

Burton's departure in particular is expected to throw more power to Schwarzenegger, who has proved masterful at getting his way since October's historic recall.

"I think the Legislature is at a bit of a disadvantage," said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political science professor. "The successors to people like John Burton aren't even in the same league as Schwarzenegger."

Though the four veterans will go out amid toasts and fetes, their tenures have rarely been tranquil in recent years. With the rest of the Legislature, they each supported electrical deregulation, a decision that helped usher in the power crisis. The three Democrats showed little spending restraint during California's go-go late 1990s, as the dot-com boom poured tax dollars into the state's coffers.

When the bust came, they produced no bold ideas to solve the state's fiscal dilemma, said Tony Quinn, a political commentator and former Republican legislative staffer.

"Even though they've been around a long time, none of them have shown any particular insight into how to get us out of these problems," he said.

Each has a straight shooter's reputation and has mostly avoided serious political scandal, though Burton has had his knuckles rapped on occasion.

In 2001, the Senate leader acknowledged news reports that he received shares of a Wisconsin casino in exchange for political advice. Burton, who helped open up California to Indian gaming, gave the stock back.

A year earlier, he outraged campaign finance reformers by supporting Proposition 34, considered by foes a political trick meant to block stricter spending controls.

Burton helped quietly put the measure on the ballot during the waning hours of the legislative session, then kept foes like the League of Women Voters from writing the ballot argument against it.

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