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'Mod Squad' of Democrats Reins In Assembly Liberals

June 09, 2004|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In the Assembly, it was known as the "Where's Waldo?" bill. Like the children's book about a young man hidden in plain sight, it would have provided California regulators new tools to uncover toxic chemicals hiding in dirt, blood, air, water and breast milk.

But Waldo is dead. Its demise is being attributed to a group of business-friendly Democrats -- collectively known as the Mod Squad for their moderate political views -- who thought the bill's requirements were too costly for industry.

Before the election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Mod Squad was a disorganized, powerless group of middle-of-the-road lawmakers -- ideological floaters in a Legislature dominated by liberal Democrats. But now they're growing in influence and exercising clout on the Assembly floor by helping kill legislation.

"The more liberal members -- progressives, as they like to call themselves -- were used to running the show, including pushing Gray Davis around," said Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant who analyzes state races.

"Now, not only do they have to deal with Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who is in no way beholden to them -- his election also has emboldened the moderate Democrats."

The Assembly Moderate Caucus has 18 lawmakers out of 48 Democrats in the 80-member lower house, but they usually can count on about 10 to regularly push an agenda focused on the economy and business. Because nearly every bill needs 41 votes to pass, the caucus can effectively sabotage any legislation -- if members are united.

They frequently are not, but the caucus is increasingly asserting itself in high-profile ways. Its members have met as a group with Schwarzenegger, an occasional ally on business issues, and they have been more vocal during debates this session. And the group distributed a first-ever "action alert" listing a dozen bills it wanted killed. The list, which included the toxics legislation, was printed in red ink and distributed only to the Mod Squad.

By the end of the week, seven of the 12 action alert bills had been killed or stalled in committee. The toxics bill died without a vote on the Assembly floor because the bill's author knew she didn't have enough support.

"The Mod Squad put it on the top of their hit list," said Jane Williams with California Communities Against Toxics.

The fact that Democrats had been working to kill other Democrats' bills caused a furor and prompted a closed-door meeting of all party members. The meeting ended without a resolution, except that it became clear the moderates were willing to openly challenge Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.

"The point was: If you are going to work against your colleagues' bill on the floor, you should at least tell them," said one liberal lawmaker. "People were very insulted that there was this secret document."

Monday night, nine members of the caucus gathered at the Firehouse restaurant in the Gold Rush-era section of Sacramento and began plotting strategy for the rest of the year.

Part of their discussion, sources said, involved requiring a litmus test for members to make sure that they are, in fact, business-friendly moderates -- and reliable votes for the caucus -- and not just using their caucus membership to appeal to voters back home.

The Moderate Caucus meets behind closed doors once a month -- sometimes every day when a crucial legislative deadline is approaching -- and comes to a consensus on liberal Democrats' bills it wants to kill or water down with amendments. The weapon of choice is withholding a vote -- politically benign enough that the Mod Squad member is officially neither a supporter nor an opponent.

The Assembly has balkanized into a variety of groups that meet to strategize about legislation or just socialize. Some are powerful, such as the Latino Caucus, and others less so. There is a caucus for lawmakers from rural districts, for women, for Asians, and for African American lawmakers. There is a caucus for liberals, called the Study Group, and even one for Assembly members advancing "smart growth" policies for cities and counties.

The Moderate Caucus evolved from a campaign finance committee started in 1998 by then-Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, who wanted to find a way to raise campaign money from corporations that traditionally gave only to Republicans.

The group's new chairman, Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg, whose working-class district sits on the eastern edges of the Bay Area, said the caucus was like any other Democratic group: It's advancing a set of beliefs. He said the action alert was a sort of coming out.

"The only difference was this time, instead of hiding in the shadows, we went out there and in a more direct way kind of staked out our territory and took positions on bills," he said.

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