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Man Of Contrasts

A Democrat, Bob Hertzberg is running on traditional GOP themes. Known for his hugs, he's also fierce and driven.

February 10, 2005|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

In public appearances and private conversations, Bob Hertzberg speaks of sweeping changes in the world economy and the need for Los Angeles to compete globally for jobs -- as if he were running for governor, not mayor.

"You've got to be aggressive. You've got to reach out internationally to bring businesses here," the Sherman Oaks attorney says. "It just requires leadership."

From his vantage point, that's the role of a big-city mayor today. Hertzberg says incumbent James K. Hahn lacks the vision to be that kind of mayor.

"Jim Hahn has been on the government payroll since Jerry Ford was president," says Hertzberg, 50. "He doesn't get it. The world has changed."

Through energy, fundraising prowess and a substantial Rolodex, Hertzberg is determined to deprive Hahn of a second term.

The aggressive wielding of power is nothing new to Hertzberg. Driven and ambitious, he climbed to the legislative pinnacle in Sacramento -- the Assembly speakership -- in 2000 only to be forced out of the lower house by term limits two years later. He parlayed his connections into a $1-million-a-year law practice in downtown Los Angeles.

Throughout his political career, the gregarious Hertzberg has been known for dispensing bearlike hugs, earning him the nickname "Huggy Bear."

But beneath that outgoing persona, Hertzberg is fierce and calculating. He sued his own father. He went to court to cut his child support payments as he geared up to run for mayor.

He is campaigning as a contradiction. He is a Democrat running on traditionally Republican themes: He opposes new taxes and wants to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is an insider, trying to capture the outsider's elixir that propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship in 2003.

Hertzberg says he is drawn to the challenge of running America's second-largest city. "I'm not doing this because I want my picture in the newspaper," he says. "I'm doing it to really try to make this place work."

Others suggest that, his career blunted in Sacramento, Los Angeles was the logical next stop. "He eats, breathes, sleeps, drinks politics," says a close associate in Sacramento.


A Los Angeles Native

Robert M. Hertzberg was born at Temple Hospital in downtown Los Angeles, the third of five sons of Harrison and Antoinette "Bunny" Hertzberg. Harrison was a constitutional lawyer. The Hertzbergs had moved to Southern California in June 1949 after the future politician's grandfather George Hertzberg came west from Racine, Wis., for treatment of tuberculosis.

After Bob was born, the family moved to a new home in Benedict Canyon, and he attended Warner Avenue Elementary School near UCLA.

But his oldest brother, Lyle, had cerebral palsy. As Hertzberg tells it, Lyle wasn't allowed to attend public school in Los Angeles. The family had a small vacation home in Palm Springs, where the local school district was willing to accept Lyle. So they moved to the desert.

Hertzberg's political inclinations surfaced at Palm Springs High, where he ran for junior class president and won. The next year, he was senior class president.

Harrison was a major influence on his middle son, the only one who would follow his father into law. "My dad was a lawyer's lawyer," Hertzberg recalls. "He was always reading books on the founding fathers and constitutional principles.... He loved books and I love books."

More than that, Hertzberg says, his father "tried to toughen us all up." He would demand answers to problems. "Fix it, don't give me excuses," Hertzberg remembers his father saying. "Don't tell me you can't make it work. Figure it out!"

Hertzberg attended the University of Redlands, where he studied history and English and deepened his love of politics.

His father had dabbled in politics, and in 1973 gave his son tickets to a Beverly Hills fundraiser for Mervyn Dymally, the first African American elected to the state Senate. The keynote speaker was former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Hertzberg says he was mesmerized by the speech, particularly when Humphrey spoke of the importance of public service.

Hertzberg's interest in California politics was honed in 1974 when he had a front-row seat -- literally -- to Dymally's successful race for lieutenant governor. Hertzberg, then 19, drove the candidate the length and breadth of the state in a black Lincoln Continental.

"It was so much fun," Hertzberg recalls.

After graduating from Redlands, he entered the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He and his father later formed the L.A. law office of Hertzberg & Hertzberg.

Harrison Hertzberg handled an array of cases, many of which established historic rights in fields as diverse as women's rights and acupuncture. But one of his biggest victories came in December 1982 when his client, the Barona Band of Mission Indians, won a legal battle to offer bingo on tribal land northeast of San Diego.

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