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Assemblyman Is Ill, but His Work Continues

A brain tumor has put rising star Mike Gordon out of action. But colleagues have guided 14 of his bills to the Senate for a vote.

June 14, 2005|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When former El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon arrived in the Assembly in December, some of his fellow Democrats tagged him as a future leader, saying he had the smarts and political acumen to become speaker one day.

Gordon charged out of the gate in January with a batch of bills, many relating to his coastal district that stretches from Venice to Torrance. But serious illness sidelined him two months into his first term, and it is not clear when or if Gordon will return to the Legislature.

Doctors discovered a brain tumor in mid-February after Gordon complained of exhaustion and illness. He has missed work since then to undergo radiation treatment and recuperate. His staff and family -- he has four children -- have been protective of his privacy, releasing few details about his ailment, condition or prospects.

They have not disclosed, for example, whether the tumor is operable or malignant. His office sends out news releases touting his bills with no hint that he is not on the job in Sacramento.

The most recent update on Gordon's medical condition was released in April. It stated that procedures to remove pressure from the tumor were successful and that Gordon was undergoing physical therapy because he was having difficulty walking and keeping his balance.

Last week, Gordon's legislative director, Janelle Beland, said a first round of radiation was "reasonably successful, so they're proceeding with another round of treatment."

Other lawmakers have stepped forward to shepherd Gordon's bills. As a result, he has racked up a decent track record by proxy: Fourteen of the 22 bills he introduced have cleared the Assembly and now face votes in the state Senate.

One bill would require banks and credit unions to teach their employees how to spot and report financial abuse of the elderly. Another would dedicate a shoreline mile of Dockweiler State Beach to leash-free dogs. A third would attempt to prevent the proliferation of area codes by setting rules on how many unassigned phone numbers telephone companies can possess at one time.

"The members have been really great about offering to help and keep things moving," Beland said.

As a former Assembly staffer himself and former executive director of the California Democratic Party, Gordon was familiar with the sometimes arcane workings of the Legislature and "ready to go" with bills within weeks of his November election.

"He didn't get here and try to figure it out," Beland said.

A founder of the telemarketing company Gordon and Schwenkmeyer Inc., Gordon, 47, was elected to the El Segundo City Council in 1996 and served as mayor from 1998 through April 2004. In November he defeated Redondo Beach Mayor Greg Hill for the Assembly seat, 51% to 42%.

Gordon's absence did not make or break any legislation as the Assembly rushed to meet a June 3 deadline to send its bills to the Senate. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Assembly 48 to 32 -- enough of a buffer that his vote wasn't crucial.

"It hasn't been a major issue," Assembly Majority Floor Leader Dario Frommer (D-Glendale) said, adding that his caucus was "really hopeful" that Gordon would return soon.

Two Republicans have filed papers to challenge Gordon in 2006: Hill, his previous opponent, and Paul Nowatka, a retired Torrance police lieutenant and Torrance city councilman.

Regardless of Gordon's health, Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum said, Republican challengers would be lining up a year before the election because the 53rd Assembly District is fairly competitive and candidates need to raise money. Voter registration in the district is 41% Democratic, 35% Republican and 20% decline to state.

"There's no reason why the Republicans shouldn't move forward," Hoffenblum said.

Democrats were prepared to back Torrance City Councilman Ted Lieu, a vice president at the financial services firm UBS, if Gordon resigned and the governor called a special election to replace him, Hoffenblum said.

Lieu, who calls Gordon a dear friend and serves as his Assembly campaign chairman, said he was praying for Gordon and his family while others positioned themselves to run.

"Thanks to modern medicine and prayer," Lieu wrote in an e-mail, "people do bounce back, and Mike's the kind of fighter that I believe will recover."

Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza (D-Carson), who endured six months of surgery and chemotherapy for a liver tumor and was recently declared cancer-free, said there was no reason for Gordon to resign. She missed 24 workdays during her treatment.

Gordon has an experienced staff to help his South Bay constituents, she said, and lawmakers in Sacramento were pleased to guide his legislation.

"I know, because we're next door to each other, that his staff does a great job of being at the places they need to be to represent him," Oropeza said.

She said her experience with cancer changed her as a person and a lawmaker, and Gordon might expect the same.

"We don't know how this will affect his legislative agenda or how he views his job," Oropeza said. "For me, it changed my life. I got a lot of gifts out of having this disease -- understanding illness and a huge appreciation for nurses. They really are the healers.

"It also helped me to focus more on environmental issues that may impact our health," she said.

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