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Perata scolds senators with lockout

The president pro tem punishes three Democrats for attending a caucus fundraiser.

March 13, 2007|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Don Perata, the Democratic leader of the California Senate, locked three Southern California legislators from his own party out of their Capitol offices Monday. Their perceived offense was that they had attended a fundraiser for the Legislature's business-friendly caucus despite Perata's objections.

The unusual punishment was part of a larger backstage battle over whether a new moderate bloc of Democrats will exert power in the traditionally more liberal upper house.

In the state Assembly, the moderate Democratic caucus routinely joins forces with Republicans to defeat bills opposed by industry. Bills that have been rejected or weakened by the caucus include ones giving the state more power to regulate toxic substances and allowing renters to withhold financial information from landlords.

In last year's election, three moderate Democrats migrated to the Senate. Political observers say the new members -- along with two conservative Democrats already in the Senate and a newcomer to the Legislature -- could become a decisive force for business. Democrats hold 25 seats in the 40-member chamber.

People close to Perata, an Oakland legislator whose official title is Senate president pro tem, said the senator thought he had made it clear that no Democrats should be part of any caucus that seeks to independently leverage votes as a bloc.

But on Thursday evening, three senators -- Ron Calderon of Montebello, Lou Correa of Santa Ana and Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino -- attended a fundraiser for the moderate caucus at The Kitchen, an upscale restaurant. The event, organized by Sacramento consultant David Townsend, raised $232,000 to help pay for the caucus staff that researches every Assembly bill and distributes the analysis to caucus members with recommendations on how to vote.

Perata ordered the locks on their doors changed before the three legislators returned from their districts Monday. "I kissed my kids goodbye, came up here and found myself locked out," Correa said in a brief interview.

Through lunchtime, a handwritten sign was posted on Calderon's office reading: "Closed, Please Call the District Office for Assistance." The other two offices were locked, but by midafternoon Perata had allowed all of them to be unlocked.

"As far as I'm concerned what happened with me and Perata is a misunderstanding," Calderon said in an interview. "I'm back in my office; my staff is back in the office."

He said he only attended the fundraiser as a show of support for Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford), the chairwoman of the New Democratic Caucus, as the moderate caucus is officially known. He said the moderate Democrats now in the Senate have never had any intention of coordinating their votes to augment their influence.

"There is no voting bloc" in the Senate "and there won't be," Calderon said. "I think there was some confusion about what transpired and some people were drawing conclusions."

Perata refused to discuss the quarrel. "If you know so much about who these people are and what they did, talk to them," he told reporters. "I choose not to talk about my members."

But the lockout was the talk of the Capitol all day, with Perata's detractors whispering that the Senate president had overreacted with a gratuitous display of power. More sympathetic voices said he was simply sending an unmistakable message to Townsend and the moderate Democrats that any effort to undermine his authority would be severely dealt with.

Parra, the caucus chairwoman, declined to discuss the spat. "It seems like a Senate internal issue," she said.

However, she volunteered that the relationship between the dozen Assembly members of the caucus and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) is strong. "There's nothing to hide from him."

jordan.rau@latimes.com

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