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Give Nunez his due

April 17, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — All these Democratic Assembly speakers in the post-Willie Brown era of term limits seem to pass through the state Capitol in a blur. Bustamante, Villaraigosa, Hertzberg, Wesson, Nunez. Next up: Bass.

Six speakers in 11 1/2 years.

But Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles is unique among that group: He has held the powerful post for four years-plus, making him practically a grizzled veteran.

That means, compared to the others, Nunez has had much more time to rack up achievements -- and more time to mess up. He has done both, although his successes have outnumbered his stumbles.

Let's get right to the point in grading Nunez's tenure: He was always trying and often triumphing. The failures -- notably luxuriating in his bulging political bankroll -- were mostly detrimental to himself, not to the public.

On public policy, he was focused, not scatterbrained -- an occasional affliction of political leadership. He didn't hide in his office, as some timid leaders have. He was readily accessible to reporters. He took risks. And not to be underestimated: He exuded a positive personality -- civil and cheerful.

Nunez, still only 41, plans to step down as speaker May 12 and be replaced by another L.A. Democrat, Karen Bass, 54. She'll be allowed roughly two years on the job before being booted by term limits at the end of 2010.

The original plan was for Nunez to hang on as speaker until the current session ends around Labor Day. After that, he'll be termed out. But Bass was his candidate, and he felt good about turning the job over to her. Anyway, he says, she should be in full charge of the Assembly election campaigns in November.

"The power of the speaker doesn't just come from what you do in here," Nunez told me, sitting on a leather couch in his 19th century, high-ceilinged office just off the Assembly chamber. "It also comes from your ability to influence the outcome of elections. People don't respect a Democratic leader who can't influence what happens in political races."

"This has been an incredible ride, the best experience of my life. You never could dream this stuff. But I also know that when it's time to go, it's time to go."

Where's he going? Probably into the private sector for a while to make big bucks. But for 2010, Nunez is eyeing a race for state insurance commissioner -- Republican incumbent Steve Poizner is planning to run for governor -- or for the state Senate seat of termed-out Democrat Gil Cedillo.

"My wife might say to me, 'Get out and stay out,' " he says. "Just the fact I got to do this job, I could die and go to heaven and be happy."

Nunez's tenure as speaker has been like Arnold Schwarzenegger's as governor: constantly changing with ups and downs. In fact, their fates largely have been tied together.

The two didn't get along at all during Nunez's first year as speaker in 2004. Schwarzenegger and then-Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) "negotiated a budget around me," Nunez recalls. "I blew it up and went to John. I was being 'John' around John. I started yelling" and using obscenities. The speaker fought for higher education, school jobs and local government money. "I got everything I wanted.

"But the governor didn't like me, I could tell. He vetoed all my bills that year."

The next year, Nunez continues, "I took John's advice. He said, 'Just get along with the guy.' I got to know him on a personal level, and he's a nice guy."

Regardless, Nunez became one of the loudest critics of Schwarzenegger's 2005 "reform" agenda and tried to talk the governor into canceling his special election. After the governor's ballot measures were pummeled by voters and his popularity plummeted, he and the speaker -- and Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) -- united for purposes of mutually beneficial politics: 2006 was an election year and they all needed some achievements to show voters.

That has been the best year for all three of them.

Nunez proved to be tough-minded, tenacious and politically astute. He became the lead author of successful bills to cap the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, create a discount prescription drug plan for the uninsured and clear the way for telephone companies to offer TV services. He also was the lead author of bond measures to finance school construction and flood control. And he and Schwarzenegger negotiated a minimum wage hike to $8 per hour.

Nunez is most proud of the global warming bill.

"Where I grew up, I was three blocks away from the bay" in San Diego, he says, "and my view wasn't of the bay. It was of the smokestacks of the shipbuilding company. I was surrounded by pollution and junkyards. Now, as an adult, being able to pass legislation that is going to protect our environment. . . .

"I didn't come here thinking I was going to be a big environmental junkie."

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