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NEWS ANALYSIS

Nunez's mixed legacy

Assembly speaker was a strong leader whose spending was an issue.

May 12, 2008|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, the gardener's son who rose from a San Diego barrio to one of California's most powerful posts, leaves office Tuesday having arguably fulfilled a vow he made when he was sworn in four years ago: to renew his chamber's prestige as "the house of ideas."

But by many accounts, the Los Angeles Democrat and former labor leader failed to keep another pledge: to restore citizens' faith in government.

As he hands over the sprawling, sometimes chaotic house to his fellow Angeleno and chosen successor, Democratic Assemblywoman Karen Bass, he leaves a legacy as one of the most effective leaders since voters imposed term limits 18 years ago. He put his name on landmark laws, but he also tarnished his public image with self-indulgent spending of political donations.

The longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown stepped down in 1995 after a nearly 15-year reign, Nuñez forged a productive relationship with a larger-than-life celebrity governor to tackle issues dear to Californians: global warming, school funding, the widespread lack of health insurance.

He brought order to a house known for rambling rhetorical debates, angered the unions that fostered his political career and excelled at fundraising, one of a speaker's key functions. He will leave Bass, he said, with roughly $4 million to use against Republicans in November, when every seat in the Assembly will be up for grabs.

But Nunez also spent tens of thousands of donated dollars on foreign travel, fine wines, expensive meals, exclusive hotel stays and luxury goods -- expenditures not obviously related to government or politics, as state law dictates.

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Designer goods

His spending is now under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission, which regulates state political ethics. So is his relationship with a small Los Angeles charity that funneled special-interest money raised by Nunez to soccer tournaments, toy giveaways and other events that were organized by his government staff and served him politically.

Nunez said all of the money went to legitimate political or government purposes and that traveling the world helped make him a better leader. He defended his collaboration with the charity as a legitimate way to help poor families in his district, and he predicted he would be cleared of any wrongdoing.

But after Nunez's spending was publicized, the FPPC wrote new rules requiring politicians who spend political funds to name gift recipients and travel destinations, and to show how those expenditures relate to official business. And for some in his party and his constituency, Nunez's behavior was self-serving.

"Most people in this country and world will never be able to buy Louis Vuitton in their life," said Democratic activist Brad Parker, referring to the Paris designer-goods store where Nunez spent $2,562 that he reported as "office expenses."

"Regular citizens are having a hard time," Parker said. "They need somebody who will give them a reason to believe."

In Boyle Heights, part of Nunez's district, 53-year-old George Arroyo offered this advice: "Think for the community, not for yourself."

Last week, in his final news conference as speaker, Nunez declared that if he could do it all over, he'd change nothing.

"If it ended here today, and this was the extent of Fabian Nunez's political career," he said, "I would die and go to heaven, because to me, being here is incredible. Walking around this beautiful building every day, being able to govern for 36 million people in California, to be able to debate, discuss and engage on the issues of the day in a way that allows me to fight for the things I believe in . . . has been just an enormous experience."

The father of three said he has no intention of running for public office again soon. He said he will probably work at least a couple of years in the private sector, though he has not announced a new job.

Nunez still seems amazed by his own rise from a humble, sometimes hungry childhood and his family's transition from Tijuana to San Diego, where he arrived as a 7-year-old "with different-colored socks, maybe just a couple of pairs of high-water pants." He speaks movingly of his father Pablo's work as a field hand and gardener, and of the success in America of his 11 siblings.

"The promise of hope and opportunity in the Golden State is real," he said last week.

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A quick grasp of policy

A charming, athletic man who ditched his glasses and upgraded his wardrobe upon becoming speaker, Nunez got his political start in organized labor, which he has called "the only thing standing between the haves and the have-nots." He was political director of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District before running for the Legislature.

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