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No. 2 stem cell post divided in two

March 13, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Settling a simmering partisan spat, leaders of California's $3-billion stem cell research effort Thursday divided its No. 2 leadership post between the outgoing state Democratic Party chief and a biotech executive backed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In a pair of unanimous votes, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine's governing board split the vice chairmanship in two and then filled the spots with Democrat Art Torres and Republican Duane Roth.

The solution was largely brokered by Sherry Lansing, the former Paramount Pictures chief executive who is the chairwoman of the board's governance committee. She said that adding two leaders to the board hierarchy seemed like a win-win, because both men are qualified, although in different ways -- Torres with his political savvy, Roth with his biotech expertise.

"Here's our high-class problem: We have two extraordinary candidates," Lansing said before the vote during a meeting of the board at the Sacramento Convention Center.

"The possibility to have them both is simply irresistible," said Leeza Gibbons, the former "Entertainment Tonight" host named to the panel by Schwarzenegger.

But some biotech analysts have questioned the board's move.

"I won't be joining you in singing 'Kumbaya,' " said John Simpson of the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog nonprofit group. "I don't think it's the way to go."

Simpson said later that the move seemed a political gesture so the governor, who had bucked the Bush administration to become a champion of stem cell research, could "save face."

Torres served for two decades in the Legislature before assuming the state party chairmanship a dozen years ago. He held chairmanships of the Assembly Health Committee and the Senate Joint Committee on Science and Technology. Backers say he was instrumental in securing early funding for AIDS research.

He now sits on the boards of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Los Angeles-based organ transplant foundation One Legacy.

Torres appeared to have the inside track for weeks, with the backing of such Democratic heavyweights as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts wrote an impassioned endorsement letter.

The possibility of Roth also playing a role sprang up at the suggestion of board member Claire Pomeroy, UC Davis vice chancellor for human health sciences and dean of its medical school.

Roth has served for more than two years on the stem cell board alongside Pomeroy and Lansing, making a name as an amiable and respected colleague. He has spent three decades in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

The board approved a $75,000 annual salary for Torres. Roth, chairman and chief executive of La Jolla-based Alliance Pharmaceutical Corp., said he would not need a salary.

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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