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New legislator must do his job while deployed in Afghanistan

Soon after Jeff Gorell starts his Assembly term, the Navy will send him overseas for a year. He's figuring out how he'll serve his Ventura County district during that time.

November 14, 2010|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times

Newly elected Assemblyman Jeff Gorell is on a mission, it just wasn't the one he expected.

In March, the freshman Republican from Camarillo, a Navy reservist, will trade his business suit for combat fatigues and report for a year's duty in Afghanistan. Never mind that he hasn't yet hired a staff, opened an office or introduced legislation.

He's still working out a more basic question: How will he run his office during his 12-month absence?

Gorell briefly considered asking the Legislature to pass an emergency bill allowing him to nominate a temporary replacement. When it became clear that would violate the state's constitution, he decided instead to take a leave of absence, relying on staff and friendly Republican colleagues to attend to business in his Ventura County district.

The former prosecutor and college lecturer, 40, acknowledges it's not the ideal way to launch a political career. But he's accepted his pending deployment with the same earnestness that has made him widely appealing in his conservative-leaning 37th district.

"It's a misfortune of timing," said Gorell, a moderate who's holding office for the first time. He easily defeated Democrat Ferial Masry for the district covering Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Simi Valley. "I'm going to work really hard to prove that I will be the hardest-working legislator in the building. I'll get as much done in 31/2 months as most do in 12."

Gorell is the first legislator in California to be deployed for active duty since World War II, though legislators in other states have found themselves in the same predicament 51 times since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the chief clerk of the Assembly's office.

Army Reservist Tom Umberg was absent from the final months of his 2004 campaign for the Assembly as he helped prosecute terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the Orange County Democrat was back home by the time his Assembly term began.

Federal and state laws mandate that Gorell can return to his job once his tour ends. But states are handling what to do in legislators' absence in different ways. Texas and five other states allow for a temporary fill-in. Legislator-soldiers in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, have taken leaves of absence.

A California military code written during the Korean War mentions the option of a temporary replacement if the Legislature authorizes it. But the state has never taken that step, Gorell said, and after consulting with lawyers he determined it probably wouldn't be legal because the state's constitution says vacancies must be filled by special election.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez came to the same conclusion. Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Democrat, said Pérez wouldn't support a temporary replacement but would "work with Gorell's constituents to make sure they are represented, as we would for any other member whose seat is vacant."

Once Gorell is sworn in Dec. 6, he'll scramble to introduce bills before the February deadline, the rookie legislator said. He has ideas on job creation and reducing business regulation that could overlap with those outlined by Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, Gorell said.

He'll probably hire a staff of about seven, including a district director, who will field calls from constituents and appear at community meetings. Several Republican colleagues have stepped forward to say they will do what they can to advance Gorell's bills.

"It's a tough thing, but we appreciate his willingness to serve," said Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (R- San Diego), an Iraq combat veteran. "There will be a lot of us who will offer assistance. He can go overseas knowing that the people in his district will be well taken care of."

Gorell's grandfather was a Seabee in World War II, and his father was a career Navy officer. It was natural for him to enlist in the Navy reserves, he said. After the World Trade Center towers fell, he was called to active duty, serving as an intelligence officer for a year in the Arabian Gulf and Afghanistan.

Public service has always been a strong pull. While in his 20s, Gorell was a speechwriter for then-Gov. Pete Wilson and then worked seven years as a prosecutor in the Ventura County district attorney's office. He was briefly a lobbyist for a statewide business group.

In 2004, Gorell lost a primary challenge to Assemblywoman Audra Strickland. While waiting for her term to expire this year, he opened a public relations firm and taught public policy classes at California Lutheran University.

He also has a family: His wife, Laura, and two children, 8-year-old daughter Ashley and 1-year-old son Jack. His career plan was on track.

Then came the call, two weeks before the Nov. 2 election, informing Gorell of his reactivation.

If he's frustrated by the timing, he doesn't let it surface publicly. Instead, he talks about how his deployment can work to his advantage in a "rally-round-the-legislation" reaction by his Sacramento colleagues to a fellow politician-soldier.

He can't vote on legislation from overseas, but he'll check in regularly with his office to make sure things are running smoothly.

"There will be no country-club atmosphere on my staff," he said. "I'm going to make it very clear that I'm going to have great customer service."

In his measured way, Gorell does offer a bit of advice to his soon-to-be colleagues: California might want to consider making it easier for a legislator serving his country overseas to appoint a temporary replacement, as other states have.

"As tough as this is, it sends a great message that legislators will be deployed and will serve next to other citizen soldiers," he said.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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