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State lawmakers toe the line or risk losing their parking spots

In Sacramento, where term limits and hyperpartisan rancor put a heavy premium on party loyalty, legislators who buck their leaders have had their offices downgraded, staffs cut and office supplies scrutinized.

August 01, 2011|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
  • Assembly leaders have criticized lawmaker Anthony Portantino as a "reckless spender" who exceeded his office budget. Portantino says the dust-up is retribution for his refusal to support his party's spending plan.
Assembly leaders have criticized lawmaker Anthony Portantino as a "reckless… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Sacramento — Apparently, months of public squabbling over the state budget wasn't enough.

In recent weeks, two Democratic lawmakers have turned on each other, only this war of words has little to do with cutting social services or hiking taxes.

It's essentially over postage stamps. And office supplies.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez of Los Angeles has declared La Cañada Flintridge Assemblyman Anthony Portantino a "reckless spender," slashing the lawmaker's office budget and threatening his staff with suspension. Portantino says Pérez is punishing him for being the lone lower-house Democrat to vote against the state budget in June.

"They are cooking the books," said Portantino, who bragged about his frugality. "Accouterments are not what I'm about."

The spat highlights the often petty nature of politics in the Capitol, where office space means power and loyalty is prized. With all the delicacy of high school bullies, legislative rainmakers have ordered locks changed, quarters moved and parking spots stripped.

Party leaders, however, rarely admit they're seeking retribution and seldom discuss such matters. A former union organizer and political operative, Pérez has taken a different tack, openly blasting Portantino and undermining the termed-out lawmaker's plans to run for Congress next year.

"Mr. Portantino clearly has other ambitions," said Robin Swanson, a Pérez spokeswoman. "But he's given any future opponent a pretty nifty message — that he obstinately refuses to balance his own taxpayer-funded office budget, despite the consequences."

The backbiting has moved Portantino to try to expose the largely secretive process of how the speaker allocates the Assembly's $146-million annual operating budget, effectively airing the caucus' dirty laundry. "They use the budget for discipline," he said. "But this is public money. The public should know what it's being spent on."

Blame the vitriol on a hyperpartisan Legislature, said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP legislative staffer and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. "It's almost become two cults," he said. "Any time anyone moves to the center or doesn't vote in lock step, they get punished."

Some end up in "the Dog House" — the Capitol's smallest office, a two-room, 391-square-foot space so small that visitors have to wait in the hallway. Former Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a Republican from Orange, landed there in 2007 after repeatedly pounding what he called "pro-criminal" Democrats for failing to address the state's prison overcrowding crisis. He made a plaque to honor all those relegated to the office — complete with empty nameplates for future occupants and a sign that reads, "The Dog House: Standing up for your Principles."

"This is what we did in kindergarten," Spitzer said recently. "It's throwing sand in the sandbox."

Even governors engage in Capitol punishment.

In 1999, after Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante criticized Gov. Gray Davis over his handling of Proposition 187, the voter initiative that banned government services for illegal immigrants, Bustamante found his office's nine parking spaces had disappeared. Davis — like Bustamante, a Democrat — called it a coincidence, attributing the change to construction plans for new state office buildings.

"On one hand, you might say, 'How petty can you be?' " said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. "On the other hand, what they are trying to do is impose party discipline."

Storied Assembly Speaker Willie Brown perfected the practice.

In 1988, he punished the "Gang of Five," a group of moderate Democrats who attempted a speakership coup. In his autobiography, "Basic Brown," he described stripping the "disloyal bastards" of their committee chairmanships, evicting them from their offices and moving their furniture into the hallways. "The moral still stands," he wrote, "… don't spit in the fountain of favors."

Assemblyman Chuck Calderon of Whittier, one of the five, found part of his punishment unusually cruel: He was moved from a spacious office with a private patio to a tiny room next to the Capitol cafeteria.

"Willie put me up there specifically because I was on a diet and I was losing weight successfully," he said. "He thought it would be amusing to put me next to the cafeteria so I could smell those chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies every afternoon."

Observers said the punishments have increased in frequency and drama in the era of term limits: With roughly a third of the Assembly changing each election cycle, leaders don't form the personal bonds of years past. Instead, they rely heavily on party loyalty.

In 2007, state Senate leader Don Perata, a Democrat from Oakland, ordered the locks changed on the offices of three newly elected senators after they attended a fundraiser hosted by the "Mod Squad," a group of business-friendly Democrats who often had derailed liberal legislation in the lower house.

"I got kicked out of my office for associating with business Democrats," said state Sen. Louis Correa of Santa Ana. "You shouldn't be punished for associating with anyone, especially other elected officials. But the message was clear: You have to go to leadership and explain your actions."

In 2008, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass of Los Angeles went even further: She kicked Assemblywoman Nicole Parra of Hanford — the lone Democrat to vote against her party's spending plan — out of the Capitol and into a building across the street.

That punishment backfired when Parra ran up against term limits and endorsed Republican Danny Gilmore to succeed her, helping the GOP capture a Democratic seat.

But Democratic leaders had the last word: They sent Gilmore to the Dog House and, citing budget woes, denied him use of his predecessor's district office.

He set up tents in public parks to meet with constituents.

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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