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Jerry Brown taps trusted former aide for key cabinet position

Diana Dooley would have one of the toughest jobs in the state as secretary of Health and Human Services, overseeing $6 million in cuts and a new federal mandate to insure 8 million Californians.

March 03, 2011|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
  • As legislative secretary during Jerry Brown's first stint as governor, Diana Dooley earned a reputation as his affable alter ego, a grounded complement to "Governor Moonbeam."
As legislative secretary during Jerry Brown's first stint as governor,… (Hector Amezcua / Sacramento…)

Reporting from Sacramento — When Jerry Brown collided with lawmakers during his first stint as governor — having his vetoes overridden, being ejected from the Senate on an unannounced visit — he relied on his 28-year-old legislative secretary, Diana Dooley, to smooth things over.

"Her job back then was pretty tough," the once-again governor admits.

More than 30 years later, he has chosen Dooley for another pretty tough job: secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency. In Dooley, who spent her time between Brown administrations as a law student, attorney, fire chief and children's health advocate, he has a trusted confidant to oversee one of the largest and most important agencies of the state while he focuses on the budget.

As one of three former senior Brown appointees to hold high-level positions in the new administration, Dooley heads an agency with a budget of $83.5 billion, roughly the size of the state's general fund. It is a bureaucracy in the midst of two simultaneous transformations: She'll be slashing billions of dollars from healthcare and welfare services for the poor while rushing to implement the 2010 federal healthcare overhaul to provide medical insurance for an estimated 8 million Californians who have no coverage.

Dooley agreed to take the job, she says, because "of my commitment and belief that Jerry Brown is the right person at the right time for this state." She says Brown has the experience to make hard budget decisions but will remain sensitive to how those choices affect the state's most vulnerable citizens.

If, as expected, she is confirmed by the state Senate next month, it will be the latest step in an unlikely journey for Dooley. This native of the small Central Valley town of Hanford who married her high school sweetheart is now, for the second time, one of the most influential people in California government.

Dooley walked away from political life after Brown left office in 1983. She returned to the Central Valley, where she and her husband, Dan, a deputy director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture in the first Brown administration, took turns going to law school while the other worked to support the family.

She worked for a year as an assistant fire captain in the city of Visalia, went on to start her own public-relations firm and later became head of the state association of children's hospitals. There, she helped place on the ballot two bond measures totaling $1.8 billion for expansion and renovation of more than a dozen children's hospitals. Both were approved by voters.

Dooley calls her work with the children's hospitals "as close to God's work as I'll ever get." But she gave it up when Jerry Brown came calling again.

Numerous lobbyists and lawmakers say Dooley is now the administration's point person on all healthcare questions — even those beyond the purview of her agency portfolio. Two months into the new administration, the department that regulates health maintenance organizations is still without a director. Although that department is within the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, lobbyists trying to influence the governor's choice have been directed to Dooley.

Brown is asking that programs she administers be cut by more than $6 billion to help close the state's $25-billion deficit. Making the reductions won't be easy for someone who spent the last decade as a healthcare advocate, but Dooley says they'll be pivotal to the success of the federal law.

"This is a permanent reset of benefit levels and the rates we can pay for services," she says. "We're not going to be able to do more with less. We're going to do less with less. But once that's stabilized, then we can build the foundation for expanding healthcare coverage."

Right now, she says, she spends a lot of time "listening honestly and carefully to the concerns that people express." But those who know her say Dooley does not shrink from difficult decisions.

Pat Johnston, president of the California Assn. of Health Plans, met Dooley more than 30 years ago when he was a freshman Democratic assemblyman from Stockton.

"She is warm and attentive and unfailingly courteous," he says. "But it would be a mistake to conclude that her friendliness is weakness or an inability to say no. She just won't insult anybody in the process."

During Brown's first governorship, Dooley earned a reputation as his affable alter ego — a terrestrial complement to "Governor Moonbeam." And she's still clearly a kindred spirit. She says that although she is now a seasoned government hand, she tries to embrace "that Zen concept of the beginner's mind" and bring a fresh eye to her job.

That is the language of the Jerry Brown who spent time in a Zen monastery and practiced transcendental meditation before reinventing himself as the eminence grise of California politics.

Today, the parade of cultural icons, international luminaries and cutting-edge thinkers who swirled around the younger Brown has given way to wonky budget meetings. Dooley says that with his presidential ambitions behind him, Brown is now is more focused on the art of governing than he was as a younger man.

"He has a greater appreciation for the processes required to get things done and … a certain discipline. That wasn't there before."

For her part, the idealism of the earlier years left its mark. She hopes to help educate, and learn from, a new generation of state workers, even if that sounds "kind of old-fashioned and a little corny."

"I will be 60 in April," Dooley says, "and it is exciting to me to have an opportunity to work with other bright, young people who care deeply about making this a better world."

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