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Lobbyist Scott Wetch bends Legislature to benefit labor unions

Blunt, shrewd and intimidating, Wetch has become a powerful force in Sacramento, lobbying the Legislature on behalf of unionized employees.

January 14, 2012|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times
  • I do whatever I can to give a competitive advantage to unionized employees, says Sacramento labor union lobbyist Scott Wetch, 45.
I do whatever I can to give a competitive advantage to unionized employees,… (Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Sacramento -- California building contractors were thrilled when waterless urinals came on the market, thinking the devices would save them a fortune in plumbing costs.

The state building code would need to be changed, but that seemed an easy sell. The fixtures would prevent billions of gallons of water from being wasted, and California's environmental lobby could be counted on as a powerful ally.

There was one hitch. His name was Scott Wetch.

Wetch is a Sacramento lobbyist for labor unions, and urinals without water pipes would not be good for his clients in the building trades. His campaign to derail the bill shows why he is considered one of the shrewdest operators in the Capitol.

First he played the health card, arguing that mens' rooms would become breweries for pestilence and toxic vapors.

Then he took a more direct approach, reminding Democratic lawmakers that the bill threatened a key constituency — labor — and specifically his client, the California State Pipe Trades Council and its 30,000 plumbers and pipe fitters.

Finally, he splintered his opponents by crafting a compromise designed to appease environmentalists. The revised bill, signed into law in 2007, allowed developers to install waterless urinals. But they would still have to install the pipes, just in case something went wrong.

"It's absurd," said Kevin Dayton, an executive at the Associated Builders and Contractors of California. "Obviously, waterless urinals are a threat to plumbers getting jobs, and, therefore, he worked to make sure the jobs would continue even as the technology changed."

Wetch doesn't really argue the point.

"I do whatever I can," he said, "to give a competitive advantage to unionized employees."

Capitol observers say the waterless urinal battle was an example of why Wetch, 45, is considered a virtuoso at bending the Legislature to his will.

"He's one of the more powerful lobbyists," said Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). "Part of the reason is that he represents clients that have a lot of credibility and many of us [Democrats] naturally regard them as important stakeholders. The other part is that he plays hardball, and there's no mistake about it, Scott is very good at killing bills."

Wetch's influence, however, belies his modest staff and office. The lobbying firm's name is Carter, Wetch and Associates, but it's basically just Wetch, lobbyist Eduardo Martinez and a receptionist. The firm shares the name of its founding partner, Art Carter, who retired in 2003, when Wetch took ownership of the firm. The offices are located above a fire station about four blocks from the Capitol building.

Despite its small size, however, the firm earned nearly $3 million in fees during the 2009-10 legislative session and the first half of 2011, public records show.

A third-generation native of Sebastopol in Sonoma County's apple country, Wetch started working in the Capitol 23 years ago as an intern in the Democratic Senate president's office while a student at Sacramento State University.

He rose through the ranks as a legislative staffer, then became a lobbyist in 2001 as the full effect of legislative term limits hit home. As veterans left the statehouse, newly elected lawmakers became increasingly dependent on lobbyists to steer the agenda and raise money from deep-pocketed clients.

Wetch, with a brush cut and steely confidence, was ready to help.

"I don't just go into a committee as a lot of people do and fly by the seat of my pants," he said, referring disdainfully to rival lobbyists. "Instead, I'm thinking about what's going to happen two committees from now."

In recent months, Wetch has emerged as a key deal maker on bills to develop wind and solar power. His main task has been to secure a large share of the tens of thousands of new jobs for the 75,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Some lobbyists and others who have crossed paths with Wetch call him a bully.

"He threatens people," said Jose Radzinsky, the former president of San Jose solar system installer Renewable Power Solutions Inc.

For more than two years, Radzinsky tried to win approval from the California Apprenticeship Council, a state agency, to join a state-funded program that would train his nonunion workers to install solar systems. He hoped that his better-trained workers could help him bid on public works projects.

The IBEW saw solar installation as an electrician's job and didn't like the idea of competition from nonunion apprentices. Wetch went to work, lobbying the agency against Radzinsky.

The contractor ultimately won approval, only to find out that his solar installers still lacked the proper credentials to qualify for the higher-wage government projects. Radzinsky later sold his firm and, although bruised by the battle, has grudging admiration for Wetch.

"Scott is there [at the Capitol] every day," he said. "He's really good at what he does."

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