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The contest to be the next vice chair of the state stem cell board is heating up with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) writing a letter endorsing California State Democratic chairman Art Torres for the job.

The powerful liberal senator and health care advocate  says Torres' "years of advocacy for medical research and better health care for Californians will be a major asset to the committee."

Kennedy has been a strong supporter of stem cell research. Before he gave his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the introductory video highlighted is support of the research.  Kennedy's letter backing Torres continues:

"Progress is more essential than ever in this vital area of research and technology. A great deal is at stake, and I'm confident that Art Torres will make a difference for our country, as he always has."

Torres, nominated by Treasurer Bill Lockyer,  Controller John Chiang and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi -- all Democrats -- is facing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's nominee, Duane Roth, a current board member.

Under Proposition 71 the state's four constitutional officers each get to nominate a candidate for the chairmanship and vice chairmanship.  The members of the 29-member board, known as the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC), then elect the two officers. The vice chair's job opened after Ed Penhoet stepped down.  He was immediately reappointed by Garamendi  to fill a vacant board seat designated to represent the life sciences industry.

Roth's nomination came only after inexplicable blundering by the governor. He initially nominated ICOC member Clair Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis Medical School.  Her nomination was publicly announced, but she declined, "citing time constraints and a desire to avoid potential conflicts of interest because UC Davis programs are eligible for institute funding", according to the Union-Tribune.

Had any of Schwarzenegger's minions bothered to read Prop 71, they would have seen that employees of intitutions that can receive grants or people on leave from such institutions cannot serve as chairman or vice chairman.  In fact, according to the law, both positions are supposed to be held by so-called patient advocates.

Some of those who back Torres have questioned Roth's credentials in that area and note that he is one of the four industry representatives on the board. Since being appointed in April 2006, Roth has been diligent member of the ICOC , playing a key role on the IP and Loan task forces.

Cynics might think the race is purely political.  Certainly that's a factor, but other issues are at stake. Shortly before Torres was nominated, Schwarzenegger released a letter expressing concern that salaries were being considered for the chairman and vice chairman. Both Chairman Bob Klein and Penhoet had been serving without pay.

In December the ICOC voted to make the chairman's position a half-time job and pay Klein $150,000.

Roth has said he will not take a salary as vice chairman.  Torres apparently would, but will be comfortable, a key supporter says, with whatever amount and time commitment the ICOC sets for the job. With the chairmanship a half-time position, I don't see how the vice chairman could be more than that -- and it wouldn't be surprising if it were less.

Roth supporters cite his solid contributions to the board during his tenure. Torres backers see value in his strong legislative and Congressional connections.

I don't know who is best.  The first task  for the ICOC is to define exactly what the vice chairman should be doing.  Both men need to offer a clear public statement of what he would bring to the position as well as his vision for the post. 

I'll comment on those views as soon as I get them.  Meanwhile, watch for an interesting race.