Assembly’s next leader enjoys the game

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San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ Herb Wesson has tried his hand at a series of colorful jobs: He’s donned a gold smock to shampoo rugs as a house cleaner, whipped up water-free dinners selling gimmicky cookware door-to-door and honed his wit as a stand-up comedian.

This week, after a political odyssey that has stretched through three decades, he’ll take on the most challenging role of his varied career.

On Thursday, Wesson is expected to be elected as California’s 65th Assembly speaker, a post that will make the 50-year-old Culver City Democrat one of the most powerful politicians in the state as it confronts the grimmest economic times since the 1991 recession.

California is saddled with enormous debt from its quick-fix approach to the energy crisis and faces a multibillion-dollar hole in its upcoming budget. And then there’s the issue of deciding how the state should respond to lingering fears of terrorism _ and how to pay for the stepped-up vigilance.

“I would not want to be speaker of the Assembly facing a $12 billion deficit in this post-Sept. 11th world, but it appears to me that he relishes the opportunity,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior political scholar at the University of Southern California.

In many ways, Wesson’s odd jobs helped prepare him for his upcoming role. A speaker must be part salesman, part showman to cajole lawmakers in the 80-member house to follow his lead. Although Democrats hold nearly two-thirds of the Assembly seats, the party often splinters into factions.

“Wesson knows how to play the game,” Jeffe said, “and does it in a way that is probably going to be more effective in the hard days ahead.”

As speaker, Wesson vows he will use his influence to protect those Californians who have often been the first to feel the brunt of a crisis: immigrants, minorities and the poor.

“A lot of people are very dependent on what we do and what we say,” Wesson said. “Somebody’s got to protect those people that are walking around not even knowing that they need our protection.”

With just three years experience as a lawmaker, Wesson is part of the new breed of term-limited leaders who have little time to learn the job and even less to leave a mark. Until voters put six-year limits on Assembly members a decade ago, speakers like Willie Brown, now San Francisco’s mayor, lorded over the Capitol for years. Now, leaders move through the ornate office as if it had a revolving door. Since Brown left Sacramento, California has had six speakers in six years.

Art of the deal

Wesson has studied what worked for his predecessors and plans to incorporate bits of each one’s leadership style. But colleagues and Capitol observers expect Wesson to most closely mirror Brown, the charismatic politician who led the Assembly for 14 years. Both men use disarming charm to seduce adversaries, rely on friendships to bridge partisan divides, love the art of the deal and vowed to use their power to protect the disenfranchised.

“One thing that Herb does very well is listens to where you’re coming from and tries to work towards consensus,” said Assemblyman Tony Strickland, one of the most conservative and outspoken Republicans in the Capitol who also considers Wesson a good friend. “I think he’s going to be a terrific speaker.”

To those who knew him as a child, “Little Herbie” Wesson _ who’s now 5-foot-5 inches tall _ seemed destined to be a leader. Growing up in a blue-collar Cleveland home where his dad was an autoworker, Wesson became a neighborhood confidant.

“Little kids seem to gravitate towards him,” said his mother, Gladys Wesson-Strickland. “They were always waiting for him to get them out of jams.”

But it wasn’t until Wesson went to college that he discovered the passion and power of politics. It happened one day at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. As Wesson listened to a speech by Rep. Ron Dellums, the longtime liberal Bay Area congressman and skilled orator, the young student knew he’d seen his future.

“It was like a calling that a preacher or reverend would get,” Wesson said. “It was bam!’

Long Odyssey

But it took Wesson several years and a series of odd jobs before he hit his political stride. Wesson was lured to Southern California in 1975 by a tourism TV commercial. There, he served drinks at a bar, knocked on doors collecting overdue bills, shampooed rugs as a California House Doctor, placed fifth with his comedy routine in a Los Angeles talent show, and tried to persuade housewives to buy $1,000 worth of cookware.

But he was always looking for a way to get into politics.

In 1978, a tip from a friend led him to the campaign offices of Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden. Holden lost his bid for Congress and Wesson went on to become a workers compensation investigator for the county. But Wesson remained friends with Holden and eventually served six years as his chief of staff. He spent another six years in the same job for Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke before easily winning an open Assembly seat in 1998.

Even before he arrived in Sacramento, Wesson knew he wanted to lead the Assembly. So he quickly zeroed in on two things that makes the Capitol run: personal relationships and money.

Becoming speaker requires a simple majority vote from the 80 members of the house, and Wesson’s prolific fundraising and ability to cultivate friends scared off any other serious candidate.

Wesson helped raise millions of dollars from everyone from gambling interests to labor unions and carefully handed out the cash to fellow Democrats as he solidified his support.

As a lawmaker, Wesson pursued fairly modest goals, writing narrow bills to address specific problems. Early on, he introduced a bill to restrict the sale of laser pointers to children and regulate phony going-out-of-business sales. Last year, Davis signed Wesson bills aimed at cracking down on automated telemarketing calls and preventing California businesses from forcing workers to speak English in the office.

Wesson, who will be the second African-American speaker and represents one of the poorest districts in the state, promises to make social issues and defending the poor a top priority. But he is also drawn toward dapper suits and golf greens, tastes that have left some skeptics wondering where his allegiance will lie.

“He’s got his ear to the ground, but I don’t know that his heart is with the street,” said Jamie Court, a consumer advocate with the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights who first met Wesson when he was a chief of staff in Los Angeles.

“I don’t sense values or vision,” said Court. “I sense a guy that wants to be liked, but who is really interested in helping his friends and protecting his power.”

Wesson wielded the most power on the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization, an innocuous-sounding name that masks the committee’s critical role as a gatekeeper on issues from gambling to tobacco.

As committee chairman, he took heat from consumer advocates who accused him of carrying bills to benefit tobacco companies, payday loan companies and the gambling industry.

Racetrack victory

But Wesson chafes at any suggestion that he compromises his beliefs.

“I’m not beholden to gaming, I’m not beholden to anyone,” he said. “If they bring an issue to me that makes sense, that helps California, then I’ll fight for it. If I’m beholden to anybody, it’s some of the community groups that got me here, and they don’t give me anything but some lemonade.”

To underscore his point, Wesson cites his deals on race tracks. After reading stories in the Los Angeles Times on the terrible living conditions of more than 3,500 employees at state horse racing tracks, Wesson proposed new worker protections.

With the track owners threatening to shut down rather than follow these rules, Wesson decided to link the reforms to one of the industry’s top priorities: Legalization of in-state Internet and phone bets on horse races. By joining the two issues, Wesson said he hoped to link the power of the industry with the clout of organized labor.

He succeeded in getting the Legislature to back his plan. But it was rejected by Gov. Gray Davis, who raised concerns that it would expand gambling.

Last year, Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, carried the issue and the racing industry stepped up its lobbying. Last August, Davis reversed course to approve the bill.

Wesson doesn’t mind that Hertzberg got the credit.

“At the end of the day the bill was signed, the industry survives and I’ve got 4,000 workers who will never know my name that have a chance for a better life,” he said. “And I can say I did that.”

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