Juice, Grease and Muscle Can Beat Merit

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The Los Angeles Times

Sacramento, CA — Just as baseball has its strategic plays — the steal, the bunt, the hit-and-run — so does legislating.

In legislating, politicians can score with grease or juice, by leveraging or jamming. Or by triangulation, as perfected by former President Clinton.

These political tactics and many more have been on display this week at the Capitol, in the lobbyist-crammed corridors and on the bustling floors of the legislative chambers as panicky lawmakers scurry toward tonight’s adjournment of their two-year session. When the final gavel falls, all bills that haven’t passed simply die.

It’s hard to envision a more greased bill than the one Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rammed through the Legislature to grab power from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The measure passed because of “muscle, not merit,” as one L.A. Democratic assemblyman privately observed. In the end, the bill needed both grease and muscle to be pushed through the Assembly with only one vote to spare.

Its passage was lubricated by legislative friendships that Villaraigosa had acquired years earlier when he was Assembly speaker, and the clout he now exercises as L.A.’s ambitious mayor. It was greased with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s running for reelection and wants to keep on the good side of the influential Latino. It was greased by the mayor’s closeness to current Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the bill and is a potential successor to Villaraigosa.

They’d been greasing this bill for weeks, but there still needed to be some strong-arming of unconvinced Democrats.

Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) acknowledged the grease and muscle in some public comments that, for a lawmaker, were unique in their candor. During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Aug. 14, Ortiz said she didn’t particularly like the bill, but was voting for it at “the direction of our leadership.”

On Tuesday, she elaborated in an interview. Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) — who was committed to helping pass Villaraigosa’s bill — had placed her on the powerful Appropriations Committee. “A requirement of sitting on ‘Approps,’ ” she said, “is that when the leadership supports a bill, you vote accordingly. Or you don’t sit on ‘Approps.’ ”

At the hearing, she asked Speaker Nunez to “keep an open mind” and not punish her bills in the Assembly if she should decide to vote against his measure on the Senate floor. Such forgiveness became moot when Ortiz voted for the bill in the Senate too, declaring she’d defer to L.A. lawmakers, and hoped they’d reciprocate on her local issues.

“This is the most politically leveraged bill I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Juice is another type of grease. One of the most juiced bills in years was a Nunez measure clearing the way for telephone companies to offer TV services. It became known as “the cable bill” because cable outfits initially opposed it, but ultimately negotiated a satisfactory compromise.

Legendary Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh famously called money “the mother’s milk of politics.” Money, milk, juice — synonyms — are what fueled the cable bill.

AT&T and Verizon, the bill’s main backers, poured in barrels of juice, probably more than needed.

Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, estimates the two phone companies and their employees contributed more than $1 million to lawmakers and political parties. Separately, AT&T hosted a Pebble Beach golf fundraiser that raised $1.7 million for Democrats.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that AT&T spent nearly $18 million last spring on advertising, lobbying and schmoozing to influence votes.

The measure, which passed the Senate Wednesday night, may have gotten through the Legislature merely on its merits. But it couldn’t have sailed through with such overwhelming, bipartisan support without all that nourishing juice.

Jamming is when one political party forces the other party — or the governor — to take an action that the jammer hopes the public won’t like. Democrats jammed Schwarzenegger on Monday with a bill laying the groundwork for a state-run universal healthcare system.

The governor read the Democrats’ signals weeks ago, grinned and shrugged it off. He’ll veto the bill. Democrats knew it. On this measure, they agreed to disagree.

The sincere purpose of the bill’s author, Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), was to push toward universal healthcare. That has been her goal for years.

The less sincere goal of Democratic leaders in sending the governor a bill he philosophically can’t sign was to highlight his failure to expand healthcare and make it more affordable. And since they’ve been compromising on so much else, this was one issue that distinguished each side for voters.

Lastly, Clinton was the Great Triangulator. Occupying the center, he’d play off the right against the left and drive bills through Congress. Schwarzenegger is a natural triangulator, especially on environmental issues.

It paid off Wednesday with a historic global warming deal between the centrist governor and Democrats. When enacted, it will make California the first state to cap industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

The business lobby, a large bankroller of Schwarzenegger’s political ventures, had strongly opposed any global warming bill. Some environmentalists had sought the moon. Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders appear to have settled on a cautious middle course.

And that brings to mind a play common to baseball, politics and all of life: the error. The main goal of the governor and Legislature tonight should be to not commit any bad boo-boos. Because they’re prone.
George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at [email protected].

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