The preoccupation for many Capitol insiders these days is not resolving the state budget stalemate, but handicapping the increasingly nasty duel between two Democratic state senators for the Senate’s top position – and with good reason.
Whoever succeeds termed-out John Burton as president pro tem will play a central role in shaping policy in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, since one of the unintended consequences of legislative term limits has been a shift of internal Capitol power from the long-dominant Assembly to the Senate. As 1,000-plus lobbyists work the Capitol on behalf of special interest groups, they consider Burton’s attitude, if he has one, to be the most important single factor in a bill’s fate.
Burton, the mercurial leader of the Senate for the past six years, has not overtly indicated whether he favors Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, or Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, the two leading candidates for the job. Ideologically, Burton may be closer to Escutia, but Perata’s election would also bolster the San Francisco Bay Area’s clout – no small factor. The Legislature’s unspoken practice has been to divide its top two leadership positions between the state’s two major metropolitan areas, and the speakership appears to be in the more or less permanent hands of Southern California politicians.
Gender and ethnicity are two other factors. Escutia wants to become the first woman and the first Latino to hold the position, while Perata represents the Democrats’ shrinking white male minority. But Escutia, the more abrasive of the two, doesn’t have universal support from either women or Latinos in the Senate,and influential unions appeared to be divided. As the senator-by-senator politicking intensifies – aimed at nailing down a majority of the 25 Democratic senators through persuasion, promises and threats – the gloves are coming off.
Underlying the contest is the eternal conflict between business interests and their foes, especially personal injury attorneys, environmentalists and consumer advocates. There’s little doubt that the former are rooting for Perata while the latter favor Escutia, and that the contending factions are doing whatever they can to win – including full-blown “opposition research” on the rivals and media leaks.
In February, the San Francisco Chronicle published a series of articles describing Perata’s receipt of about $100,000 in “consulting fees” through a private company and a political action committee that may have originated with Mercury General Corp., a Los Angeles insurance company that was backing legislation carried by Perata. The legislator denied any wrongdoing, and there’s little doubt that the articles stemmed from research by those trying to sink Perata’s pro tem ambitions. A political adviser to the attorneys was peddling the story to journalists, and just after the initial Chronicle article appeared, Doug Heller of the lawyer-connected Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, filed an ethics complaint against Perata.
Last week, a strikingly similar article about Escutia’s private finances appeared in the Los Angeles Times, although it’s unclear whether it resulted from the newspaper’s original reporting or stemmed from “oppo research” by groups trying to sink her drive to become Senate leader. The Times article said that Escutia’s husband, political consultant Leo Briones, had been paid millions of dollars “representing politicians and enterprises whose interests often intersect with her duties.” The Times reported that Briones’ firm, Centaur North Strategic Communications, has billed clients more than $3.4 million since 1997, when Escutia began disclosing his clients in her economic interest filings. Like Perata, Escutia denies any conflict of interest and insists that she plays no role in Briones’ business.
The timing of the showdown vote could be critical to the outcome. If it occurs, as now scheduled, just before the end of this year’s session, which ends Aug. 31, Burton and other lame-duck senators can vote, but if it comes after the November election, nine newly elected senators will vote.
Most nose-counters rate it as a tossup now, and it’s at least theoretically possible that Republican votes for Perata would be decisive if Democrats don’t unite behind the one who nails down 13 Democratic senators.
Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.shns.com