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Opening political rift, Senate leader De León slashes staff of Lt. Gov. Newsom

Opening political rift, Senate leader De León slashes staff of Lt. Gov. Newsom
California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León speaks during the California Democratic Party 2015 State Convention. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Opening a political rift, Senate leader Kevin de León has acted to slash the staff of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom by one-third just weeks after Newsom introduced a 2016 ballot initiative that includes one of De Leon's pet policy proposals.

De León aides notified Newsom's office that they are reassigning two Senate employees who had been on loan to the lieutenant governor's office. That would leave Newsom with four staffers.

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The action may be a "shot across the bow" warning to Newsom, according to Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

"De León is playing tough," Regalado said. "He wants people to know that he can and will be tough if it's necessary, so don't cross him. There's a price to be paid for that."

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Rhys Williams, a senior advisor to Newsom, said the transfers appear to be related to the lieutenant governor announcing a gun control initiative last month.

"It was callous to play with the careers of legislative staff over an issue in which they had no involvement, gun control," Williams said.

The initiative proposed by Newsom last month includes a requirement for background checks of ammunition buyers. Last year, De León introduced a bill with the same requirement but it failed to win approval in the Assembly.

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Dan Reeves, the senator's chief of staff, denied Wednesday that the action has anything to do with Newsom's gun initiative and said there is no tension over Newsom taking on the issue.

"While we haven't had a chance to review the proposal or its potential impact on next November's ballot, we're thrilled to have another ally in the fight to keep dangerous ammunition out of the wrong hands," Reeves said.

He said in a statement that the recall of the staffers is all about allowing the Senate to function better.

"As part of the Senate's ongoing efforts to improve efficiency and maximize its limited resources, two highly regarded Senate staffers loaned to the lieutenant governor's office have been brought back," Reeves said. "Doing so will expand our capacity to meet the needs of our constituents."

Williams said the positions had been lent to the lieutenant governor's office since at least 2011, while Reeves said the loan was for one year.

"They did not proffer a reason" for the reassignment, Williams added. "When I asked whether it was political, it wasn't disputed."

The senate's plan is to assign one of the employees to work for the Senate Democratic Caucus and the other for the Senate Office of Research, Reeves said.

However, Williams said his office is making arrangements within its own budget to hire the two employees, who serve as Newsom's office manager and chief economic advisor, even if the positions revert to the senate.

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In 2009, then- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut then-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi's budget by almost two-thirds after making it plain he didn't think much of the office. It was that reduction that led the Senate leader at the time, Darrell Steinberg, to lend two Senate staff members to the lieutenant governor.

Newsom is running for governor in 2018 and could benefit from his leadership on the ballot measure on gun control. De León also may have aspirations for higher office, having formed a committee to campaign for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Gun control has emerged as a major issue for Democrats seeking to energize the electorate, having also been embraced as a key part of the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton.

Regalado said whoever leads on the issue may see it benefit their statewide candidacy.

"I guess what De León is doing is making Newsom pay at least a small price, but it is a shot across the bow letting him know he's not pleased," Regalado said.

Thursday, Newsom fired back. Read the details here.

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

For more, go to latimes.com/politics.

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