When Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) recently introduced a package of bills to hold down telephone rates, she drew more than reporters to her Capitol press conference.
At the back of the room hovered a covey of telephone company executives and lobbyists, whom Moore playfully described as "the peanut gallery."
Those executives usually occupy front-row seats in dealing with Moore who, as chairwoman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, has a key role in helping to shape phone rates.
Indeed, when the diminutive Westside lawmaker calls, phone company officials lend an ear.
Paul Henry, assistant vice president of Pacific Telesis, said Moore is "probably the most knowledgeable member on telecommunications in the Assembly and she's gained a nationwide prominence."
Moore, 40, has developed her expertise in telecommunications while negotiating behind the scenes and maintaining a low profile. With her style and knowledge, the four-term, self-described liberal lawmaker from the 49th District has earned respect in utility company board rooms.
Yet Moore says frustrated supporters have urged her to promote herself in other forums. She said that some have told her, "You don't get all the accolades you should. That's because you don't advertise what you do."
Moore has shunned the advice. "The problem when you get a . . . high profile (is) you get a lot of resentment from your colleagues. And I'd rather seek a solution than get a whole lot of press."
Assemblyman Gerald Felando (R-San Pedro), vice chairman of the utilities committee, said Moore's style works for her.
"I think she takes you by surprise. Here's this petite little thing and all of a sudden she starts talking and you realize how tough she is," Felando said of his 5-foot-2 colleague.
Moore said her goal on the committee is to ensure that all people are able to afford basic telephone service. "My concern is that the consumer is not unfairly burdened."
Moore regards passage of the Universal Telephone Service Act, which took affect last year, as one of her top achievements. It was designed to ensure that home telephone service remains affordable for the poor in the face of rising local telephone charges stemming from the Bell System breakup. The revamping of this so-called "Lifeline" service has, in part, spurred Congress to consider similar federal legislation.
But at the press conference, she asserted that "much more needs to be done to lessen the impact of continually rising local phone rates on moderate-income residential ratepayers."
Phone officials say Moore is well versed in utility issues and negotiates fairly. Still, one high-ranking phone company official who asked not to be identified drew a distinction between Moore and her staff, which he contended is overzealous in advocating pro-consumer issues. The official, unlike Moore's friends, also believes the assemblywoman has capitalized on her efforts to garner publicity and "political advantage."
On the other hand, Sylvia Siegel, executive director of the San Francisco-based consumer group Toward Utility Rate Normalization (TURN), has nothing but praise for Moore. In Siegel's view, "The people of California have to rely on her; we can't rely on Washington" to keep down rates.
Recognizing her influential role, the giant West German telecommunications firm Siemens A.G. last September paid for Moore and four other lawmakers to tour German and Swiss telephone facilities for 10 days.
In comparison to other committee heads, Moore has been restrained in capitalizing on her position in order to generate campaign contributions.
In the past four years, she has collected a total of $250,000--a figure some lawmakers collect in a single year--according to Legi-Tech, a private information service. Nearly $50,000 of that sum has come from labor groups. Utilities and cable television groups, which her committee also oversees, chipped in $36,000.
Firms Have Equal Access
Moore says these firms have information that helps her reach decisions. She insisted that they have no more access to her than a group of 80 constituents who met with her recently in Culver City to discuss their concerns.
"They (contributors) get the same thing that the people got last night (in Culver City)," she insisted.
Moore's district, which is 42% black, takes in a cross section of the Los Angeles area from the edges of the inner city to West Los Angeles. Besides Culver City, it includes Leimert Park, Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, Cheviot Hills, Playa del Rey, Marina del Rey and parts of Westchester and Palms.
Moore has lived in the area since she was 2 years old. She graduated from California State University, Los Angeles. She was a deputy probation officer with Los Angeles County before becoming director of public affairs with the Greater Los Angeles Community Action Agency.
It was in that position, Moore said, that she first became interested in utility issues. In particular, Moore recalled helping the anti-poverty organization develop cable television access for community groups.
Moore also taught a class in social problems at Compton Community College. In 1975, she was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees.
In 1978, Moore jumped to the Assembly and has been reelected three times. In last fall's election she outdistanced her opponent 76% to 24%.
Her first race in the Democratic primary in 1978 was not so easy. It drew several black candidates, including Moore, which divided loyalties in the black community. But Moore got a boost from the Democratic political organization of Los Angeles Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman and got assistance from Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), now the Assembly's Democratic majority leader.
Moore later became a loyalist in then-Assemblyman Berman's unsuccessful struggle to become Assembly Speaker. Her actions, however, caused a temporary rift with her one-time mentor, Assemblyman Willie L. Brown (D-San Francisco), who went on to win the speakership.
While they have patched things up, Brown still recalls his anger at Moore and other Berman backers for not joining ranks to make his selection unanimous.
"I was madder than hell at Gwen Moore because Gwen had been like my protege when she came into the Legislature," Brown said. But he described Moore as one of the best of the new crop of committee heads, "if not the best."
Moore's interests are not limited to utility issues. They have ranged from local concerns, such as helping to create the Baldwin Hills State Recreation Area, to wider issues, such as authoring a law requiring new grocery stores to provide toilet facilities for customers.
Proposed Tax on Candy
In the current legislative session, Moore has introduced a bill that promises to trigger a lively debate. She has proposed taxing candy to raise about $64 million a year to finance child nutrition programs or, as Moore joked, "pay for my liberal programs."
Though she is a connoisseur of chocolate-covered caramels, Moore said even her favorite sweets should be taxed. "My feeling is that candy is a luxury."
In 1983 a similar proposal was part of a tax bill to close special-interest loopholes. The proposal was later dropped.
Moore is not afraid to take on special interests closer to home. For example, last year she won passage of several bills to crack down on liquor store-related crime. The bills grew out of problems in South-Central Los Angeles.
She carried the measures even though her husband, Ronald Dobson, is a sales manager with a wine and spirits dealer. "We keep our business separate," she said.
The couple has a 14-year-old son who stays with his father in Los Angeles during the week. Moore's mother tutors her son and gives him dinner while the assemblywoman is in Sacramento. "You do a lot of parenting by phone," Moore said.
In Sacramento, Moore is not regarded as especially ambitious politically. Although she sidestepped questions about her poltical future, supporters say she is content in the Assembly.
"That's what I tell them," she said with a grin.