Known as a ‘Tough Adversary’ : Margolin: Tenacity With a Light Touch

Times Staff Writer

At a recent dinner for legislators, Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) jokingly tried to enlist California First Lady Gloria Deukmejian to back his controversial bill to require a deposit on beverage containers.

Margolin lightheartedly suggested that the Deukmejian family beagles--Sniffer, Berry and Pup--could benefit from the bill because it would reduce the broken glass littering parks and sidewalks.

Margolin’s banter allowed him to gently underscore his point, according to another guest at the dinner.

Indeed, the two-term lawmaker has earned a reputation for using humor in a disarming fashion. One colleague went so far as to describe him as the “Woody Allen of the California Legislature.”


But Margolin, who came of age politically in the protest era of the 1960s, is also known for his persistence and willingness to back unpopular and often liberal causes. A case in point is the bottle bill that may reach the Assembly floor this month.

Bottle bills have been proposed at least 14 times in the last 20 years without clearing either house of the Legislature, and in 1982 California voters rejected Proposition 11, which would have enacted a mandatory deposit law.

Margolin said the proposal’s legacy of rejection is “part of the challenge of this process--taking a controversial issue like this and forcing the Legislature to confront it.”

In fact, Margolin was sought out to carry the bottle bill because supporters wanted a lawmaker who would be “relentless,” said Josiah Beeman, who has known Margolin for 20 years and is the lobbyist for Californians Against Waste, which is pushing the bill.


“Burt’s a tough adversary,” conceded A. E. Davis, lobbyist for glass and can trade associations opposed to the proposal. But he predicted ultimate defeat for the bill, which he criticized as part of the “liberal activists’ agenda.”

May Delay Vote

The bill was approved by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee by a 7-5 margin last month. But Margolin has conceded that rounding up 41 votes for passage by the full Assembly may be harder and he may delay a vote until next year.

The bill would require a deposit of at least a nickel for plastic or glass containers of soft drinks, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages.


In the bill, Margolin argues that “the increasing use of disposable beverage containers imposes enormous and unjustified costs on local governments for municipal solid waste handling and litter control.”

Before agreeing to introduce the measure, Margolin said, he reviewed the experience of the eight other states with bottle laws and determined that the laws have increased recycling and decreased litter.

Lobbyist Davis contends, however, that Margolin “was leaned on hard and heavy” by a coalition of environmental groups to introduce the bill “without checking the other side.”

Although Davis concedes that litter has been reduced in some states with similar laws, he said that is only because of increased government spending for cleanup. Furthermore, he said, the price of beer and soft drinks has risen in those states because of the extra cost of handling empty containers, and jobs for skilled container makers have been reduced.


The Republican Assembly Caucus has assailed the Margolin bill as “one more measure in the perennial attempt to interject government into private enterprise.”

Seldom Criticized

While Margolin’s positions often are attacked by conservatives, he is seldom criticized personally.

For example, Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) said, “he’s fair, except on law enforcement issues he’s Mr. Liberal.”


Stirling, a conservative who is chairman of the Criminal Law and Public Safety Committee, of which Margolin is vice chairman, often finds himself at odds with the Westside lawmaker as they review anti-crime legislation.

He asserted that Margolin supports the American Civil Liberties Union position on bills “95% of the time.” In Stirling’s mind that “is not a balanced view” since it results in “more delays” and “more roadblocks” in prosecuting and sentencing criminals.

Margolin, however, said he shouldn’t automatically be pegged as a liberal.

“People from the ‘60s,” he said, “have to be hard-headed enough to recognize that there are people out there who don’t belong in the streets and who are a danger to us all.”


“And if I’m persuaded that (there is) an additional type of crime that needs to be created or a sentence is inadequate, I’ll vote for the bill.”

But, he cautioned, “I’m not going to vote for every proposal brought to me because it has the label ‘anti-crime measure.’ ”

Despite their differences, Stirling says he regards Margolin as a person of high integrity.

“His approach is sort of refreshing,” said Gerald Meral, a lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters and a former deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources. “With Burt, we talk more about the merits (of an issue) than his political problems.”


But on June 7, Margolin found himself in the spotlight when he told The Times that the FBI and the Orange County district attorney are investigating an allegedly laundered campaign contribution he received from fireworks manufacturer W. Patrick Moriarty.

Margolin returned the $7,500 donation in May, 1982, as soon as he learned that the donor had ties to the fireworks industry. Of the half-dozen lawmakers who received the donations, Margolin was the only one to return his before the election.

Margolin, who has successfully helped sponsor anti-fireworks legislation, later said, “I don’t want anyone to have a misunderstanding about the (rigorous) standards I apply to campaign fund-raising.”

Margolin, 34, was elected to the 45th District seat in 1982 with the backing of the political organization of Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles).


Democratic Edge

The district, which has a 2-1 Democratic registration edge, includes the Pico-Robertson area, Fairfax, Hollywood, Laurel Canyon and parts of West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Studio City, Burbank and Los Feliz.

Margolin, who was born in Chatanooga, Tenn., grew up in West Los Angeles and attended Hamilton High School and UCLA.

His political course was set when he was in high school and attended his first political meeting--a session to organize Waxman’s first run for the Assembly.


It led to a personal and political friendship between Margolin and Waxman, who went on to serve three terms in the Assembly. After Waxman’s election to Congress in 1974, Margolin served as his chief of staff. Margolin also worked as an assistant to Berman when Berman was in the Assembly.

In the 1960s, Margolin became active in the State Federation of Young Democrats and demonstrated against the Vietnam War. After protesting the war, Margolin said, it “was unthinkable that you could be involved (in politics) without having some philosophical orientation that you really deeply cared about.”

Margolin said his views were also influenced by Rabbi Albert M. Lewis of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, whose sermons frequently related questions of social justice, such as civil rights, to religion.

Margolin’s own concern with social issues has spilled into his legislative program. A member of the Health Committee, he has introduced a number of bills to expand health care services, especially to the poor.


Margolin said that many bills have only a “marginal impact” on people’s lives but in health care “you’re literally fighting battles that have a life-or-death consequence for the poorest people in our society.”

Margolin last year pushed a bill that was signed into law to provide a comprehensive program of pregnancy services for low-income women.

Sought Issue

Margolin said he sought the measure because legislative and social “priorities have focused on developing emergency techniques to save small, sick babies rather than funding prevention strategies to reduce the number of small, sick newborns.”


In another case, Margolin has had a degree of success even though the bill he is backing has not yet been approved by lawmakers.

For the last two years, he has carried a measure to block a dam from being built by the East Bay Municipal Utility District on the Mokelumne River in Calaveras County and preserve a three-mile stretch of river for recreation.

The measure stalled in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee last year, but Margolin reintroduced it this year. He has shelved the measure until 1986 because he could not get the votes on the committee.

In the meantime, however, the Northern California utility has backed away from building the dam, in part because of the cost and the threat posed by Margolin’s bill, according to an East Bay spokesman.


Assemblyman Norman Waters (D-Plymouth), whose district covers the stretch of river affected by Margolin’s bill, has opposed the measure. “I thought it was bad policy,” said Waters.

Waters called Margolin “a tough adversary. He doesn’t give up easily.” But he was irked that a lawmaker from urban Los Angeles would persist in carrying a measure affecting his rural district.

Margolin argued, however, that the river is one of the few in the state near a major highway where people have easy river access to learn white-water rafting and kayaking.

“Even though it involves a stretch of river that isn’t in my district--in fact, I don’t think there are any rivers in my district . . . people from around the state, including my constituents, use that river.


“It is a state resource once gone, never to be regained again.”