Richard Katz: Assemblyman in a Hurry

Times Staff Writer

Richard Katz, a bulldog in pinstripes, was growling.

The assemblyman had spotted men wandering around zombie-like at a drug-rehabilitation program in his northeast San Fernando Valley district. When Katz contacted the state agency that licensed the program, an official promised to send an inspector in several days.

“You got some choices here, pal,” Katz replied. “You can get somebody out there Monday morning, you can have your boss in my office in Sacramento Tuesday, or you’re going to read about it in the newspaper Wednesday.”

An inspector was quickly dispatched.


Observers like Katz’s ex-aide Marc Litchman, who recounted the incident, say it was a typical performance. Katz bullies bureaucrats, lobbies fellow legislators and drives himself and his staff with a determination that has won admirers and detractors--and that gets results.

In his race up the political ladder, the Sepulveda Democrat has left behind bruised egos and out-of-joint noses. But he has also earned a reputation as a man who knows how to pull the right levers. Colleagues and Capitol activists say the 36-year-old lawmaker has emerged in his fourth term as a respected Sacramento insider with growing clout.

“You couldn’t ask for better,” said Assemblyman Larry Stirling, a San Diego Republican who has worked with Katz. “He knows where to go and what to do.”

Speaker Willie Brown Jr. described Katz as a key player in the assembly. “He knows his subject as well as anyone. His integrity is beyond question. And he has proven his ability to be an attractive candidate in a very difficult district,” Brown said.


“Sometimes I think he’s so good I think he should be a Republican,” Rodney Blonien, Gov. George Deukmejian’s former legislative affairs secretary, said in reference to Katz’s negotiating ability.

Katz has recently made headlines with his proposal to abolish the beleaguered Southern California Rapid Transit District. But he has acquired stature among those active in state government as chairman of the important Assembly Transportation Committee, as an advocate for small businesses statewide and as a confidant of Speaker Brown.

In addition, he successfully championed landmark legislation to force chemical and oil companies to stop contaminating ground water and permit communities with surplus water to sell it to water-short areas. He doggedly steered these measures through the legislative labyrinth despite opposition from powerful special interests.

In his politically competitive 39th District, the peripatetic Katz has attained the kind of high profile usually associated with a city councilman or county supervisor. He has been rewarded with lopsided victories. In November he survived a well-financed Republican challenge to win reelection with 60% of the vote, his largest margin.

“Katz never let the sun set for one day without doing something for his district that got him credit in the community,” said state Sen. Ed Davis, a Valencia Republican. “So probably nobody’s going to take him in the short run.”

His short-term prospects for higher office appear limited, however. Political observers say the next logical step for Katz would be the state Senate seat held by Alan Robbins, an entrenched fellow Democrat whose Valley district includes Katz’s. They agree that Katz would be the front-runner for Robbins’ seat if the veteran senator attains another office. Robbins has indicated interest in seeking Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s seat if the Los Angeles Republican receives a state appointment or steps aside for any reason.

Some Democrats say Katz might eventually run for statewide office, such as controller or secretary of state. Others doubt that he could raise the money needed for such a campaign. Katz said vaguely: “Some people have talked to me. There’s some appeal.”

In the meantime, Katz’s impatience is a double-edged sword. Though quick-witted and often charming, he has a volcanic temper, displayed with profanity and sarcasm. Some detractors privately call him a “brat,” John McEnroe sans racquet.


Former aides recount tales of telephones shattered amid tantrums thrown, and staff turnover has been considerable. He has had 44 aides in 10 staff positions in the past six years, his records show.

Stressful Job

“I didn’t know what job stress was until I worked for Katz,” said one former aide. “Within the first three days I was there, he was screaming and swearing at me for crazy little things. . . . His attitude was that he was sort of a warlord.”

“I tend to get impatient with people who ought to do better or ought to know better,” Katz said. He said he is striving to control his temper because it can be an unguided missile. “I have misdirected it.”

He acknowledged that he has attacked bureaucrats who were not responsible for the problems that triggered his outburst. And he once exploded at a spokeswoman for a state board only to later learn she was the wife of a prominent political writer.

Katz has upset liberal and conservative politicians with a mixed voting record that appears to reflect the views of his highly diverse district. He tends to be conservative on crime and punishment, moderate on fiscal matters and liberal on social issues such as abortion and homosexual rights. He supports the death penalty and was an early opponent of former state Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

Those stands have irritated some Democrats, and frustrated Republicans by neutralizing potentially potent issues with his crime-conscious constituents.

“He has strong liberal instincts, but he’s probably someone who has tempered them a little bit, given his constituency,” said Walter Zelman, executive director of California Common Cause and a longtime Katz watcher.


Katz dismisses the ideological purists: “I view my role as getting things done, not hanging out there on the edges.”

Los Angeles Police Detective Robert F. Thoreson, who opposed Katz in 1984 and 1986, maintains that Katz’s voting record often contradicts his public image. Thoreson says that, although Katz trumpets his sponsorship of bills favoring small business, he opposed the state Chamber of Commerce’s position on its priority bills 75% of the time from 1981 to 1985.

Katz responds that the chamber is big-business oriented and pro-Republican. He has agreed with the position of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses statewide, on 80% of its key votes from 1981 to 1986.

Frenetic Pace

Even Katz’s critics acknowledge that he works hard. He sets a frenetic pace during his four-day weeks in Sacramento, juggling diverse issues, constituent complaints and committee responsibilities.

He works to the incongruous crooning of a country-music radio station. The melancholy strains of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” recently provided background for Katz’s discussion of interstate trucking regulations with state motor vehicle officials.

On weekends Katz can often be found guiding his black Chevy Blazer, a car phone clapped to his ear, from Chamber of Commerce dinners to neighborhood association meetings to Little League openings.

He exudes nervous energy. He cracks his knuckles. He bounces his knee beneath his desk. He drinks water from a ceramic cup bearing his own likeness. He carries on two conversations at once. Indeed, the neon sign flashing “Katz” in the corner of his Sacramento office looms like an X-ray of his central nervous system.

Most days start on the move, literally, with an early-morning jog or basketball game. Colleague Stirling quipped that the 5-foot, 10-inch Katz is a legislator only because “he’s too short to be a Laker.”

“Richard competes with everyone,” former aide Litchman said. “He competes with Alan Robbins. He competes with Tom Bane. He competes with Marian La Follette. He wants everyone to think he’s the best there is, and he doesn’t always get the respect he thinks he deserves. So he’s always hustling.” Bane and La Follette are also Assembly members from the Valley.

This determination, combined with Katz’s willingness to take on special interests, can be a tremendous asset, allies say.

In 1984, he sponsored a law to require that hazardous-waste pools within half a mile of drinking-water supplies be safeguarded with double liners and leak detectors, or be closed. Chemical and oil companies, major contributors to political campaigns, lobbied hard to defeat the bill.

The measure faced a critical hurdle in the Senate Finance Committee, which was split over whether to send it to the full Senate in the final hours of the 1983-84 legislative session. The committee seemed ready to weaken the bill.

Coralled the Indecisive

As the committee met, Katz buttonholed wavering members to warn them that diluting the bill could damage their political careers as well as their constituents’ health. He had held news conferences statewide to build public pressure by trumpeting the dangers of cyanide, PCBs and other toxins seeping into ground water, and had lined up dozens of environmental groups in support.

“He spent six hours in the committee,” former aide Patricia Schifferle said. “Anytime an oil company guy would hit up on a member, Richard would be right there. A lot of members wouldn’t have stayed in the fight that long. He fought tooth and nail to keep that bill intact without compromising substance.”

Michael Paparian, legislative lobbyist for the Sierra Club, concurred: “If it hadn’t been for the personal effort of Richard Katz, you can bet those weakening amendments would have gone into the bill.”

The measure, which Katz staffers dubbed “The Phoenix” because it rose from the ashes of apparent defeat so often, narrowly passed the Finance Committee after Katz persuaded Dow Chemical and U.S. Steel to drop their opposition. Its eventual passage gave California the strongest ground-water protection act in the nation.

“It’s still the best law around,” said Jeffrey Tryens, project director of the Washington-based State Support Center on Environmental Hazards, which tracks states’ environmental legislation. “Very few states have moved on that issue.”

If he has one eye on results, Katz has the other on self-promotion and issues that strengthen his hand politically. His style appears to be a combination of political commitment and pragmatic calculation.

In his spacious, wood-paneled Sacramento office, for example, a large poster behind Katz’s desk features a familiar quote, here attributed to Speaker Brown: “The only thing worse than being misquoted is not being talked about at all.”

Fighting for Safe School Buses

Katz is embroiled in well-publicized battles to allocate $100 million to replace 1,500 antiquated school buses he calls “potential deathtraps” and to require trucks carrying sand and gravel to cover their loads with tarpaulins to protect motorists’ windshields. Both bills were defeated last year and face organized opposition again.

Even in defeat, Katz has gained political mileage from his causes through newspaper editorials, television coverage and talk-show appearances.

In 1985, Brown’s office spent $9,000 to make phone calls and send mailings into Katz’s district to drum up support for the gravel bill--which the media-conscious Katz dubbed “Stop the Rocks"--to counteract powerful trucking-industry opposition. The effort generated more than 3,000 signatures supporting the bill, and, Republicans charged, incalculable political benefits for Katz at taxpayers’ expense.

Katz recently hired Bobbie Metzger’s Sacramento-based public relations firm to seek public support for the transit measures. Metzger was formerly Brown’s press secretary and is a close friend. Katz acknowledges that this publicity will also raise his statewide profile. He is using campaign funds to pay the firm’s $2,000 monthly retainer.

Katz’s clout is greatly enhanced by his links to Brown. When Brown threw a private, black-tie dinner party in Sacramento earlier this month to celebrate his 53rd birthday, Katz was one of two dozen guests and fewer than a dozen legislators invited to dine on goose-liver pate and lamb chops.

Katz has shown independence from Brown and the liberal Democratic majority, however, especially on crime issues. And he has refused to accept any campaign money from Brown.

He has received hundreds of thousands of dollars steered to him by other Democrats and special-interest contributors, such as real estate and labor groups, as an incumbent targeted for defeat by the state GOP. His $687,000 last year was one of the Assembly’s richest war chests, and enabled him to outspend Republican Thoreson 3 to 1.

Republicans covet Katz’s seat because the independent-minded 39th District is notorious for sending incumbents of both parties packing. Before Katz’s election in 1980, the district had elected four assemblymen in the past 12 years.

Diverse District

The district includes Latino and black neighborhoods of Pacoima and San Fernando, working-class Sepulveda, rural Sylmar and part of upper-middle-class Northridge. The district population is slightly more than half white, a third Latino, and 10% black and Asian, according to the 1980 census. Although Democrats have a large registration edge, the district strongly supported the anti-tax Proposition 13 and Republican Ronald Reagan. Community activists say politicians are generally regarded with little enthusiasm.

Not so Katz. His annual $10-a-person fund-raising picnic in Mission Hills has drawn 1,000 people to munch on fried chicken and corn on the cob the past two years.

In addition to reflecting the district’s positions, Katz has attained his unusual measure of job security by aggressively helping constituents obtain government aid or solve problems. His office reported handling 10,000 cases last year.

“He keeps his name in front of people with topics they’re interested in,” said Joe Dolan, a longtime Panorama City activist who voted against Katz in 1980 but is a Katz convert.

Katz skillfully uses campaign brochures and government-funded newsletters to tell constituents what he is doing for them on issues of concern to specific neighborhoods. He spent $29,917 on publicly funded mail in 1986, which ranked 11th in the 80-member Assembly, according to Assembly Rules Committee figures.

He also holds community breakfasts with big-name speakers such as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and astronaut Sally Ride. When he realized his ties to the rapidly growing Latino community were tenuous, he set up monthly breakfasts with Latino activists and business leaders.

Staff Tightly Controlled

Katz demands that district staffers in his Panorama City office make new personal contacts and attend community meetings each week. They must report about each to him with handwritten notes. Katz says he sees every letter that the office receives and every response. His unusually tightfisted control includes a ban on aides’ talking to reporters.

Yet, despite his meticulousness, Katz acknowledges that he was caught off guard in 1984 by a Republican campaign that registered 10,000 new GOP voters in his district. He belatedly countered with his own drive, which added 5,000 Democrats to the rolls.

“We got lazy, frankly,” Katz said. “That won’t happen again.” In 1986, he launched a $40,000 preemptive registration drive, spending $40,000 to sign up nearly 10,000 new voters.

Indeed, Katz is usually quick off the mark.

Sen. Davis recalled a Burbank Airport news conference held by Sen. Robbins several years ago to discuss their bipartisan anti-busing efforts. Davis was standing next to Robbins when the television cameras swung toward them.

“At that moment, Richard Katz jumped over high theater-size seats and landed between Alan and me,” Davis said. “As the cameras were turning, there was Richard talking. It was quite an athletic feat.”

A VIEW OF KATZ: ‘He wants everyone to think he’s the best there is. So he’s always hustling.’


Born Aug. 16, 1950, Richard Katz grew up in Baldwin Hills. His parents were actively involved in Democratic politics. His father, an accountant, was an observer at the 1960 Democratic Convention. Jules Katz died of throat cancer 10 days after his eldest son was elected to the Assembly in 1980.


Attended Santa Monica City College, where he was active in student politics. Received a B.A. in 1972 in political science from San Diego State, where he ran for student body president. Dropped out of San Fernando Valley School of Law in 1974 after attending the school part-time for 1 1/2 years. “I didn’t like it a whole lot,” he said, “and they didn’t like me being there a whole lot.”


Started graphic arts and printing company in 1975. Still does some of his own graphics work on campaign literature.

Political Start

Worked on former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Was elected president of the Santa Monica Democratic Club in 1975. Moved to Granada Hills in 1977, and became involved with community groups and party activists there. Challenged Republican Assemblyman J. Robert Hays in 1980 and bucked the Reagan landslide by winning by 3,581 votes, 38,081 to 34,500. Was reelected in November by 15,222 votes, 44,009 to 28,787.


Will marry Gini Barrett April 12. Friends say she has helped him relax. The daughter of Kansas farmers, Barrett is vice president for commercial leasing and environmental affairs for the Tejon Ranch in northern Los Angeles and southern Kern counties. The couple is looking for a home for themselves and their menagerie of three horses, two dogs and five cats. “We agreed she would learn about politics if I would learn to ride,” Katz said. “So far she’s doing better than I am.”