Freshmen legislators Terry Friedman and Paul Zeltner took vastly different roads to the state Assembly. Now they find themselves in a similar struggle to learn the complex inner workings of the Capitol.
The road to office was a cakewalk for one, an uphill fight for the other.
Democrat Terry B. Friedman and Republican Paul E. Zeltner joined a select club Nov. 4, when--in vastly different races--voters sent them to represent Los Angeles County in the California Assembly.
Friedman, 37, a former legal-aid attorney, was the candidate of choice among powerful Democrats, U. S. Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman in particular. He crushed Republican opposition in the silk-stocking 43rd District, which straddles West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Friedman's campaign was so easy that, for part of the summer, he closed his headquarters to visit Yosemite, Canada and the Eastern United States.
In contrast, Zeltner, 61, a Lakewood city councilman and former sheriff's captain, waged an underdog campaign in southeast Los Angeles County's 54th District, where he took on the son of powerful Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) in a race that became a high-profile battle. Zeltner mobilized scores of volunteers and plunged $60,000 in debt to win a seat all but written off by his own party.
Their election was merely the first step into an unfamiliar world of red tape, lobbyists and political power plays. The two new assemblymen agreed to help The Times record diaries of the difficult first months in office as they struggled to learn the system.
Zeltner, looking ahead to the challenge, said his top priority will be to learn the mechanics of what makes the Legislature tick. "It's the same process as local government," he asserted, "only you have a few more colleagues to deal with, maybe a few more arms to twist and a heck of a greater volume of work."
Friedman spoke of complexities--the vast interplay of personalities, committees, bills, the governor's office, constituents and the news media. "(Nothing) occurs in a vacuum," Friedman said. "It's an overwhelming process."
Week of DEC. 1 At noon on Monday, the sky is partly cloudy and the temperature is a brisk 56 degrees outside the 117-year-old Capitol. The 80 members of the Assembly, including 11 new faces, gather for the oath of office in the Assembly chamber, an ornate room dominated by huge chandeliers and tall, gilded columns that rise to a second-floor balcony.
Beside the silver-haired Zeltner sits his wife of 41 years, Patricia, whom he calls his "No. 1 supporter" in last fall's rough-and-tumble campaign.
Friedman is with his wife, Elise Karl, a kindergarten teacher who describes herself as being apolitical before marrying Friedman seven years ago. Their parents and several relatives watch from the rear of the chamber.
Gazing toward a giant oil painting of Lincoln, legislators pledge to defend the constitutions of the United States and California against "all enemies, foreign and domestic."
Cameras flash. So do smiles.
Friedman celebrates afterward with a bagels-and-champagne reception in his new Capitol office. Dozens of well-wishers shake his hand. He admits his voice nearly faltered during the ceremony.
"Standing . . . with my wife at my side and listening to the words that I was swearing to . . . I was a little bit choked up," Friedman recalls later. "It took a lot of effort to get the first few words out."
By the end of the week, the new legislators--like new students--have had an intense orientation. Among other things, they are advised how to complete their state-required economic disclosure statements, how to keep their offices running smoothly and how to handle the media. On Thursday, they are herded into a legislative hearing room to meet the capital press corps.
Zeltner seems at ease but cracks: "I'm still trying to find my way around."
Week of DEC. 8 Legislators busy themselves in their district offices, organizing files and answering letters.
Friedman has hired a full-time staff nearly identical to Zeltner's, with two aides to serve him in Sacramento and three others for his district office in Tarzana. Like most newcomers, the two legislators temporarily occupy their predecessors' quarters. For Zeltner, who took over for retiring Democrat Frank Vicencia, that means a district office at Bellflower City Hall and a spacious, six-room suite at the Capitol.
Friedman has replaced Democrat Gray Davis, the newly elected state controller. He has Davis' four-room Capitol suite and a high-rise district office overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains.
The two freshmen, products of different generations, bring vastly different priorities to the Capitol. Zeltner is regarded as a no-nonsense kind of guy. The former Navy seaman, a devout Catholic, fulfilled a childhood ambition when he became a sheriff's deputy after World War II.
His style is controlled, deliberate and straightforward. His wardrobe is shaded toward browns and grays. There's nothing flashy about the square-jawed six-footer, who got his start in law enforcement as a bouncer at a waterfront bar.
Zeltner's chief goal in Sacramento is to push for law-and-order bills. Among them is a proposal to allow for non-unanimous juries in some criminal cases. He is a long-time advocate of controlling sales of drug paraphernalia.
But Zeltner is not sure how much he can achieve in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. "It may be difficult for me to get things done until I develop my relationship with people on the other side" of the aisle, he says.
Friedman, the son of two schoolteachers, was weaned on social issues. His family would sit at the dinner table discussing TV news, which exposed Friedman to politics at an early age and gave him one of his first heroes: John F. Kennedy.
Although soft-spoken and friendly ("It is really hard to upset him about things," his wife says), Friedman is also strongly disciplined. He is a devout Jew and vegetarian who spent nearly 10 years as a legal-aid attorney defending the poor and elderly.
Friedman works long hours. He trundles through life with an ever-present pile of books under one arm. His goal is to advance liberal causes that include reducing class sizes in schools, battling discrimination and protecting the Santa Monica Mountains, a traditional role for the incumbent in the 43rd District.
The balding, 5-foot-6 Friedman is studying the Legislature under the tutelage of Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), a close friend since their student days at UCLA. Long talks with Margolin have given the freshman a keen appreciation for the tasks that lie ahead: deciding when to compromise on bills, when to refuse amendments, how to get his way under a Republican, fiscally conservative governor.
"I don't want to jump in, Day 1, presuming that I know how to push a major bill through," Friedman says in an interview. "I will try to select some legislation that is reasonable for a freshman to handle. . . .
"On the other hand . . . I ran for office because there are a lot of things I want to do. I was elected to accomplish something."
Week of DEC. 15 Friedman meets in Sacramento with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) to discuss committee assignments. Committees, the vital cogs in the legislative machinery, are where legislators shape, critique and sometimes kill legislation before it reaches the Assembly floor. Usually, bills that survive committee hearings have a strong chance for adoption, at least in their house of origin.
Friedman asks to serve on committees dealing with education and health, and expresses an interest in three or four others. His requests are ambitious; most legislators serve on no more than four committees. Brown's power, in part, is founded largely on his ability to grant such assignments, parceling out duties for the Assembly's 44 Democrats and 36 Republicans. The speaker takes Friedman's requests into consideration.
In Bellflower, meanwhile, Zeltner is discovering that many constituent letters are from "people (who are) not able to get answers from state agencies" on social service problems. Many callers are surprised to learn Vicencia has retired and Zeltner is their new assemblyman.
Week of JAN. 5 The new session begins. But first, there is a dizzying round of parties and receptions, most important the ball celebrating Gov. George Deukmejian's inauguration for a second term. Zeltner has no tuxedo for the formal occasion. "I've never had much use for one . . . and styles change," Zeltner says. Instead, he rents a tuxedo for $48 from a shop in Bellflower. Patricia Zeltner says she bought a new gown for the party.
Patricia Zeltner plans to stay in Sacramento with her husband during the week. They have rented an apartment, but she does not expect to spend much time around the Capitol. "I'll be home cooking his soup," she says.
Friedman's wife, Elise, will stay in Los Angeles because of her teaching job. Friedman plans to commute twice a week, rising before 6 to catch a 7:30 a.m. flight out of Los Angeles.
The first day's Assembly meeting lasts less than half an hour, a largely ceremonial exchange of greetings. Later, Friedman receives a surprise visit from state Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale), a member of the rival party who drops by to say hello and to offer advice or assistance. Russell says he received a similar welcome 23 years ago from a Democratic rival, former Assembly floor leader Jerome R. Waldie of Contra Costa County.
Now he passes the courtesy along.
"We may not agree philosophically," Russell says, but "we're all up here to do the people's business."
The collegial atmosphere of the week carries overtones of serious politics. Zeltner receives a surprise visit from former state Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress), who urges Zeltner to avoid another tough election in 1988 by taking the unusual step of switching parties.
Zeltner is a "moderate," Carpenter says, "and as a moderate I don't think he's wed to the philosophy of either party."
He "could have the seat forever as a Democrat," says Carpenter, who's now a member of the state Board of Equalization. But "if the Democrats put up a strong candidate (in 1988), he'll lose."
Zeltner says thanks, but he doesn't cross the aisle.
Week of JAN. 12 Zeltner awakens at 4:30 Monday morning. From his Lakewood home, he travels 25 miles to Los Angeles International Airport to catch the 7:30 flight to Sacramento. He arrives in time for the scheduled 10 a.m. Assembly meeting, only to find the room nearly empty.
The meeting doesn't start for 40 more minutes.
"To call a session at 10 a.m. and no one show up until 10:41 is a complete waste of time," he complains. He brands the behavior rude, adding: "If it's not necessary to show up, then why call the meeting at an early time?"
The regular Assembly meetings on Mondays and Thursdays start late and end quickly. Issues are scarce as lawmakers begin early planning for legislation. Much time is spent on the phone, raising campaign contributions, badgering bureaucrats to respond to constituents' complaints and calculating ways to squeeze money into the state budget for pet projects.
A pivotal moment of the week for Zeltner is a meeting with Speaker Brown to discuss committee assignments. Brown had heavily bankrolled Zeltner's Democratic opponent in November and is expected to do so again in 1988, but Zeltner later describes the meeting as cordial. Still, he hesitates even to speculate about his committee assignments.
"You never know around here until you see it in print," he sighs, already sounding like a Capitol veteran.
Friedman meets with Brown for a second time. The Democrat's preliminary list of assignments is much to his liking, but he is not given the Education Committee, which is his top priority. Encouraged by Brown, Friedman talks with committee members about swapping assignments, but no one wants to give up a seat.
To add to his frustration, nothing much is happening in the Capitol except a steady flow of lobbyists dropping by the office. Smiling, shaking hands, they are laying the groundwork for support on causes ranging from nursing care to oil production.
"Courtesy calls," Friedman labels them, "without a lot of substance."
Week ofJAN. 19 Still trying for a spot on the Education Committee, Friedman places several calls to the chairwoman, Assemblywoman Teresa P. Hughes (D-Los Angeles).
"He was just like all freshmen, anxious to know what he was going to do," Hughes recalled later. "I told him, 'I'll see what the speaker says.' "
Brown expands the committee by three members, maintaining Democratic control and giving Friedman a seat.
Zeltner, meanwhile, gets the three committees he had sought: public safety, health and veterans affairs.
"I was pleasantly surprised, probably because I didn't expect to get much of anything up here," Zeltner says.
Friedman, late for a meeting with state schools Supt. Bill Honig, tries to leave the Assembly in mid-session.
He is stopped by a guard, who asks him to get a pass.
"It's like being in school," Friedman says. "Once a quorum is established, they don't want to lose it."
Zeltner also is eager to leave on this Thursday, which is the official opening day of his Bellflower City Hall office. As the session adjourns, he and his wife hurry to Sacramento Municipal Airport.
That night, with spotlights brightening the skies, City Hall resembles a Hollywood movie premiere. Inside, the lobby is decorated with red, white and blue balloons. Guests are offered refreshments that include champagne, apple cider and strawberries dipped in chocolate.
In the crowded lobby, Zeltner kisses women and shakes hands with men, like a bridegroom at his wedding. Most of the people are white, well-dressed and middle-aged or elderly. Even though his district covers heavily black areas of Compton and Willowbrook, few blacks are in attendance.
Zeltner wades through the crush of people to the adjoining auditorium, where he tells the audience that he owes his success to the voters, not to Sacramento politicians. "You showed them (the experts) how it works," he declares. Afterward, Bellflower City Councilman Joseph Cvetko tells a reporter that Zeltner "didn't get a size 12 head when he went up" to Sacramento.
Week of JAN. 26 Zeltner sides with Democrats in a procedural vote on one of the first key bills of the session, an emergency measure to block 10% Medi-Cal cuts ordered by Gov. Deukmejian. As a former board member at Lakewood Doctors Hospital, Zeltner says he has seen how health care providers are "taking it in the shorts" because of funding cuts.
His vote reflects what Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) later calls an independent style. Zeltner will "split with the (GOP) caucus whenever his personal judgment dictates . . ." McClintock says. "Personality-wise, he's similar to (Republican state Senator and former Los Angeles police chief) Ed Davis in terms of independence."
The move to block the Medi-Cal funding cuts fails. Friedman is also on the losing side of the vote, but after weeks of legislative inactivity, he is glad to see debate. "Finally," he says, "we're getting into the substance and the issues that attracted me to run for office."
As permanent offices are assigned for the Capitol, freshmen lose their spacious temporary quarters. Friedman moves from a four-room suite to a three-room suite, and Zeltner's six-room suite gives way to a two-room office that's so cramped the water cooler must be shoved into a closet.
"Obviously, the new kids on the block aren't going to have the nicest places," Friedman says philosophically.
Week of FEB. 2 Like a train lumbering away from the station, the Assembly's pace is beginning to pick up. Committees meet but agendas remain brief. Legislators spend many hours in their offices, talking with lobbyists, colleagues and constituents, trying to meet a Friday deadline for drafts of legislation. The ideas must go to the legislative counsel's office, where they are screened by attorneys and written into formal bills.
Friedman sends along about 40 ideas, including proposals to outlaw new trash dumps in the Santa Monica Mountains and to ban liquor licenses for private clubs that bar women or members of minority groups. He still complains about the dawdling early pace of the session, and says meaningful issues that have reached a vote in the Assembly can almost be counted on one hand.
"Before long, it will take off like a firecracker," a Assembly veteran assures him.
In Compton on Friday, Zeltner and more than a dozen city officials board a converted trolley car, painted red and green, for a tour of several housing projects, a burgeoning redevelopment area and other points of interest. The tour focuses on the community's effort to reverse its high-crime image, a goal in line with Zeltner's legislative aims.
"Don't forget me after today," he tells the small entourage as the bus returns to City Hall. "We really mean to stay in office. I don't believe in lip service. We're here to do a job."
Week of FEB. 9 Zeltner awakens early Thursday for a fund-raising breakfast at Brannan's, a popular, wood-paneled restaurant across from the Capitol. Dozens of lobbyists pay $500 a person to eat stiff scrambled eggs, spicy hashed brown potatoes and ham, bacon or sausage.
Dressed in a natty gray suit, with a red tie and matching handkerchief, Zeltner greets lobbyists and groggy Republican colleagues who stop by for a bite or cup of coffee. Hardly any of those in attendance contributed money to his underdog election campaign.
"It was tough getting here without your help," he cracks.
Citing the large sums spent by his Democratic opponent, Zeltner says "about $1 million couldn't keep me away" and, now that he is a lawmaker, "$1 million won't keep me out."
The fund-raiser reflects an ever-present concern for Zeltner. Unlike Friedman, who ended the past year with more than $20,000 in his political war chest, Zeltner is still repaying his campaign debts. Friedman's seat is considered secure, while Zeltner understands clearly the difficulty he could face in 1988. His district is one of the most heavily Democratic of any Republican-held district in the state.
Still, he warns lobbyists: "You're not buying this kid" just because they bought a ticket to the breakfast.
Lobbyists at the event are like baseball scouts checking out a prospect in spring training. Veteran lobbyist Joe Gonsalves, a former Norwalk assemblyman, says he attends fund-raisers to befriend staff members. As a result, he says, they "know you're a supporter of the (Assembly) member. So when you go to their offices, you're likely to get a good reception."
Week of FEB. 16 Schedules are rapidly filling up. For Friedman, the week contains two formal breakfasts, a lunch for freshmen Democrats, two Assembly meetings, several committee hearings, testimony before a state commission and, after flying home, a speech before about 60 Brentwood homeowners.
He caps the week with a helicopter tour of the Santa Monica Mountains, viewing areas under consideration by Los Angeles County for new trash landfills. Buffeted by high winds, he emerges feeling slightly sick. "It sort of shook me up," he concedes.
Zeltner stays in Sacramento through the weekend so he can attend his first state Republican Party convention, where he delivers a brief talk to the Republican Black Caucus. During his appearance, Zeltner notes that even though Republicans make up 5% of voters in predominantly black Compton, he received about 10% of the city's vote in the election. He concedes he has limited knowledge of the black community, but he tells three dozen caucus members that "I am your representative" and vows to prove himself "by accomplishments."
Week of FEB. 23 Arriving in his office Wednesday morning, Friedman finds staff members packing boxes. In half an hour, he is told, they are to clear out for Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who has five months of seniority over Friedman.
Friedman's new office, a tiny two-room suite, is considered one of the worst in the Capitol. Furious, he phones Assemblyman Tom Bane (D-Tarzana), chairman of the Rules Committee, who promises to try to provide something better.
"The disadvantage of being a freshman, with a small staff, is compounded by conditions like this," Friedman says.
Some frustrations facing the freshmen seem to be receding, however. As the Assembly moves toward full throttle, Zeltner no longer complains about poor punctuality. Floor sessions, he reports, are starting "within 12 minutes" of the scheduled time.