Q&A; : His Purpose in Life : Longtime State Senator Herschel Rosenthal Stresses His Legislative Work Ethic

After 18 years in the Legislature, state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal is, for the first time, facing serious opposition.

Because of reapportionment, the mostly Westside district in which he was elected to a four-year term in 1990 will cease to exist in two years, so he is seeking election in the newly drawn 23rd Senate District, which includes most of the Westside north of the Santa Monica Freeway (10) and the southern San Fernando Valley.

Opposing him in the liberal, heavily Democratic district are Assemblyman Tom Hayden and businesswoman Catherine O'Neill. The winner on June 2 will face only minor-party opposition in November.

This Q&A; with Rosenthal is the last in a series with the three candidates. He was interviewed by staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin.

Q: There is growing criticism from your two opponents that you are hiding from public scrutiny by refusing to appear at campaign forums and debates. Why the low visibility?

A: We have been together eight to 10 times. I don't know what the heck they are talking about. During this period of time, I'm going to be spending my time in Sacramento. Maybe Hayden doesn't think that is important. I will be doing my job. I feel an obligation to be in the Legislature dealing with the issues that are important to all of the people of California.

Q: O'Neill and Hayden contend the strategy is to keep you out of sight--that it's a protect-an-incumbent strategy.

A: I think Mr. Hayden needs a work ethic. The fact that he's not in the Legislature, that he's not participating in the debate on all the important issues, that he's not even there when committees are meeting, that is something I'll be telling people about.

Q: Since the riots, the attention of most voters has been on their community. What do you tell voters to help them make up their minds when their attention is elsewhere?

A: I'm going to tell voters about the legislation that I carry, about the bills I have in. I came to Sacramento to represent a community. As chairman of the Energy and Public Utilities Committee, I've been an important force in trying to move us toward alternative fuels, clean air, electric and natural gas-powered vehicles. I've also been involved in a number of areas in terms of health issues, children's issues, senior citizens' issues. When people look at my record compared to my two opponents, they will return me to Sacramento.

Q: Senator, you're 74. You have two years left in the term you were elected to in 1990. At that point, you will have been in the Legislature for at least 20 years. Why not retire then?

A: Because I have been effective. You have to have a purpose in life. One of mine is attempting to free California from dependence on foreign oil, shifting us to alternative, clean forms of energy. We are beginning to move steadily in that direction. I need another four-year term to complete that task.

Q: After this four years, you would have to retire because of term limits.

A: I would have to retire from the Senate. I will then do something else.

Q: You opposed the term limits and used some of your own campaign funds to try to defeat Proposition 140. Why?

A: One of the things that is going to happen is there will be no memory. No expertise will exist in the Legislature, and the lobbyists and the bureaucracy will run everything.

Q: Your opponents point out that if you're elected in this new district, a special election will have to be called to fill the remainder of your term in the old district. They say it'll cost $1 million. Is it worth it?

A: I don't think it will cost $1 million. The governor has the authority, for example in Los Angeles, which is the major portion of the district, (to schedule) special elections concurrently with city elections.

Q: Los Angeles votes next April. But this district also includes Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Malibu--places that don't hold city elections then. You're willing to make the taxpayers bear the cost of a special election so you can serve two more years?

A: There would be some cost, but the major portion of the district would be taken care of in the L.A. elections if it is held at the same time.

Q: How much do you expect to spend in this race?

A: In anticipation that Hayden will spend up to $1 million, I may end up spending $700,000. I hope I don't have to.

Q: You've had one major fund-raiser. This is going to be very expensive race.

A: I have been been on the phone while in Sacramento. I installed my own phone to make phone calls so I don't use the state line in support of my candidacy. I've done that.

Q: From the Capitol?

A: Yes.

Q: How much money do you anticipate you will receive from your Senate colleagues?

A: I don't have any idea. All I know is that I am being supported now by some senators. I welcome it, because I'm in trouble now as they see it. When they were in trouble, I was helpful to them.

Q: Are you, in fact, in trouble?

A: No, I don't really see myself in trouble. I really think I'm going to win this thing when you look at the high negatives that Hayden has. There are 250,000 Democrats in the district. To put out one mailing, you are talking about $50,000. And I don't think O'Neill is going to be able to raise that kind of money because she hasn't been in the state. He, of course, will spend his own money. There is no question about that.

Q: Why do you think you're more effective than Hayden?

A: I have the ability to work with people and to get support where he is not. The ability to put my head down and work the process.

Q: What inhibits his effectiveness?

A: I think he finds it difficult to work with people. He also has had the situation of absenteeism--not just from the floor but from committees where the work is done.

Q: How do you deal with O'Neill?

A: I'm just going to talk about my record. The fact that she hasn't been here for the last number of years, having lived in Washington and New York and Paris, she may not be aware of things that have changed.

Q: When we last spoke, you were undecided about whether to support Measure F, the Los Angeles police reform measure, on the June 2 ballot. Have you reached a decision?

A: I have endorsed Proposition F because I've decided half a loaf is better than none. But I have reservations. It seems to me that when you spread the accountability among the mayor, the City Council and the Police Commission, you set up a system for finger-pointing and passing the buck.

Q: I don't hear you talking about any positive aspects of the measure. You offered your reservations and a lukewarm endorsement of it. Why endorse it at all?

A: When I can't get everything I want, I go for half. I've done that with my legislation. Nobody gets everything they want.

Q: In this area of police reform, what do you want?

A: It would have been better to have a citizens' review.

Q: And you don't believe the Police Commission affords that opportunity?

A: No, it doesn't. This merely divides the accountability.

Q: I don't understand your endorsement of Measure F. Do you feel that it would be a negative factor in the Senate race?

A: No, no, no. When I try to pass a bill and I can't get exactly what I want, I'll take half a loaf. That's the reason. It's better than nothing.

Q: Do you believe the Los Angeles police officers who were on trial in the Rodney G. King beating used excessive force?

A: I was really surprised by the decision, not only because of what I saw in terms of the beating, but the falsification of what actually took place. Obviously, if they were going to falsify something in order to make themselves look better, there had to be some guilt. The jury verdict really took me by surprise.

Q: Los Angeles has just been through the worst urban riot in the past century. What's the appropriate state response?

A: There are a million people down there who have been placed at a disadvantage. It is an appalling situation because of 10,000 or more hoodlums who created havoc. It really had nothing to do with the decision of the jury. That may have been the spark plug. It is really unfortunate that we haven't dealt with the basic concerns in terms of jobs, school dropouts, drugs, gangs. There just never seemed to be any funds to provide opportunities for people.

Q: What's the answer, though? Isn't this a crisis for California and Los Angeles?

A: It is. We are going to have to take a look at a number of suggestions. Our congressional delegation needs to work in Washington to provide funds for the various things I indicated.

Q: The eastern parts of this new district, in Hollywood and Koreatown, suffered extensive riot damage. What did you do in the immediate aftermath to address the needs of people who lost property, had their buildings burned or businesses displaced?

A: I was in Sacramento, so I wasn't able to do as much as I would have liked. But the office has been responsive to lots of phone calls, putting people in touch with where they could get help, food and clothing, and services. And I've been in contact with the senator who now represents the district, Diane Watson.

Q: Are you taking a position on the proposal to raise the sales tax a quarter-cent?

A: When we have already increased the sales tax to balance the budget, I might not be in favor of that sales tax increase. People generally would like government to take care of the problem without increasing taxes.

Q: Given California's fiscal problems and the magnitude of the problem we've been discussing, if you are not disposed to raise sales taxes, what programs would you cut?

A: I'm prepared to cut some loopholes. A lot have outlived their usefulness. People should not get a tax (deduction) for belonging to country clubs. We ought to reduce the benefit they get taking somebody to a three-martini lunch.

Q: Are those measures going to do the trick? We're talking about massive needs here and a state that has a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

A: I think you could pick up $1 billion by closing loopholes.

Q: Are you willing to raise other taxes?

A: We need to raise taxes at the upper levels of income. I believe that we ought to go to 10 or 11 or 12 percent on a sliding scale, starting at $200,000 for families' taxable income.

Q: What are you going to do in the next four years, if you're elected, to address the underlying issues of race, poverty and social injustice that fueled the riots?

A: We have to stop lumping human beings together as a group if we're ever going to get beyond race as an issue. We need to do ongoing things, which have nothing to do with whether there was a riot or not. That's jobs, social programs. We need to do something about funding for schools. We need to do something about drugs and gangs. Those need to be the programs for all of California, because these kinds of problems are not limited to South-Central L.A.

Q: Specifically, what would you do to address the problems of South-Central L.A.?

A: Government needs to be the last resort of jobs. We need to expand and not cut, as the governor is planning to do, the California Conservation Corps. We ought to employ 100,000 young people, providing service whether it be in the planting of trees, or fighting of fires, or just providing services to society. We ought to provide them with a work ethic.

Q: Do you intend to address the law-and-order question in your campaign?

A: If I do, I'm not going to excuse lawless behavior by blaming society or frustration or something else beyond the personal accountability of those involved in lawless acts. I'm going to support people going to prison. I'm going to support having people account for their sins.

Q: Are you concerned that the law-and-order response may predominate? As opposed to the social programs--the education, the jobs?

A: My emphasis is going to be on the jobs. I'm interested in the amount of money that is going to schools. I want people to be punished if they are guilty of something. But we need to concentrate on the programs.

Q: How do you respond to the erosion of defense-industry and manufacturing jobs in the region? And what's the economic impact of the riot on the economic vitality of Southern California?

A: The riot is going to affect, certainly, income to the state in terms of sales tax and other taxes. As we cut back on defense spending, there have got to be some of those dollars coming back to California to provide jobs. Where there are no jobs, it is up to the government to be the last provider of jobs.

Q: In 1988, when there were two campaign reform measures on the state ballot, you dedicated $50,000 of your campaign funds to defeating the Common Cause measure, Proposition 68, and Proposition 73 sponsored by several senators. Why?

A: The things that I opposed, ostensibly looked at as reforms, were really not reform. First of all, extremist groups are not prohibited from getting funds. Second, it would actually make it impossible for a non-incumbent to run a satisfactory race. They wanted to limit the amount so that a person like O'Neill couldn't raise enough money to run a campaign and wealthy people like Hayden could buy it. Now there's something wrong with that concept.

Q: Why hasn't political reform registered on the Rosenthal radar screen?

A: Because I don't think the things that have been proposed are really reforms.

Q: Do you believe the current system of financing elections in California . . .

A: Is not good. But unless there is something better, I'm not going to support it.

Q: But if it's not good, why isn't it a priority with you?

A: Because I've got other things on my mind. I've supported a ban on honorariums. I support a ban on legislative perks. But I don't want to give an advantage to incumbents and deny entry into the political system to some citizen who is not personally wealthy.

Q: In recent years, three of your Senate colleagues have been convicted of federal political corruption charges. Doesn't that reflect very badly on the Legislature? What should an appropriate response be to ensure that kind of corruption does not continue?

A: The situation in the Senate is very demoralizing as a result of what has happened. Given that and eight years of Gov. (George) Deukmejian with no movement at all in any area and the problems now with Gov. (Pete) Wilson in terms of the budget, I guess I've done pretty well with my program.

Q: How does that address this question about the Legislature's image? How do you remove this blemish on the reputation of the Senate?

A: We created an Ethics Committee and they came in with their recommendations. The staff and the legislators have gone through several hours talking about ethics and what is legislatively connected and what is not. I see already the beginnings of different attitudes.

Q: Do you believe that Sens. Carpenter, Montoya and Robbins were simply individuals engaged in criminal activity? Or is there an institutional problem in the Legislature?

A: I think it was an individual problem. I don't think the institution has that marking.

Q: Numerous interest groups and corporations, many with legislation before your committee, have provided you with over $56,000 in gifts, honoraria, meals and travel during the past five years. Why? Do they believe those gifts were benefiting them in some manner?

A: If you talk to the associations that did this, you will find that they really don't consider me a friend. I challenge anybody to point where I voted in favor of something as a result of that. But you can sure point to things where I voted against those same outfits. I did take some honorariums, but I was one of the first ones to say we should not have any.

Q: There are many dinners, an $8,000 trip to London and Paris from Pacific Telesis, to Israel from a solar engineering company, to Canada from a gas company.

A: The trip to France and England by the telephone people is really an interesting one. When I came back, I voted against the bill they were interested in. I don't know what the hell anybody thinks they gained by it. The thing going on now, my opposition to Caller ID--the telephone companies hate me because I may win on that issue. That doesn't mean they aren't going to invite me out to another function.

I wish somebody would point out where I've actually done something wrong as a result of it. When I wanted to find out about the Canadian natural gas and the pipeline that was going to be coming in, I had a problem because I wanted it to be an open pipeline, not just a PG&E; pipeline. If I hadn't gone to learn about the process, I wouldn't have come to that conclusion. So PG&E; took me to task because I was saying, sell pieces of that pipeline so that other users can bring their own natural gas into California.

The trip to Israel was to see the Luz (solar) operation and how they made the various equipment. I am singularly responsible for most of the solar energy now in California. In fact, 350 to 400 megawatts of power are now on-line because of my becoming aware and interested in the Luz project.

Q: You haven't ever had a serious challenger until this race.

A: That's true.

Q: Yet you've raised substantial amounts of campaign funds over the years. You have received a substantial amounts from drug companies, from horse racing interests, a significant array of political action committees in Sacramento.

A: From nurses, from social workers, from teachers, on and on and on.

Q: But also from major business interests with legislation pending before the Senate.

A: If they are right, I am with them. If they're not, I take them on.

Q: Why has the horse racing industry been so supportive of you?

A: I'm interested in the horse racing industry; they provide $150 million to the state general fund. That's significant. I have supported legislation which created satellite wagering because I saw the number of dollars at the tracks was beginning to be diminished by various other kinds of activities. That satellite wagering would at least allow the state to receive its share of the betting dollar.

Q: On a personal basis, you are a horse racing fan. Your financial interest statements show you've received a number of passes to the tracks each year. How often do you visit them?

A: I haven't been able to go very often since the campaign started. Before I was a legislator, I bred and raced thoroughbreds with two other fellows. When I ran for office, at that time we had 12 horses, I figured I probably should not be a legislator and own horses, so I sold out my interest to the two partners. I have not owned a horse since 1974, but I've always had an interest in the breeding and racing of horses.

Q: What should be done about the health-care crisis that California faces?

A: It is a crisis. We have between 5 million and 6 million working Californians with no health insurance. That is a crime. We need to do something about health insurance. We can't just put it on the small-business person. But there are ways in which we might create some funds that employers might be able to buy into.

Q: Please be as specific as you can.

A: You might not be able to buy insurance if you are a small employer for all of your employees because one particular case and you are wiped out. But if you were able to join into a group and you paid a certain percentage of your payroll, for example, which created a lump sum which would then provide the health insurance for the group.

Q: In terms of meeting the needs of those working Californians without insurance, who should pay--should it come primarily from employers or from the state general fund?

A: We need a combination. I think employers cannot pay for it all. People who are employed ought to pay for a portion of it out of their own. I think the insurance companies ought to be part of the picture. When you have each one of these insurance companies with an individual plan, you have overhead. If you combine some of those, the duplications of overhead could pay for providing minimum health care for working Californians.

Q: If you're elected for four years, what would your response be to the AIDS crisis?

A: We need to do more research, we need to provide more respite (out-of-hospital) care. Our congressional delegation needs to be worked on in terms of the dollars that should be coming from the federal government. It is a crisis in health care. There is no question about it and it is growing. If we don't do something about education, we aren't going to solve the problem.

Q: Let me ask about one crime issue on which you and Hayden differ: the death penalty.

A: I oppose the death penalty. It is not a deterrent and it is not treated equally in how it's applied. Poor people generally don't do as well. Maybe they can't hire the best defense. The important thing is it really is not a deterrent. We're going to put more people to death--there is no question about it--because people think it is going to solve a problem. We are the only (democratic) nation, other than South Africa, that still maintains that is the way to go.

Herschel Rosenthal

Background: Rosenthal, 74, decided to seek election to another four-year term this year after the boundaries of the district in which he was reelected in 1990 were redrawn. Long a loyalist in the Democratic political organization headed by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), Rosenthal was elected to the Assembly in 1974. He moved to the state Senate in 1982. Until now, he has never faced a serious election challenge during his 18 years in the Legislature.

If Rosenthal loses the June 2 primary, he will stay in Sacramento for two years to complete the four-year term he won in 1990. If he wins in the new district, a special election would be held to pick a senator to complete the term in his old district.

During his 10 years in the upper house, Rosenthal has served as chairman of the Energy and Public Utilities Committee, which handles energy issues and legislation governing utilities, including telephone, electric and gas companies. In that role, he has promoted the development of alternative energy sources, including wind, solar and geothermal power, and cleaner-burning fuels.

Personal: Married to Patricia Rosenthal, who assists in his campaign. They have two adult children. Rosenthal was a printer by trade.

Education: Attended UCLA School of Engineering.

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