Patronage Gives Politicians a Life After Legislature : Sacramento: A surge of recent appointments shows how lawmakers often take care of their own.
Cecil Green, the onetime Norwalk mayor and muffler shop owner, surprised no one with his announcement a year ago that he was retiring from the state Senate.
After five years in the Senate, Green had not made much of a legislative mark, and his health had turned bad. When his district was redrawn, his reelection hopes turned bleak.
But Green, 68, was not jobless for long. In January, a month after his term ended, his former colleagues in the Senate placed the Democrat on the California Medical Assistance Commission.
The seven-member commission is obscure, but it has an important task--haggling with hospitals for the care of poor people to keep the $8.5-billion Medi-Cal budget in check. The pay is not bad either--$52,500 a year, the same as legislators--for a post regarded as part-time.
“I am retired from work,” Green said by phone from the Northern California resort of Lakeport, where he is living, when he was asked how much time he planned to spend on the job. “I am assigned to a position. I will be doing the work . . . that is necessary. Am I working 40 hours a week? I don’t know yet.”
As it was for many Californians, 1992 was a year of job insecurity for legislators. The shuffling of district lines forced some incumbents to retire, and others were beaten at the polls.
Though the state’s jobs picture remains bleak, things look brighter for some former politicians. Green is one of six ex-legislators who were appointed to jobs in state government after they retired or lost elections last year. Another four Republican candidates who ran for office but lost also landed well-paid state positions in the past month or two, as did a GOP lawmaker who was trounced at the polls in 1990.
The surge of appointments over the past two months is a primer on how politicians take care of their own with the patronage positions available in state government.
“It’s taking care of the battlefield wounded,” said Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier).
Some of the ex-politicians got regular jobs within the state bureaucracy. More landed posts on the state’s quasi-independent boards and commissions, where they are their own bosses and draw annual salaries of between $52,500 and $95,000 a year.
Former lawmakers now hold 12 of the 70 jobs on the panels, which, among other things, decide when to parole criminals, where to locate garbage dumps, what utility rates should be and whether unemployed workers are wrongly denied benefits.
The appointments cut across party lines. Fiscal conservatives and liberals give and get the jobs. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has the bulk of these appointments, with more than 60 spots to fill on 13 boards, as well as hundreds more administrative positions. The Democratic Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Rules Committee have four such appointments each.
Defenders of the practice say that former lawmakers come well prepared to deal with the pressures of lobbyists who do business before boards and commissions, and that experience gained in elective office should not be cast away.
“I’m sure the public, if asked, would prefer that everybody take a Civil Service exam,” said Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys), chair of the Senate Rules Committee. But exams “don’t test how a person deals with colleagues.”
“Someone can pass a Civil Service test and have a social IQ of zero,” Roberti said.
People in and out of government predict that as term limits force lawmakers to give up their elected positions during the next four years, more of them will end up on commissions.
“That’s going to be an experienced pool of talented people who are accustomed to public service, and enjoy public service and perform well,” said Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
While Green is the only one of the Senate’s four appointments to paying boards who is a former colleague, three of Brown’s four appointees are former legislators. When he selects his appointees, Brown said, he seeks people who are “talented, who understand the issues and won’t embarrass me.”
Compared to other states, California has relatively few patronage jobs--and no one plans to rebuild Tammany Hall across from the golden-domed Capitol any time soon.
Yet as the Legislature’s budget choices turn ugly--among them, for example, is a proposal to cut state subsidies for eyeglasses for the poor--there are calls for abolishing the boards or at least cutting their costs.
Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) is pushing a bill to lower the pay of 60 people who make more than the $52,500 paid to legislators. He contends that paying a board member $76,000 or more for one of the jobs “sends shivers down the backs of the people we’re sent to Sacramento to represent.”
Prospects for Thompson’s bill are not good.
As in other professions, legislators believe they must stick together, and want to know that there is a “safety net,” noted Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), a critic of the boards and a likely supporter of Thompson’s bill.
“You’re talking about taking away a power of certain appointing powers to hold out plums,” Hayden said, “and you’re taking away those same possible plums for legislators who are defeated.”
One reason so many ex-legislators received political appointments lately is the high turnover last year. Largely because of reapportionment and impending retirement imposed by term limits, 33 legislators left their seats in the largest reshuffling since the 1960s.
A dozen were elected to other offices, three are running for other offices, two went to work for governmental agencies, three went to work for trade or nonprofit groups, and one died. Of the other 12, six hold appointed positions.
One retired lawmaker who is not seeking an appointment--former wine country Assemblywoman Bev Hansen--said the practice has become so common that her political friends simply assume she is in line for some state job.
“Everybody asks me, ‘What appointment are you getting?’ ” Hansen said, amused by idea. “They all expect I will be appointed to something because everybody else has been.”
So far, Wilson has named three Republican legislators who lost or retired last year to boards that pay $76,872 a year. He gave another $76,872 job to a conservative ex-congressman. The governor named four other allies who lost elections last year to Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts at salaries of $61,000 to $101,000.
“By appointing some of the people that we have, we have probably done a great service to strengthen these boards,” said Charles Poochigian, Wilson’s appointments secretary. “They certainly bring a different perspective than other people who might serve.”
The Board of Prison Terms, which decides whether to release prisoners, is one that now has the perspective of former legislators. At first, Wilson followed the lead of former Gov. George Deukmejian, who had stacked the board with retired law enforcement officers.
But after naming a retired police officer to the $76,872-a-year board, Wilson named four Republican politicians to the panel--former Sonoma County Supervisor Janet Nicholas, defeated state Sen. James Nielsen, former Assemblywoman Carol Bentley and former U.S. Rep. John Rousselot, a conservative who left Congress in 1983 and lost in a run for a Los Angeles-area congressional seat last year.
The new board members say the jobs are anything but cushy. They attend several hearings a day and are required to read stacks of files on each potential parolee.
“This is long hours,” said Board of Prison Terms member Bentley, who carried criminal justice bills for Wilson when she was in the Assembly. “A lot of preparation work goes into this.”
While the Board of Prison Terms is influenced by former GOP lawmakers, the California Medical Assistance Commission has become a home for out-of-office Democrats. The seven commissioners, considered to have part-time jobs, are paid $52,500 each, meet twice a month and oversee a staff of 12.
In January, the Senate Rules Committee gave one of its two appointments to the board to Green, and Speaker Brown filled his two positions with former members of his house--Sally Tanner and Sunny Mojonnier.
Tanner, who replaced a community activist on the board, retired from her El Monte Assembly seat last year and moved to the Northern California tourist town of Ferndale.
Mojonnier, who had worked occasionally as a consultant since losing reelection two years ago, replaced former Assemblyman Lou Papan of San Francisco. She and Tanner say they knew little about the board before Brown called on them to serve, but neither said they view the appointments as patronage.
Green replaced a public interest lawyer who had been on the board for 10 years and previously served on a hospital board of directors. “If I viewed it as a patronage position I wouldn’t haven taken it,” Green said. “I think I can get something done.”
Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, now a member of the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, is one of the few former legislators to acknowledge that it is a patronage position. Brown named him to the $92,000-a-year board last year after Agnos lost reelection as mayor.
Agnos said he got the post partly because he and Brown have been friends since Agnos’ days in the Assembly. But he noted that no employer in or out of government would hire an enemy. Given that he ran a city with a $2.45-billion budget and has a master’s degree, Agnos is, if anything, overqualified.
Agnos said he found the job to be full time. He and six other commissioners dispose of 18,000 appeals annually, many of them brought by workers who are denied unemployment insurance. On a board dominated by appointees of Republican governors, the liberal Agnos is unabashed in his belief that he must side with workers if at all possible.
“If you get laid off, and don’t get your benefits, you better pray that Art Agnos is going to be there,” Agnos said.
Ex-Lawmakers on the California Payroll
Former lawmakers need not give up state paychecks when they lose an election or retire. They can land plum jobs on paying state commissions, often making more annually than the $52,500 they made in the Legislature. After unusually high turnover in the Legislature last year, several ex-legislators have received appointments from the governor, the Speaker or the Senate Rules Committee.
APPOINTMENTS TO STATE BOARDS
State legislators who lost reelection or retired in 1992, then were named to state boards: CAROL BENTLEY
Former position: El Cajon assembly-woman, lost election to the Senate.
New position: Gov. Wilson appointed her to the Board of Prison Terms.
Salary: $76,872 ED DAVIS
Former position: Simi Valley senator, retired.
New position: Wilson appointed him to Alcoholic Beverage Control Appeals Board.
Salary: $25,500 GERALD FELANDO
Former position: San Pedro assemblyman, lost reelection.
New position: Wilson appointed him to Youthful Offender Parole Board.
Salary: $76,872 CECIL GREEN
Former position: Norwalk senator, retired.
New position: The Senate named him to the California Medical Assistance Commission.
Salary: $52,500. SALLY TANNER
Former position: El Monte assembly-woman, retired.
New position: Speaker Willie Brown named her to the California Medical Assistance Commission.
WILSON ADMINISTRATION APPOINTMENTS
Unsuccessful 1992 candidates, backed by Gov. Pete Wilson and then given jobs in the Wilson Administration: AL ARAMBURU
Former position: Marin County supervisor, lost an Assembly race.
New position: Director, California Conservation Corp.
Salary: $83,868 TOM MAYS
Former position: Huntington Beach assemblyman, lost reelection.
Appointment: Department of Toxic Substances Control executive (resigned in February after two months in job).
Salary: $61,644 JOHN SEYMOUR
Former position: U.S. senator, lost election.
New position: Director, Housing Finance Agency.
Salary: $98,076. SANDRA SMOLEY
Former position: Sacramento County supervisor, lost congressional race.
New position: Secretary, State and Consumer Services Agency.
Compiled by Times staff writers Dan Morain and Daniel M. Weintraub