Term Limits Put Assembly 27 on Bipartisan Path


They are the Assembly 27, perhaps the most closely watched batch of newcomers ever to grace the green carpeted expanse of the ornate California Assembly chambers.

As the first legislators elected under the auspices of voter-imposed term limits, they know that the longest they can stay is six years. Then it is on to another office or back to the real world. Already, less than four months into the job, the 14 Democrats and 13 Republicans can hear the clock ticking.

"All of us know we have a short time to do what we want to do, achieve solutions to major problems that are ailing us, like transportation, crime and pollution. But we need to work fast and we need to work smart," said freshman Democratic Assemblywoman Grace M. Napolitano of Norwalk.

She and her freshmen colleagues say they are keenly aware of voters' anger and frustration with the Legislature, its partisan bickering and resulting gridlock on many big issues. And that adds even more pressure to get things done.

"I think we are going to have an opportunity with term limits and 27 new members to do things differently in the Legislature this year," new Assemblyman Richard K. Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) said. "The Legislature has a reputation for not accomplishing much because of the partisan political split. But the new members are pretty close philosophically on many issues, like workers compensation reform.

"The problem is going to be to get the old-timers to go along with the new members."

Almost to a person, the newcomers talk of changing the status quo, of cooperation, of sidestepping old political minefields, of forming new alliances, of fresh starts, of idealism.

"We can immeasurably improve the quality of life," said Assemblyman Louis Caldera, a Democrat from Los Angeles, "and I very badly want to do that. People talk about partisan politics too much. There also is too much second-guessing of the other guy's motivation instead of evaluating a given proposal on its merits."

Assemblyman Fred Aguiar, a Chino Republican, said: "The people are tired of the partisan political bickering and gridlock that goes on in Sacramento. It's time to put partisan politics aside and solve problems. My votes will be people votes--not partisan votes."

Several of the Assembly 27 said an example of what a new bipartisan spirit of cooperation can accomplish is the one-sided 55-8 lower house approval of a resolution sponsored by liberal freshman Democratic Assemblywoman Barbara Lee of Oakland.

Lee's resolution, also passed by the Senate, extends the life of a commission on African-American males to study group problems and make recommendations to the Legislature.

To the surprise of some observers, new conservative Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) made an impassioned plea on the Assembly floor for approval of the measure, one which easily could have become the focus of a partisan fight.

Assemblyman Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino) pointed out that he was the first freshman to get a bill out of both houses and signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Baca's measure provided $1.5 million in state funds to try to obtain a federal accounting center and 4,000 new jobs at soon-to-be-closed Norton Air Force Base. But that effort came to nothing when the Pentagon decided last week to cancel the bidding process.

"We've only got six years to get things done," Baca said. "I had an open shot, I took it and I made it."

Despite the early optimism, there are those such as Republican Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith of Poway who caution that the bipartisan effort at cooperation is "mostly talk right now that still has to be translated into attitude and action."

"It can be done," Goldsmith said. "It's a question of if we want to do it."

Blocking their way are institutional forces deeply rooted in a system that is a stranger to term limits, that is steeped in individual political survival and partisan gamesmanship. Perhaps most important, the system rides on a river of special interest money that pays for the expensive campaigns that got even the first-year members elected to office.

Already, some of the Assembly 27 are following the trail of campaign contributions well-traveled by veteran legislators; in some cases, they are blazing new paths. That they would do so is not surprising, given the nature of money and politics in California, but that they would do so this soon has surprised some Capitol veterans.

Many newcomers are busily sending out invitations to lobbyists, seeking donations. Most of the veterans generally hold fund-raisers at the so-called crunch time late in the session when the life or death of pending legislation is on the line.

This kind of early fund-raising activity has not set well with some venerable Sacramento lobbyists, one of whom complained: "I haven't even met some of the people who are asking me for money."

Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard) sent invitations to a recent $500-a-person breakfast fund-raiser at Pennisi's, a popular restaurant a few blocks from the state Capitol. They read in part:

"I am proud to say that I will be serving on three very important committees, Utilities and Commerce, Labor and Employment, and Local Government. I hope to contribute my 12 years of experience as the mayor of Oxnard to these committees and to be a leader in their efforts to create a healthier business environment in California. I look forward to seeing you and to working with you in this coming year."

Asked about holding such an early fund-raiser, Takasugi shrugged and replied: "I have a $77,000 campaign debt, and I don't feel comfortable with that hanging over my head."

Rainey of Walnut Creek held a $500-a-person cocktail reception at Busby Berkeley's, atop the Hyatt Regency Hotel, across the street from the Capitol. He said he has no campaign deficit and is raising money to run for reelection in 1994.

The Assembly 27 have been the focus of considerable media attention. In an ongoing series, the Sacramento Bee is documenting the travails of two freshmen, and other newspapers have devoted stories to the group.

Among the things making the group unusual is that most of them are true outsiders to the 80-member Assembly. For the first time in years, the freshman class does not include an abundance of former legislative aides who moved up the ladder to become members.

In fact, only one--Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside)--worked for the GOP caucus.

Among the 27 are a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, a former sheriff-coroner, a paralegal, a retired teacher, a video store owner, a businesswoman-homemaker, a children's advocate, an interior designer, a retired sheriff's lieutenant, and a number of businessmen, lawyers and former City Council members.

Even for the forewarned, the Capitol and its trappings can be daunting. This remains, after all, the seat of power of the nation-state of California and its more than 31 million people.

"This place is real seductive," said freshman Assemblyman Tom Connolly, a Lemon Grove Democrat. "I have never been treated as well as I have been here. It's very easy to like that treatment too much and forget the things that got you here."

Many are finding their new jobs exhausting and surprising.

"This job will eat up every single minute of every day if you let it, but I find it absolutely fascinating," said Democratic Assemblywoman Debra Bowen of Marina del Rey. "I don't like the balancing act you have to do to accomplish everything you have to do and still find enough time to work out at the gym or call your husband."

Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Huntington Park) said she did not like the pressure of having to meet with so many lobbyists.

"That first month of January was wow!" said Escutia, who used to be a lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza in Washington. "Now I have learned the art of saying no, that I don't have to meet with every lobbyist."

Assemblywoman Kathleen M. Honeycutt, a Hesperia Republican, said she was disgusted with the juvenile hi-jinks that sometimes occur during Assembly floor sessions. "I kind of wish some of the members would go up to the gallery and sit with the visiting schoolchildren," Honeycutt said. "To them, it looks like a circus down below . . . totally out of control . . . and rude."

The interest in surmounting partisanship is not unanimous throughout the delegation. At least one newcomer, Assemblyman Larry Bowler (R-Elk Grove), a 30-year veteran of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, is devoting much of his time to verbally blasting Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).

"(Brown) redefines good and bad and is accountable to no one but a few voters in San Francisco," Bowler said. "He is the most effective manipulator of people through use of intimidation that I have ever seen in my 30 years as a cop. I mean this guy is awesome."

Bowler has been banished to a tiny, windowless office on the sixth floor next to the cafeteria by the Speaker for similar intemperate remarks made during the election campaign.

Longtime Assembly Majority Leader Thomas M. Hannigan (D-Fairfield) said: "I think it remains to be seen how much they can change things. . . . It's one thing to say there is bipartisan agreement on an issue and another thing to sit down and work out the details. For instance, on workers' compensation reform, they may not be as much in agreement as they think they are."

For the most part, though, the winter honeymoon continues. It is early in the session. The talk is of sports and weather in the River City.

But everyone knows that the true test of the Assembly 27 is coming, when summer's hot breath consumes the valley and the political heat in the Assembly burns hot.

"These people have been out in the real world," a lobbyist said. "Maybe they can help to make a difference. We'll just have to wait and see."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 16, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction Photo captions--Two legislators were misidentified in photographs accompanying an article Monday about freshmen members of the state Assembly. The pictures were of Assembly members Richard K. Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) and Kathleen M. Honeycutt (R-Hesperia).
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