Changing of the Guard : Term Limits, GOP Gains in Assembly Prompt Longtime Staffers to Move to Greener Pastures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many years, the California Assembly has taken pride in its stable of experienced and well-paid professional staff, the knowledgeable legislative bureaucrats who never make headlines but whose wisdom and counsel are invaluable in helping elected leaders make laws.

But now, as the Assembly undergoes fundamental changes caused by term limits and a bitter speakership fight, there is a "brain drain" occurring, according to lower house Democrats, who have drawn attention to the flight.

At least half a dozen top veteran Assembly staffers have left their jobs and more are expected to follow. Although the Assembly employs hundreds of people, those who have departed are among the two dozen or so who hold top-level committee positions.

Several have moved to the Senate, where the deadline of term limits is less severe, or have left to become Capitol lobbyists. Most worked for Democrats, who during their long Assembly reign controlled most committees, which in turn led to stability and continuity among committee consultants and staffers.

Not surprisingly, Republicans hold a different view. The Democrats' brain drain is the Republicans' big break.

"Term limits not only brought new blood into the Assembly," said GOP Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, "but also into the Assembly staff ranks. The new Republican (committee chairmen) are hiring staff that reflects the principles and values that have long been lacking in the Assembly. We will be expanding GOP staff with pro-free enterprise and anti-big government staffers to help change the future direction of California."

Some legislators argue that the loss of top staff members is particularly significant in light of term limits. Those staffers' accumulated institutional knowledge and savvy about the sometimes arcane and often complex dealings of the Legislature--in a sense they are the connective tissue that holds the place together--becomes more important as veteran Assembly members are tossed out by term limits and replaced with waves of newcomers, who themselves are instant lame ducks.

Already more than half of the 80-member Assembly consists of those who have been there only since 1992. By law, the longest they can serve is six years.

"To match all of the new Assembly members (28 freshmen elected in November), we also have a lot of new staff people coming on board," said veteran Assemblyman Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, who is concerned about staffers leaving. "It takes time to build up expertise in the various subject areas, and we have lost some good ones to the Senate. Fortunately, so far on the committee I chair we have been able to hold the three consultants who have many years of expertise in the natural resources field."

Harder to discern is who fills the information vacuum. As formerly stable staff positions become revolving doors and longevity is diminished, where do inexperienced lawmakers and staffers turn for help? The answer, at least in part, is to lobbyists, whose ranks include growing numbers of ex-lawmakers and legislative staffers. What is unclear and is the focus of much debate at the Capitol is whether lobbyists will exert more influence now that most veteran legislators are gone.

Thirty-five years ago, it was the lobbyists' power that led the late Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh to reshape the lower house staff by raising job standards and pay and giving the staffers responsibility for drafting and analyzing legislation.

At that time, it was common for lobbyists to regularly wine and dine lawmakers, draft bills, have them introduced by friendly legislators without independent examination, and essentially take charge of guiding the measures to passage. Many of those practices are now restricted by law or are subject to careful scrutiny by legislative staffers.

Some who work in the Capitol believe the brain drain will be temporary, and that for each veteran staffer who leaves, opportunities open for others, particularly Republican staffers.

"(The exodus) doesn't mean we won't be able to find other staff people of equal or greater intellectual capacity, but it's going to take a while," said one legislative source, who declined to be identified. "Everyone can be replaced, but there is a definite learning curve around here, so there's going to be a difficult transition period."

There are lobbyists who disagree with the notion that they will become more influential. One is Dennis Carpenter, a former Orange County Republican senator, whose respected firm is among the top revenue producers at the Capitol.

"It's too early to draw that conclusion," Carpenter said. "There are some changes being made that have logic to them because of the increased stability offered by the Senate under term limits. But there still is a lot of talent within the Assembly staff ranks, and more new talent will continue to come along."

The tumultuous and long fight between Democrat Willie Brown and Republican Brulte over the job of Assembly Speaker also has hastened staff flight. As part of the tenuous agreement that kept Brown as Speaker, Republicans now control half of the Assembly's committees and the staff jobs that go with them.

Most of those who have left have gone to the state Senate.

Greg Schmidt, chief administrative officer of the Senate Rules Committee, is pleased with the quality of the new Senate staffers. "It gave us a good chance to cherry-pick and we did," Schmidt said.

Among key Assembly staffers who moved is Tim Gage, the chief consultant to the Ways and Means Committee for seven years, who is now chief budget adviser to Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).

Asked why he departed, Gage said: "The uncertainty in the Assembly speakership fight caused me to seriously consider--and take--what appeared to be a good opportunity in the Senate.

"It wasn't clear if the Democrats would retain control of the Assembly fiscal committee. In view of that uncertainty, I kind of felt like I would be an idiot to turn down the opportunity."

Another former Assembly staffer who left is Patrick Henning, son of John Henning, head of the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO. Patrick Henning shifted from the Assembly Labor Committee to the Senate Industrial Relations Committee.

"I've spent 25 years in the labor movement, the last 10 with the Assembly Labor Committee," Henning said. "I saw a chance to go to the upper house and I took it."

Asked if the Assembly speakership fight and legislative term limits played a part in his decision, Henning quipped, "With a wife and three kids, the state Senate offered a bit more security and longevity."

Henning's old boss, Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman, retired from the Legislature last year because of term limits and later won a Los Angeles Superior Court judgeship.

Henning said he hopes his new boss, Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), will stay in the Senate for eight years, the maximum allowed under term limits, "but she may want to run for Congress someday."

What will he do then? "I don't know," he said. "We'll have to wait and see. You live by your wits up here."

Richard Simpson was Willie Brown's education adviser. He is now working for the Senate Education Committee.

"I started off in the Senate, so this is like coming home again," Simpson said. "The speakership crisis had some impact. It was unclear if the job I used to have would have been there in the same form or not."

Arnie Peters, whose state Capitol nickname is "Mr. Toxics" because of his considerable expertise in the field, has gone from the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxics Committee to the Senate Toxics and Public Safety Management Committee, headed by state Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria), who last year served in the Assembly.

"I moved over while the speakership question was still unresolved," Peters said. "Sen. O'Connell was looking for competent staff. I applied because I wasn't sure what the end situation in the Assembly would be."

So far, at least two other former veteran Assembly staffers have left to join the lobbying ranks.

One is Gene Erbin, a longtime consultant to the Assembly Judiciary Committee, chaired by Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento). Erbin quit to join the law firm of Nielsen & Merksamer, a major Capitol lobbyist with close connections to Republicans.

In his new job Erbin will lobby on, among other things, state gambling commission bills, which are expected to be one of the hottest issues of the 1995 session.

Another new lobbyist is Jerry McFetridge, who retired after 25 years as an Assembly consultant with various committees. He is now a lobbyist for the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.

The agreement that has given Assembly Republicans half of the lower house's committees has opened doors to important jobs for GOP staffers, such as Mark Watts.

A former lobbyist and undersecretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, Watts is the new co-chief administrative officer of the Rules Committee and will look out for GOP interests on the key internal housekeeping panel.

Watts, who last year was a lobbyist for the firm of Carpenter, Snodgrass & Associates, also served as director of the Assembly minority Ways and Means Committee staff in the late 1980s.

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