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Blunt Newcomer Makes Capitol Impression

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the closing days of the legislative year that recently ended, all eyes were on the Capitol’s obvious big cheeses to make things happen--Gov. Pete Wilson, Senate Leader Bill Lockyer, Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante.

And one littler cheese of the sharp New York cheddar variety named Carole Migden, chairwoman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Heading a panel wielding power in some ways on a par with the full Assembly, tough, unyielding Migden, 49, has emerged as a new kind of supercharged force in the ego-driven culture of state lawmaking.

“Everything I know about this job I learned from ‘Godfather I,’ ” she said jokingly. But it resonates.

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Still a freshman, San Francisco Democrat Migden--and an openly gay, liberal Democrat at that--operates with a chutzpah that bespeaks her Yonkers, N.Y., roots.

Her blunt-talking East Coast style, with accent to match, reached its full expression as she presided over the powerful appropriations panel in the frantic windup of the 1997 Legislature, which adjourned Sept. 13.

Migden was single-handedly driving the 21-member Appropriations Committee at a furious pace during the final days, at least twice as fast as anyone could remember from years past.

Although relatively new to Sacramento, Migden in effect had prepared for such moments. A 1960s activist, she marched on Washington with antiwar protesters and worked in the Bay Area on the cutting edge of lesbian-gay activism.

She lost a bruising San Francisco Community College board election race in 1980, and spent several years as a worker bee in Democratic Party politics while running a mental health clinic to pay the bills.

In 1990, she finally made it into elective office by winning a citywide election for a seat on the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors. She was elected to the Assembly in March 1996 to take the seat vacated because of term limits by longtime Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

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So by now, sitting at the head of a powerful committee as the hours ticked off toward adjournment of the Legislature, Migden was taking charge--and then some.

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“Christina, get out of here!” she barked at an oil industry lobbyist who was whispering in the ear of a committee member moments before the panel was to vote on a fuel additive bill.

“In fact, all lobbyists, back up! Away from the table!” As estimated by a legislator who was watching, about $2 million worth of lobbying talent sheepishly moved to the back of the room.

At another point, addressing a senior senator having a private word with a committee member:

“Keep the buzz down a little bit over there, will ya?”

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Under an Assembly leadership by Bustamante that is often seen as weak and adrift, many Democrats love the contrast presented by Migden.

“I adore her,” said Senate leader Lockyer. “She is among the brightest, most talented legislators to come here in generations.”

“Quick,” “high energy,” “tenacious,” “focused,” “driven” are just a few of the comments from other admiring Democratic legislators.

How does she think others see her?

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“Disarming, to some,” she said. “I am this snappy broad with a lot of moxie and short skirts. . . . I get along with men, but they don’t know whether to flirt or be repelled, or how to take me. I’m a lesbian, but kind of coquettish.”

She likes the effect.

“It throws them off stride a little bit. Makes them vulnerable and therefore susceptible.”

But all that represents a 180-degree turn from earlier years.

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Migden was raised in the straight-laced, middle-class family of her Jewish father, who is an accountant, and her Christian mother, whom her father brought home from France at the end of World War II.

After college, Migden and a boyfriend moved West, “beckoned by the Golden Gate,” in 1970 and, while graduate students at UC Berkeley, got married.

She left him in 1975, declaring at the time that she was gay.

Among her Republican Assembly colleagues with their polar opposite lifestyles and beliefs, many equivocate in sizing up Migden. Who wants to bad-mouth a powerful committee head to a reporter?

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Migden said Republicans by now “have gotten past the gay thing.”

She ascribes their flare-ups against her simply to the “woman thing” or just the fact that she’s a liberal Democrat.

Migden is the Legislature’s second openly lesbian member--Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) is the first.

“Sheila and I are treated exceptionally well” by other legislators, Migden said.

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On job performance, however, some Republicans let fly.

“I think [Migden] runs a strong-arm committee,” said conservative Republican Gary Miller of Diamond Bar. “She ramrods [bills] the way she wants. No one should be allowed that kind of authority.”

At the hands of Migden, Miller first was denied the opportunity to speak on a bill he was pushing, then later watched helplessly as her committee killed it. The bill proposed financing for Bay Area bridge repair that Migden and other Bay Area legislators considered skewed and premature.

Miller said he was unfairly treated, and during a committee hearing called Migden a “queen.”

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She didn’t take that as homophobic--"it applies to the boys,” she said--and Miller said he didn’t mean it that way. Migden tends to laugh off the digs she gets from fellow members.

On the other hand, she conceded, “I know I come off a little bit dictatorial.”

But she never wants to appear “grandiose” and, at appropriations hearings, insists she always operates within the prerogatives accorded a committee chairperson.

“Rules are rules,” she said.

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Most agree that Migden seldom misses much from her perch atop the committee, which heard 1,443 bills this year.

“I never heard a bill I wasn’t prepared for,” Migden said.

Her staff marvels at her energy--those currently working for her, that is. Turnover is famously endemic within the Migden orbit.

“I’m very demanding” and yes, “there have been dismissals,” she said.

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“Boss from hell,” one Sacramento writer called her.

She is demanding, she said, in part because public service from where she sits can be a tough fight.

Prejudice persists against gays and lesbians, as a group and against the city she represents.

“It’s the same blanket license to heap ridicule,” she said.

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On the gay rights front, opponents this year claimed credit for “severely disabling . . . the gay legislative agenda” including bills by Migden.

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One of those, AB 1059, would have provided employers the option of offering health insurance to their employees’ same-sex domestic partners. The bill initially passed in both houses, but Migden withheld putting it to a final vote in the Assembly after Wilson signaled his intention to veto it. The measure is dead for the year.

Migden said another of her bills (AB 1099) that would benefit many in the gay community, which passed easily in the Legislature, may have a better chance with Wilson.

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It would allow AIDS patients opting to return to work to continue receiving state-paid Medi-Cal benefits to treat their conditions. The bill would also apply to sufferers of other diseases.

But Migden said she cannot be sure of Wilson’s intentions toward her bill because, although she has asked, “he has never granted me an audience. He kind of knows we’re not in accord.”

On a personal level, with that break from a conventional past 22 years ago, Migden made a major life change that stuck. She and Cris Arguedas, a lawyer, have been “married,” as Migden describes it, for 12 years.

Now she looks to the day when she might change her life politically.

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Unsure whether the Assembly is ready for a lesbian speaker, she counts that as merely one possibility. A seat in the state Senate or becoming San Francisco’s next mayor are others.

But one way or another, “I want to stay in the public eye,” she said. “I want to serve.”


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