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To Him, You’re ‘Embraceable You’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He’s taken the political handshake to the next level: a full-on embrace. Truly a hands-on politician, Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) has developed quite a reputation for his affectionate greeting style, which involves nothing short of bear-hugging constituents, business leaders, fellow elected officials and, well, anyone he comes across.

Introduced as “Huggy Hertzberg” at the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn.'s recent state of the Valley conference at Warner Center, the energetic lawmaker quickly proceeded to show the aptness of his nickname, playfully squeezing Mayor Riordan and other dignitaries on his way to the podium.

“What can I say? We are who we are, and I’m a fellow who communicates by hugging,” he said. “The thing about hugging is, people get angry with me now if I don’t hug them. They expect it.”

Hertzberg’s hug-friendly approach has not gone unnoticed in Sacramento, a town known for its share of touchy-feely politicians. Dubbed “Huggsberg” and even “The Anaconda” by some Capitol insiders, Hertzberg likes to defuse tensions on the Assembly floor by hugging foes. In fact, he was even named unofficial chair of the Hugging Caucus by then-Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), now lieutenant governor-elect.

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But not everyone has felt so touched by Hertzberg’s gestures. Outgoing Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park) once told Hertzberg his “full body grab,” as she put it, was offensive.

Hertzberg said he has learned to telegraph his hug move well in advance to ensure that those who do not want to be enveloped have time to speak up.

“I’m cautious about it,” he said with a laugh. “I signal it in advance. I don’t just grab people.”

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STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: What do former Assembly Democratic leader Richard Katz and former Republican congressional candidate Rich Sybert have in common?

Not much, if the topic is political positions.

But Katz and Sybert share a particular legal distinction known only to wannabe officeholders: both have sued campaign opponents for allegedly sullying their names in dirty political mailers.

And attorneys for Katz’s foes hope that, at a Dec. 3 court hearing, his lawsuit meets the same unceremonious end Sybert’s did a few years ago.

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After his 29-vote loss to Richard Alarcon in a state Senate primary last June, Katz sued the two men he blamed for his narrow defeat: state Sen. Richard Polanco and campaign consultant Richie Ross.

The focus is a mailer written by Ross and issued by Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that falsely linked Katz to an infamous 1988 incident in which Republican candidates posted guards around voting booths in Orange County to intimidate Latinos. Katz, in fact, had led a lawsuit against the Republicans involved in the case.

But in arguments seeking to have the case dismissed, attorneys for Polanco and Ross argue, in essence, that such campaign rhetoric is perfectly fair in politics. And to hammer home their point, they cite the eloquent and extremely humorous state appellate court ruling dismissing Sybert’s suit against former Rep. Anthony Beilenson.

Sybert sued Beilenson after losing to the veteran Democrat in 1994, claiming his reputation had been unfairly tainted by a Beilenson mailer that slammed Sybert for moonlighting as an attorney while working as a top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson. Sybert noted he had cleared his extra lawyering, which earned him $140,000, with ethics officials ahead of time.

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The 2nd District Court of Appeal was not swayed, however. It issued an opinion that has since become something of a legend among California politicos ridiculing the case and saying it should have been dismissed by a lower court.

“Hyperbole, distortion, invective and tirades are as much a part of American politics as kissing babies and distributing bumper stickers,” Justice Arthur Gilbert wrote in the opinion.

Katz hopes his case will meet a different fate, arguing the claims made in the hit piece against him bore no relationship to the truth.

“We would argue that the 1st Amendment does not protect people from telling lies,” Katz said. “This was not even close to accurate.”

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ONE WEEK AND COUNTING: Soon-to-be state Sen. Richard Alarcon barely blinked Tuesday when a fellow Los Angeles city councilman threatened to walk out of the Transportation Committee meeting Alarcon was chairing.

Even as he watched Councilman Rudy Svorinich gather up his papers in a huff and stride halfway down the aisle, Alarcon wore the gimme-a-break expression of a high school senior forced to sit through class mere days before graduation. His last council meeting, after all, is Wednesday, as he pointed out a moment later.

The spat began when Alarcon tried to end a discussion about a bus contract, cutting off Svorinich as he questioned an attorney for one of the bidders. “I’m going to walk out of here, Rudy,” Alarcon said impatiently.

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“Well, Mr. Chair,” Svorinich retorted, “I’ll beat you to the door.”

But as Alarcon calmly resumed the meeting and began outlining his position, Svorinich reconsidered. “I thought you were closing the hearing, Mr. Chair,” he sniffed.

Apparently not. Svorinich returned to his seat.

John W. Harris, the attorney whose testimony was interrupted by the bickering, later said he took no offense. “It’s posturing. It never stops,” Harris said, chuckling. “Obviously, what Alarcon said is, ‘If you’re going to walk out on me, I’m not closing it. I’m going to have the last word.”

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Bustillo is a Times staff writer and Fox is a correspondent.


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