Doing His Best Under Term Limits

Bob Hertzberg just got here and he’s already leaving--a beneficiary and a victim of impractical term limits.

Impractical, because an Assembly speaker barely has time to turn around these days before he’s booted out the door.

Even if you’re for legislative term limits--and polls indicate the vast majority of Californians still are, 11 years after imposing them--you really should think again about these limits: three two-year terms in the Assembly, two four-year stints in the Senate.


Happily, there’ll be an initiative on the March primary ballot to slightly loosen the limits. It would allow voters to sign a petition allowing their own legislator to serve an additional four years beyond the regular limit, assuming the politician can get reelected.

“Not a bad idea,” says Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks). “Believe me, it is so hard to govern in a term limited environment. . . . As soon as [legislators] start to learn something, they’re already off to something new.”

Regardless, Hertzberg does support term limits--preferably 12 years in office, then two years out--because “it breaks the cycle of incumbency.”

“These guys who are in here too long, their brains start to get like cauliflower.”

No, Hertzberg replies, he is not referring to veteran Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), a cagey, cantankerous old-school liberal. He says Burton benefited by leaving the Legislature for 14 years. “I love him.”

It’s mutual admiration. Although Hertzberg is a Democrat of a different hue--a business-friendly moderate who’s usually allied with Gov. Gray Davis, Burton’s nemesis--the Senate leader says: “He’s very good. Straightforward. If there’s a flat-out disagreement, nobody goes into a tizzy.

“He’s probably the only person in the Capitol I’ve never had a yelling match with. Never even raised my voice.”

Hertzberg, 46, was a lawyer long active in L.A. politics when he decided to run for the Assembly in 1996, taking advantage of a vacancy created by term limits. He almost certainly would not have been elected speaker three years later if term limits had not evicted his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

There was a bad falling-out between Hertzberg and Villaraigosa, who had been personal friends and tight allies. When Villaraigosa ran for L.A. mayor this year, Hertzberg refused to endorse him. Hertzberg won’t discuss it publicly, but he believes Villaraigosa didn’t level with him on several matters, political and personal.

Hertzberg’s successor will be elected by the Assembly Jan. 10, then take over Feb. 6. Democrats already have tapped Herb Wesson, 49, of Culver City, a former top aide to L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

This is becoming a pattern in the post-Willie Brown era: Serve two years as speaker, then turn into a pumpkin. Unlike Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante before him, however, Hertzberg is not trying to hang on until he’s yanked. He’s departing voluntarily, 10 months before his Assembly term expires. There’ll be a smooth transition to the next speaker.

“The problem in a term limit era is I don’t think we ever got a chance to see Bob Hertzberg at his best,” says veteran Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino), a former minority leader. “Everything he has been doing has been for the first time.”

Reviews are mixed. Hertzberg is an intense bundle of energy, an all-night negotiator, an affable, incessant hugger. But critics contend there’s often more motion than forward movement.

“Despite great promise, he was very disappointing,” asserts one former legislator, now a lobbyist speaking anonymously. “I really like Hertzberg, but the Assembly just looked in disarray most of the year.”

In truth, the entire Capitol looked in disarray because of the energy debacle.

Hertzberg did do some good things. He personally pushed through legislation protecting farm workers from fraudulent labor contractors and expanding assistance for foster care. He negotiated an extra $1.8 billion for schools and the settlement of a long-standing dispute over expansion of L.A. County hospital facilities.

Under his direction, Assembly Democrats picked up two more seats in 2000. And a bipartisan Assembly redistricting plan will tend to perpetuate the Democrats’ current 50-30 advantage.

But mostly Hertzberg is proud of efforts to restore luster to the institution of the Assembly--by developing more oversight of government and by improving staff conditions, including creation of a child care center. “I love the child care center.”

Hertzberg cared. He tried. And he’s leaving the house in better shape than he found it.

Voters can’t expect much more under these term limits.