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Taking His Father’s Advice to Heart, and to Head of Assembly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herb Wesson came to California at age 22 with no job, no college degree, no real prospects to speak of, just a dying father’s word that the West held more promise for a young black man than the automobile plants of Cleveland.

Wesson sold pots and pans, buffed floors, tended bar at parties in the Hollywood Hills--and even tried his hand at stand-up comedy--as he searched for an identity in Los Angeles. Eventually, he stumbled into a career in politics when he tried to volunteer for a congressional candidate but got lost on the freeway and wound up enlisting at the headquarters of the man’s chief competitor instead.

This week, 28 years after pursuing his California dream, Wesson, 50, will take over as the next speaker of the state Assembly. The job made famous by such outsize personalities as Willie Brown and Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh has diminished in importance since term limits restricted political careers in the Legislature. But it still carries tremendous clout.

As speaker, Wesson, a Culver City Democrat, will act as a key negotiator with Gov. Gray Davis on the state’s $100-billion budget. He will control every committee assignment in the Assembly and help shape legislation affecting the lives of all 35 million Californians.

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That’s a lot of power for a guy who has time for a 30-minute bubble bath every morning.

How Wesson climbed the political ladder to become the 65th Assembly speaker--the third in a row from the Los Angeles area--is testament to his extraordinary ability to establish a rapport with almost anyone, according to friends, former political bosses, fellow legislators and Wesson himself.

Smooth and smartly dressed, the 5-foot-5, 150-pound Wesson moves comfortably in circles of power and is considered by his peers to be the ultimate people person, an important trait in a profession built on personal relationships.

“All of us are given certain blessings, and this is my blessing: I work well with people,” Wesson said during a recent interview in his Capitol office.

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Wesson’s gift for connecting with people was evident from his earliest days in blue-collar Ohio, where the Wesson home was a magnet for neighborhood children and “Little Herbie” dispensed sage counsel to classmates on girls and neighborhood bullies, said his brother, Steve.

So was a passion for the poor and disenfranchised, said his mother, Gladys, who believes her son compensated for his lack of size, and the prejudice he encountered as a youngster because of his race, by honing his interpersonal skills.

Aiding Those Victimized in Society a Prime Policy

Wesson said that a desire to help those he feels are being victimized in society is his primary policy goal as speaker.

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To many lobbyists and lawmakers, the political views of Wesson appear flexible at best and remain an enigma. He has authored few bills of consequence since being elected in 1998.

“The interesting thing about Herb is that I don’t think he approaches most issues, with the exception of civil rights, from a strong ideological perspective,” said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the only serious challenger to Wesson’s bid for speaker.

Some see that flexibility as a potential strength. But others in the Capitol privately wonder whether Wesson has any principled policy positions or is simply interested in the Machiavellian exercise of accumulating power--speculation that upsets the usually unflappable legislator.

“I don’t tolerate women being discriminated against,” Wesson said. “Gays, lesbians, blacks, Latinos--my goal is to have every child to be able to wake up and say to their mother, ‘I don’t want to be president.’ And I want them to decide that based on the fact they don’t want to do the job.

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“Those are the things I am not flexible on. That’s what Herb Wesson is about,” he said.

That said, Wesson concedes he sees the speakership differently from some of his predecessors, and intends to approach what he calls “a temp job at best” much as he did his past political work as chief of staff to Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. Only now, his bosses will be the 79 other members of the Assembly--or at least the 49 other Democrats.

Increasingly, other lawmakers say, the speaker’s duties come down to two things: raising money to help party colleagues get elected, and keeping their considerable egos in check.

“Being a chief of staff, I learned that 75% of your job is being a fireman,” Wesson said. “So if part of the speaker’s job is being a fireman, I believe I am pretty well-equipped to put on that red hat and shoot foam on people.”

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A political life seemed far from reach when Wesson was growing up in Cleveland. Most of the men in his family went straight to work on the assembly line after high school, Ford or Chevrolet.

Wesson was expected to do the same. But he wanted to attend college. His grades were unimpressive, yet he managed to get accepted to a small black college in Pennsylvania, Lincoln State University. His parents took on extra work to pay his tuition.

It was there that Wesson met a man who convinced him he could make more of himself than he had previously thought possible. Ron Dellums, a fiery African American congressman from Berkeley, was visiting the campus to give a speech. He belonged to the same fraternity as Wesson, Alpha Phi Alpha, and he stopped by to chat, fashionably sporting a large afro and an Eisenhower jacket.

“Five minutes into his speech, I am sitting there like this,” Wesson said, moving to the edge of his seat. “Every word, I hung on, and I turned to my fraternity brothers and said, ‘That’s what I’m gonna do.’ ”

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However, family troubles forced Wesson to pull out of college in 1973 before he could earn a degree. Herb Wesson Sr., who had a weak heart, fell ill and had to leave his job. Wesson had to get a job as a salesman to help provide for the family. His father died a year later.

Depressed, Wesson was unsure what to do with his life when he remembered his father’s advice about the West. His mother and brother soon followed him to Los Angeles.

Wesson’s attempt to get into politics did not go as planned when the congressional candidate he mistakenly supported, Nate Holden, was defeated by the man he meant to work for, Julian Dixon. But Holden was impressed by Wesson’s moxie. When Holden was later elected to the Los Angeles City Council, he hired Wesson.

“I knew he wanted something in the game,” said Holden, who only half-jokingly assumes credit for Wesson’s entire political career. “You could see he was in it to get ahead, and he knew he would get ahead through me.”

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Wesson left Holden’s employ a couple of years later to manage the comeback campaign of Burke, a former congresswoman who won a heated race to become Los Angeles County’s first black supervisor in 1992. He worked as her top aide until running for the Assembly himself in 1998.

Panel Chairmanship Gives Clues to his Style

Wesson was miles ahead of his term-limited colleagues in the insiders’ game of politics when he arrived in Sacramento, and he was almost instantly touted as future speaker material.

In what some consider a calculated plan to become speaker, Wesson sought and received the chairmanship of the euphemistically titled Governmental Organization Committee, the panel that deals with alcohol, tobacco and gambling legislation. Wesson was soon rolling in campaign cash, becoming one of his party’s top fund-raisers.

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Wesson’s deal-making on the committee provides clues as to how he will act as speaker, and several lawmakers pointed to one deal in particular as an example of how he balances competing interests.

After The Times reported on the subhuman working conditions of many workers at California racetracks two years ago, labor unions and others demanded change. Wesson worked with the horse-racing industry, one of his major benefactors, and helped fashion a classic piece of legislative sausage: Workers would be protected, but as part of the same measure, the horse-racing industry would be allowed to collect bets over the Internet, something they had sought for years. The bill became law last year.

“I was very impressed with his ability to make something out of that,” said Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who sided with labor on the issue--and was also the first lawmaker to commit to voting for Wesson as speaker.

Wesson’s speakership is being celebrated by many in Los Angeles’ black community, who see it as another sign that though they are few in numbers, the state’s African American politicians can transcend ethnic politics and move into the mainstream. Naturally, it is also being celebrated by Wesson’s family, much of which plans to make the trip Wednesday to watch his coronation.

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But there is one man they wish could be present who cannot attend. It is to him, they say, that Wesson’s accomplishment would mean most.

“I will be there with a big smile on my face and a tear in my eye,” Steve Wesson said. “The only disappointment is that my dad is not alive to see it.”


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