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‘Mod Squad’ of Democrats Reins In Assembly Liberals

Times Staff Writer

In the Assembly, it was known as the “Where’s Waldo?” bill. Like the children’s book about a young man hidden in plain sight, it would have provided California regulators new tools to uncover toxic chemicals hiding in dirt, blood, air, water and breast milk.

But Waldo is dead. Its demise is being attributed to a group of business-friendly Democrats -- collectively known as the Mod Squad for their moderate political views -- who thought the bill’s requirements were too costly for industry.

Before the election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Mod Squad was a disorganized, powerless group of middle-of-the-road lawmakers -- ideological floaters in a Legislature dominated by liberal Democrats. But now they’re growing in influence and exercising clout on the Assembly floor by helping kill legislation.

“The more liberal members -- progressives, as they like to call themselves -- were used to running the show, including pushing Gray Davis around,” said Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant who analyzes state races.

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“Now, not only do they have to deal with Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who is in no way beholden to them -- his election also has emboldened the moderate Democrats.”

The Assembly Moderate Caucus has 18 lawmakers out of 48 Democrats in the 80-member lower house, but they usually can count on about 10 to regularly push an agenda focused on the economy and business. Because nearly every bill needs 41 votes to pass, the caucus can effectively sabotage any legislation -- if members are united.

They frequently are not, but the caucus is increasingly asserting itself in high-profile ways. Its members have met as a group with Schwarzenegger, an occasional ally on business issues, and they have been more vocal during debates this session. And the group distributed a first-ever “action alert” listing a dozen bills it wanted killed. The list, which included the toxics legislation, was printed in red ink and distributed only to the Mod Squad.

By the end of the week, seven of the 12 action alert bills had been killed or stalled in committee. The toxics bill died without a vote on the Assembly floor because the bill’s author knew she didn’t have enough support.

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“The Mod Squad put it on the top of their hit list,” said Jane Williams with California Communities Against Toxics.

The fact that Democrats had been working to kill other Democrats’ bills caused a furor and prompted a closed-door meeting of all party members. The meeting ended without a resolution, except that it became clear the moderates were willing to openly challenge Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.

“The point was: If you are going to work against your colleagues’ bill on the floor, you should at least tell them,” said one liberal lawmaker. “People were very insulted that there was this secret document.”

Monday night, nine members of the caucus gathered at the Firehouse restaurant in the Gold Rush-era section of Sacramento and began plotting strategy for the rest of the year.

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Part of their discussion, sources said, involved requiring a litmus test for members to make sure that they are, in fact, business-friendly moderates -- and reliable votes for the caucus -- and not just using their caucus membership to appeal to voters back home.

The Moderate Caucus meets behind closed doors once a month -- sometimes every day when a crucial legislative deadline is approaching -- and comes to a consensus on liberal Democrats’ bills it wants to kill or water down with amendments. The weapon of choice is withholding a vote -- politically benign enough that the Mod Squad member is officially neither a supporter nor an opponent.

The Assembly has balkanized into a variety of groups that meet to strategize about legislation or just socialize. Some are powerful, such as the Latino Caucus, and others less so. There is a caucus for lawmakers from rural districts, for women, for Asians, and for African American lawmakers. There is a caucus for liberals, called the Study Group, and even one for Assembly members advancing “smart growth” policies for cities and counties.

The Moderate Caucus evolved from a campaign finance committee started in 1998 by then-Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, who wanted to find a way to raise campaign money from corporations that traditionally gave only to Republicans.

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The group’s new chairman, Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg, whose working-class district sits on the eastern edges of the Bay Area, said the caucus was like any other Democratic group: It’s advancing a set of beliefs. He said the action alert was a sort of coming out.

“The only difference was this time, instead of hiding in the shadows, we went out there and in a more direct way kind of staked out our territory and took positions on bills,” he said.

Canciamilla said the caucus tries never to focus on social legislation such as marriage rights for gays and lesbians, but instead concentrates on economic issues. But sometimes the caucus targets legislation it believes makes Democrats look bad, such as a measure it helped kill that would have outlawed smoking in cars if children were present.

“It’s one of those issues that affects the reputation of the house and one that sends a broader message about how far the Legislature is prepared to go to regulate personal conduct,” Canciamilla said.

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The defeat of the anti-smoking bill was the most high-profile exercise of the group’s power this session. While Canciamilla and other moderate Democrats spoke against it, Nunez went from desk to desk on the floor of the Assembly only to be faced with rejection from members.

Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally of Compton, leader of the Study Group, says he thinks Nunez has managed to calm the situation, but his caucus would never target Democrats’ bills so openly.

“That sort of divisiveness wasn’t good for Assembly Democrats,” Dymally said, noting that he has campaigned for moderate lawmakers despite their differing political views. “We need to be united.”

It’s true that traditional, left-leaning Democrats still hold power in the Legislature. Together, the liberals and moderates have passed bills making it easier for employees to sue their bosses for labor violations, setting up a cellphone recycling program, and raising the minimum wage to $7.75 an hour by 2006.

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“At the end of the day, we’re all Democrats,” said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Angeles), another member of the Mod Squad and also Democratic majority leader.

But the moderate caucus this year stopped a bill that would have forced banks to report suspected elder abuse and another to allow renters to withhold financial information from landlords. Bills requiring imported beef to be labeled and forcing landlords to report hazardous materials near rental properties also have hit roadblocks.

A bill that would have banned violent video games for children ended up requiring warning signs; a measure to allow all drug felons to get food stamps ended up barring serious drug offenders such as manufacturers and pushers.

Moderate Caucus member John Dutra (D-Fremont) said the group came together most frequently on business issues. A few years ago, a survey comparing the caucus to other Assembly Democrats showed near total agreement on gay-rights and other social legislation, but not on bills targeting industry.

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“We come out of the corporate world. We understand P&L; [profit and loss] statements and balance sheets,” he said.

The toxics-detection bill, written by Alameda Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, was a major initiative for environmental activists this year. It would have forced chemical companies to hand over data on how to detect chemicals in the environment. Now, state scientists rely on a patchwork of detection methods for about 500 out of 85,000 chemicals in production.

But “they were trying a whole host of requirements without a solid scientific basis for it,” Canciamilla said. “It was one of those cases where they said, ‘We really don’t care what the cost is because we can put the cost on industry,’ which in turn is passed to consumers.”

Breast cancer activists now are nervous about a Senate bill awaiting a vote in the Assembly. The legislation would tax chemical companies to set up a statewide monitoring system to test for toxics in the human body. Canciamilla said that bill also appeared to be far too broad.

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Those activists already have watched another bill -- to ban cosmetics that containing carcinogens or reproductive toxins -- stall in committee. “We couldn’t even get a conversation,” said Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action.

But despite the successes of the caucus, Assembly Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is not impressed. The majority of the Assembly is still made up of “Gray Davis Democrats,” he said, and the Moderate Caucus isn’t organized enough.

“Structure dictates behavior,” McCarthy said. “And I think the structure of this Legislature is dysfunctional.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Mod Squad

Most members of the Assembly Moderate Caucus represent suburban or Central Valley districts. The 18 Democrats don’t always vote as a bloc.

Ronald S. Calderon -- Montebello

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Joe Canciamilla -- Pittsburg (chairman)

Edward “Ed” Chavez -- La Puente

Rebecca Cohn -- Saratoga

Lou Correa -- Anaheim

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Manny Diaz -- San Jose

John Dutra -- Fremont

Dario Frommer -- Los Feliz

Jerome Horton -- Inglewood

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Barbara Matthews -- Tracy

Gloria Negrete McLeod -- Chino

George Nakano -- Torrance

Joe Nation -- San Rafael

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Nicole Parra -- Hanford

Simon Salinas -- Salinas

Joe Simitian -- Palo Alto

Juan Vargas -- San Diego

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Lois Wolk -- Davis

Los Angeles Times


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