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Democrats Shore Up Strategies

Times Staff Writer

The immaculately landscaped seaside resort -- plush golf course, poolside palm trees, steel-drum music wafting through the lobby -- may not have been the best setting for Democratic lawmakers to deflect charges from the governor that all they have been doing lately is “hanging.”

But the Assembly members say they are all business while they are camped out this week at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach, brushing up on the budget, getting their priorities in order and preparing for the confrontation with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They are at odds with him over a series of measures he is pushing that would reshape California’s political landscape and policy priorities. The governor has accused the Legislature of dithering.

“The people of California have sent the legislators to Sacramento to work,” Schwarzenegger said in a speech last week, “not to just hang. That’s what they’ve been doing the last three weeks: hang.”

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The lawmakers are spending three days in the Mediterranean-style resort getting to know one another -- many are new to the Capitol -- and hashing out policy issues over meals paid for by Ameriquest, AT&T; and other corporate donors.

By Tuesday, they met in small groups to talk strategy, played a computer game that simulates the state budget, and heard from a linguist about why the Republicans are so good at getting their message to resonate with voters.

“We are doing the opposite of ‘hanging,’ ” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz). “We are getting down to business.”

Back in Sacramento, the governor apparently was unimpressed. His press secretary, Margita Thompson, said the Democrats could better spend their time working on Schwarzenegger’s agenda.

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“If it [the retreat] allows them to have conversations that give them renewed energy to actually focus on the reform agenda, that’s something the governor would absolutely welcome,” she said. “The governor really is looking for them to have legislative activity on his reform agenda, and we haven’t seen anything yet on that front.”

Schwarzenegger was also planning to take time out from the Capitol, scheduling private meetings with campaign donors in Southern California to explain his priorities and agenda for change.

The governor wants to overhaul the way the state awards pensions to public employees. He wants a constitutional amendment that could force state spending down by billions of dollars. And he would like to redraw California’s political boundaries in the hope that more moderates could be elected to statewide and national offices.

None of those proposals are attractive to Democrats. After Schwarzenegger presented them early last month, they landed in the Legislature with a thud. No committee hearings have been called on them, and on Tuesday, the Democrats asserted that they are in no rush to move them forward.

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“The governor is an adult, he’s been through this process before,” said Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D-San Leandro).

Assembly leaders, dressed in sporty blue zip-up jackets with the Assembly seal emblazoned over their hearts and their names sewn in gold, called the governor’s proposals a mere distraction. They said voters care more about closing the $8.6-billion gap in the budget, and that was what they would focus on.

“The governor’s proposals really don’t help us balance the budget at all,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). “We want to see what the people of California want, not the oil companies, the insurance industry and car dealers.”

Nunez said the Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, “will give [the governor’s proposals] a fair hearing in due time.”

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A few hours after making their pronouncements in an airy conference room with French doors leading to the pool, the lawmakers were in a large meeting room, where they played the computer budget game. If they hit the “spend” button too many times, they were dinged by the program and had to find something to cut.

Over a buffet lunch of pizza and salads, the legislators exchanged gift bags. Laird offered up a hemp T-shirt, from his home district of Santa Cruz.

Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) announced he was giving away a video reflective of his district: the San Fernando Valley, home to the adult film industry. In the end, he presented an alternative: a DVD of a film with a tamer rating.

Nicole Parra (D-Hanford) walked out of the lunchroom with her arms full of brown paper and tape, mumbling about a broken pinata.

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The night before, the lawmakers had heard from George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley linguistics professor.

He has captivated Democratic leaders nationally with his assertion that conservative victories have been mostly due to conservatives’ use of language to frame debates on their terms.

Lakoff had addressed House Democrats in Washington in December, and his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” -- which immediately brings an elephant to mind -- has become required reading in such circles.

On Tuesday, the Assembly members took a page from Schwarzenegger’s own book -- er, movie. In a nod to the governor’s film “T3: Rise of the Machines,” they branded their conference “D-05: Rise of the Caucus.”

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Times staff writers Jordan Rau and Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.


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