MAN OF CONTRASTS
In public appearances and private conversations, Bob Hertzberg speaks of sweeping changes in the world economy and the need for Los Angeles to compete globally for jobs -- as if he were running for governor, not mayor.
“You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to reach out internationally to bring businesses here,” the Sherman Oaks attorney says. “It just requires leadership.”
From his vantage point, that’s the role of a big-city mayor today. Hertzberg says incumbent James K. Hahn lacks the vision to be that kind of mayor.
“Jim Hahn has been on the government payroll since Jerry Ford was president,” says Hertzberg, 50. “He doesn’t get it. The world has changed.”
Through energy, fundraising prowess and a substantial Rolodex, Hertzberg is determined to deprive Hahn of a second term.
The aggressive wielding of power is nothing new to Hertzberg. Driven and ambitious, he climbed to the legislative pinnacle in Sacramento -- the Assembly speakership -- in 2000 only to be forced out of the lower house by term limits two years later. He parlayed his connections into a $1-million-a-year law practice in downtown Los Angeles.
Throughout his political career, the gregarious Hertzberg has been known for dispensing bearlike hugs, earning him the nickname “Huggy Bear.”
But beneath that outgoing persona, Hertzberg is fierce and calculating. He sued his own father. He went to court to cut his child support payments as he geared up to run for mayor.
He is campaigning as a contradiction. He is a Democrat running on traditionally Republican themes: He opposes new taxes and wants to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is an insider, trying to capture the outsider’s elixir that propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship in 2003.
Hertzberg says he is drawn to the challenge of running America’s second-largest city. “I’m not doing this because I want my picture in the newspaper,” he says. “I’m doing it to really try to make this place work.”
Others suggest that, his career blunted in Sacramento, Los Angeles was the logical next stop. “He eats, breathes, sleeps, drinks politics,” says a close associate in Sacramento.
A Los Angeles Native
Robert M. Hertzberg was born at Temple Hospital in downtown Los Angeles, the third of five sons of Harrison and Antoinette “Bunny” Hertzberg. Harrison was a constitutional lawyer. The Hertzbergs had moved to Southern California in June 1949 after the future politician’s grandfather George Hertzberg came west from Racine, Wis., for treatment of tuberculosis.
After Bob was born, the family moved to a new home in Benedict Canyon, and he attended Warner Avenue Elementary School near UCLA.
But his oldest brother, Lyle, had cerebral palsy. As Hertzberg tells it, Lyle wasn’t allowed to attend public school in Los Angeles. The family had a small vacation home in Palm Springs, where the local school district was willing to accept Lyle. So they moved to the desert.
Hertzberg’s political inclinations surfaced at Palm Springs High, where he ran for junior class president and won. The next year, he was senior class president.
Harrison was a major influence on his middle son, the only one who would follow his father into law. “My dad was a lawyer’s lawyer,” Hertzberg recalls. “He was always reading books on the founding fathers and constitutional principles.... He loved books and I love books.”
More than that, Hertzberg says, his father “tried to toughen us all up.” He would demand answers to problems. “Fix it, don’t give me excuses,” Hertzberg remembers his father saying. “Don’t tell me you can’t make it work. Figure it out!”
Hertzberg attended the University of Redlands, where he studied history and English and deepened his love of politics.
His father had dabbled in politics, and in 1973 gave his son tickets to a Beverly Hills fundraiser for Mervyn Dymally, the first African American elected to the state Senate. The keynote speaker was former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Hertzberg says he was mesmerized by the speech, particularly when Humphrey spoke of the importance of public service.
Hertzberg’s interest in California politics was honed in 1974 when he had a front-row seat -- literally -- to Dymally’s successful race for lieutenant governor. Hertzberg, then 19, drove the candidate the length and breadth of the state in a black Lincoln Continental.
“It was so much fun,” Hertzberg recalls.
After graduating from Redlands, he entered the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He and his father later formed the L.A. law office of Hertzberg & Hertzberg.
Harrison Hertzberg handled an array of cases, many of which established historic rights in fields as diverse as women’s rights and acupuncture. But one of his biggest victories came in December 1982 when his client, the Barona Band of Mission Indians, won a legal battle to offer bingo on tribal land northeast of San Diego.
In a landmark decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that local and state laws prohibiting bingo did not apply to Native American tribes. Bob Hertzberg remembers with pride that he helped write two legal briefs in the Barona case -- his first to be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling, confirmed when the high court refused to take up the case, helped lead to the establishment of full-scale casinos on tribal land. Before the Barona bingo operation was expanded, Hertzberg says, 82% of the tribe’s members were unemployed. Now, he says, all have jobs.
Years later, tribal leaders would name a road leading to their hotel-casino “Harry Hertzberg Way.” The tribe expressed its gratitude to the younger Hertzberg in another fashion -- providing at least $105,000 worth of campaign contributions during his six years in the Assembly. The Baronas also contributed $60,000 to the Assembly Democrats’ voter registration drive while Hertzberg was speaker.
Despite their successes, the two Hertzbergs over time disputed which direction the firm should take; the father advocated a constitutional practice and the son wanted to focus on business law. In 1985, Bob left the firm, and a year later sued his father over the firm’s assets. The suit sought $1 million in punitive damages.
When asked about the case, Hertzberg said he directed an attorney to sue because he “was getting ... creditors coming after me.” In a later interview, he blamed his lawyer for the punitive-damages claim and said he had not seen the suit before it was filed because he was abroad.
The suit was not amended upon his return. After his father’s 1987 death, Hertzberg said, it was settled as part of his father’s estate.
Entree to Politics
Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina says she first became aware of young Hertzberg when he brought Pioneer Chicken -- his father represented the company -- to her victory party in 1982. Molina had just won an Assembly seat on the Eastside.
As the Dymally campaign provided entree to the world of African American politics in South Los Angeles, Molina’s campaign did the same among Latinos. Hertzberg soon became a familiar face, helping raise money and organize campaigns for such prominent candidates as Antonio Villaraigosa, now his mayoral opponent.
Hertzberg loved it. “Politics was personal,” he says. “I could go knock on doors.... People would talk to you.”
He entered elective office in 1996, easily winning an open Assembly seat in a San Fernando Valley district that was heavily Democratic. He rose quickly through the ranks. He was named chairman of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee and worked with Democrats and Republicans on anti-crime bills.
Two years later, he helped round up the votes to make Villaraigosa speaker. In turn, Villaraigosa named him chairman of the Rules Committee, which determines issues as varied as Capitol office space and which committees will hear bills.
The two were also roommates, but their friendship extended only so far. Villaraigosa wanted to remain speaker till the end of 2000, while making his first mayoral bid. But that would have cut into Hertzberg’s time as speaker. So Hertzberg made his move: He argued that the speaker should not be distracted by seeking another office.
In January 2000, Hertzberg was elected to the Assembly’s most powerful post on a unanimous bipartisan vote.
“I wanted to be gracious” to Villaraigosa. “I wanted to establish a transition,” Hertzberg says. “He wanted to stay until the end of November.... I allowed him to stay until April.”
The timing of the speakership change and, later, a falling-out over campaign money, shattered the long friendship. Based on Villaraigosa’s assurances, Hertzberg says, he told Assembly Democrats they could trust the speaker to turn over about $3.5 million that had been raised for their reelection campaigns.
But Villaraigosa kept about $2 million of the money for future campaigns. He used some of it to pay for ads -- in which he appeared -- promoting a state park bond measure in 2000 and a ballot measure last fall to boost the sales tax in L.A. County to pay for more law enforcement officers.
“Obviously it was a point of difficulty. I felt very embarrassed,” Hertzberg says. “I believed him.”
Villaraigosa will not discuss what happened. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s water under the bridge,” he says.
“They both feel betrayed by the other,” Molina says.
As speaker, Hertzberg was immediately confronted by the energy crisis. As the financial health of California’s major utilities crumbled and rolling blackouts plagued parts of the state, Hertzberg convened meetings of key players that would often last late into the night. Over months, he crafted a bailout package to keep Southern California Edison from following Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the deal foundered in the Senate.
But his foes -- specifically Hahn -- note that Hertzberg benefited from the crisis in another way: At the same time that out-of-state generators like Enron were charging Californians unprecedented amounts for power, they were also donating thousands to Hertzberg. They were just one of many interest groups that donated millions of dollars during his speakership.
Hertzberg cites as his accomplishments the Legislature’s decision to place multibillion-dollar school construction and water bond issues on the ballot. And he takes credit for helping orchestrate a landmark deal to transfer water from Imperial Valley farmers to urban areas of Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
His tenure in the Assembly also displayed his ability to finesse thorny issues. A prime example was the Valley secession attempt. Hertzberg opposed the effort, but amid mounting anger back home, he helped craft a bill that made it easier to place the matter on the ballot.
Caught between those who wanted the Valley to break away from L.A. and those who did not, Hertzberg later offered a compromise to divide the city into boroughs, much like New York City. The idea went nowhere, but he still cites the episode as an example of his political deftness.
Forced out of the Legislature by term limits at the end of 2002, Hertzberg immediately stepped into a $1-million-a-year law practice with Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, one of the world’s largest law firms. Mickey Kantor, the U.S. trade representative during the Clinton administration, recruited Hertzberg for the job.
Shortly after he left the Legislature, Hertzberg was also tapped as a $5,000-a-month senior consultant to public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard. That association has complicated his mayoral bid, since the firm is now being investigated for allegedly overbilling the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Hertzberg says he never billed the city for work while a consultant to Fleishman-Hillard. However, several former Fleishman executives did bill Los Angeles for an April 2003 meeting with top DWP executives that Hertzberg attended.
Richard Klein, who is in charge of the firm’s Los Angeles office, said Hertzberg “helped us to develop new business strategies and gave us advice and counsel on a variety of public affairs assignments.”
A Complicated Decision
Hertzberg’s decision to run for mayor carried both professional and personal complications.
After he assumed his high-paying legal job, his ex-wife (Hertzberg’s second) went to court seeking more financial support for their two teenage sons, whose custody they share. Because Hertzberg’s income had risen dramatically, the court found, his payments also should jump. The figure settled on was $9,800 a month, which covers child support, private school tuition and health insurance.
But last year, as he scaled back his practice to campaign, his income fell. Hertzberg sought court approval to lower the payments. His ex-wife, attorney Karen Moskowitz, objected. In legal papers, Hertzberg sought to reduce his child support payments, have his sons attend public schools and switch their health insurance to an HMO.
Hertzberg alleged that his ex-wife went to court “in an attempt to prevent me from reentering public life and to harm my reputation.”
Moskowitz denied his allegations. In court documents, she said their sons should not “struggle while he pursues his political dreams.”
Last summer, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert A. Schnider reduced the payments to about $7,000 a month. Because Hertzberg and Moskowitz could not agree on what was in their sons’ best interest, Schnider ordered that the teenagers remain in private school this year. The entire matter will be reviewed after the election.
Hertzberg had been contemplating a mayoral run for some time. He and his third wife, UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Cynthia Telles, spent Christmas 2003 in Sun Valley, Idaho, with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and his wife, Nancy Daly Riordan.
It was no coincidence: Daly Riordan is now one of Hertzberg’s campaign co-chairs, and the theme of the former speaker’s mayoral bid echoes Riordan’s. As Riordan did a dozen years ago, Hertzberg is targeting moderate Democrats and Republicans, particularly in the vote-rich Valley. Hertzberg is trying to reach them by taking on the school district, over which the mayor has no control.
Four years ago, Hertzberg opposed a bill to study breaking up the district. He said the school system should get a chance to improve student achievement. Now -- with student performance improving in elementary schools yet flat in higher grades -- Hertzberg favors a breakup.
“We have a system that is failing,” he says. “I’m about fixing the school system. I can’t be a successful mayor when half these kids in the city ... aren’t getting an education. It will not work, period.”
Hertzberg has also adopted the themes of a more popular political figure, Schwarzenegger. After opposing the recall of Democrat Gray Davis, Hertzberg helped Republican Schwarzenegger make the transition to Sacramento.
“I really like him,” Hertzberg says of the governor. “I like his approach toward governing. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I like him because he’s not political at all. Honestly, I swear to God, he’s just not political.”
Like Schwarzenegger, who has refused to consider raising state taxes, Hertzberg has drawn a line against hiking the city sales tax to increase the number of LAPD officers -- as Hahn has proposed.
The stance against tax increases, the school district break-up hopes and his moves to ease traffic woes are the backbone of Hertzberg’s campaign -- most evidently in his new television ads. There he looms, Gulliver-like, over police cars, a city school and a traffic jam.
Asked in an interview why he got into the race, Hertzberg was blunt: “Could I go out and make a ton of money in my businesses and law firm? Sure. But when I’m 70 years old, I look in the mirror and I watched this place crumble and knew I could have done something about it. I just couldn’t let that happen.”
Really, Hertzberg says, he’s gripped by the challenge of running Los Angeles. “Believe me, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. The sacrifices to me and to my family are extraordinary.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Born: Los Angeles, Nov. 19, 1954
Residence: Sherman Oaks
Education: University of Redlands, bachelor’s degree (1976);
Hastings College of the Law, law degree (1979)
Personal: Married to Cynthia Telles; two divorces. Two sons.
Career: Attorney. Assemblyman 1996-2002 (speaker of the California Assembly 2000-02)
Strategy: Hertzberg is targeting moderate Democrats and Republicans, particularly in the San Fernando Valley. His campaign is built on several themes: providing new leadership for the nation’s second-largest city, breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District, opposing a tax hike to pay for more police, and relieving traffic congestion.
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