Races to Put a New Face on Capitol

Times Staff Writer

This year’s elections could remake the California Legislature by replacing some of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats with moderate, business-friendly lawmakers and installing the largest batch of Assembly rookies in modern history.

Voters will choose among candidates for all of the Assembly’s 80 seats and 20 of the Senate’s 40 positions. A raft of lawmakers -- many of them conservative Democrats -- are trying to migrate from the lower house to the Senate.

The suspense in the 100 contests will be largely resolved in the June 6 primary. Most districts are drawn with such a large majority of Republican or Democratic voters that the winner of the general election in November is a foregone conclusion.


The experience gap between the two houses is bound to widen with the arrival of 36 novice Assembly members who must wrestle with issues as varied as a $131-billion state budget, same-sex marriage and size limits for elephant cages. Term limits vacated 29 seats in the Assembly this year, and an additional seven members are leaving early to run for state Senate or Congress.

Politicians can serve no more than three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate under restrictions that voters imposed in 1990.

“You’re going to have a whole bunch of people who will have positions of responsibility and no knowledge,” said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has studied term limits extensively. “At the same time people are going to be figuring out where the bathrooms are, they’re going to be deciding very important budgetary matters and legislative matters.”

An influx of newcomers could also detract from the collegiality and work of the Assembly, said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles).

“There is a relationship between the quality of the legislation and the quality of the relationships among lawmakers,” he said. “There’s less opportunity to learn people’s styles, to learn people’s issues and to gain their trust.”

The Senate could be transformed by the election of several moderate Democrats. Most of its 25 Democrats have a consistently liberal voting record. But the 13 Assembly members now running for Senate include Democrats who frequently cross fellow Democrats on bills opposed by business.


These self-described moderates have banded together in the last couple of years to modify or derail bills that increased environmental regulation or made it easier for lawyers to sue on behalf of consumers. They have defeated bills, such as a measure to restrict banks from sharing customer financial data, that found support in the Senate.

They tend to vote like fellow Democrats on labor and social legislation, but side with corporate interests on economic issues.

Several moderate Democrats are running for seats now held by liberal senators who have carried legislation opposed by industry. The candidates include:

* John Dutra, a wealthy East Bay real estate company owner who helped defeat bills opposed by business during his term as an assemblyman. Termed out in 2004, he seeks to replace Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), whose legislative focus has been the bureaucracy that oversees doctors, accountants and other professionals. Figueroa is running for lieutenant governor.

* Former Assemblyman George Nakano of Torrance, who was termed out in 2004. He seeks to replace Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), author of consumer privacy and voter-rights legislation and a candidate for secretary of state.

* Assemblyman Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), who frequently sides with the financial industry as chairman of the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee. He seeks to replace Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), who has carried many measures fought by the insurance industry, including one to create a low-cost auto insurance program for poor people.

* Former Assemblyman Lou Correa, now an Orange County supervisor, who seeks to replace Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana). Dunn, an ally of trial lawyers who is running for state controller, led the Legislature’s investigation of energy companies during the electricity crisis of 2000-01.

* Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino), who seeks to replace liberal Democratic stalwart Sen. Nell Soto of Pomona. In 2004, Soto voted for bills that would have tested for toxins in breast milk and banned use of toxins in cosmetics, while Negrete McLeod refused to support either.

Business interests are also backing Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla in the race to replace Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) in a Democratic-leaning San Fernando Valley district. They are betting that Padilla will prove more fiscally conservative than his opponent, Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando).

“If you get six or seven moderates with the experience of people like Dutra and Nakano coupled with the moderates already in the Senate, it will definitely be a modifying influence,” said David Townsend, a Sacramento political consultant who has served as an unpaid advisor to the Assembly’s moderate Democrats for several years. “It will mean there will be more dialogue and less diatribe about issues.”

Others foresee such a change in different terms.

“Historically the consumer groups and environmental groups have looked at the Senate as the house that will stand in the way of aggressively anti-consumer and anti-environmental bills even if the Assembly moved them through,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

“I think it’s possible the new Senate won’t be quite the goalie that the Senate in recent years has been,” he said, “in terms of fending off these big business shots.”