Nunez's mixed legacy

Times Staff Writer

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, the gardener's son who rose from a San Diego barrio to one of California's most powerful posts, leaves office Tuesday having arguably fulfilled a vow he made when he was sworn in four years ago: to renew his chamber's prestige as "the house of ideas."

But by many accounts, the Los Angeles Democrat and former labor leader failed to keep another pledge: to restore citizens' faith in government.

As he hands over the sprawling, sometimes chaotic house to his fellow Angeleno and chosen successor, Democratic Assemblywoman Karen Bass, he leaves a legacy as one of the most effective leaders since voters imposed term limits 18 years ago. He put his name on landmark laws, but he also tarnished his public image with self-indulgent spending of political donations.

The longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown stepped down in 1995 after a nearly 15-year reign, Nuñez forged a productive relationship with a larger-than-life celebrity governor to tackle issues dear to Californians: global warming, school funding, the widespread lack of health insurance.

He brought order to a house known for rambling rhetorical debates, angered the unions that fostered his political career and excelled at fundraising, one of a speaker's key functions. He will leave Bass, he said, with roughly $4 million to use against Republicans in November, when every seat in the Assembly will be up for grabs.

But Nunez also spent tens of thousands of donated dollars on foreign travel, fine wines, expensive meals, exclusive hotel stays and luxury goods -- expenditures not obviously related to government or politics, as state law dictates.

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Designer goods

His spending is now under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission, which regulates state political ethics. So is his relationship with a small Los Angeles charity that funneled special-interest money raised by Nunez to soccer tournaments, toy giveaways and other events that were organized by his government staff and served him politically.

Nunez said all of the money went to legitimate political or government purposes and that traveling the world helped make him a better leader. He defended his collaboration with the charity as a legitimate way to help poor families in his district, and he predicted he would be cleared of any wrongdoing.

But after Nunez's spending was publicized, the FPPC wrote new rules requiring politicians who spend political funds to name gift recipients and travel destinations, and to show how those expenditures relate to official business. And for some in his party and his constituency, Nunez's behavior was self-serving.

"Most people in this country and world will never be able to buy Louis Vuitton in their life," said Democratic activist Brad Parker, referring to the Paris designer-goods store where Nunez spent $2,562 that he reported as "office expenses."

"Regular citizens are having a hard time," Parker said. "They need somebody who will give them a reason to believe."

In Boyle Heights, part of Nunez's district, 53-year-old George Arroyo offered this advice: "Think for the community, not for yourself."

Last week, in his final news conference as speaker, Nunez declared that if he could do it all over, he'd change nothing.

"If it ended here today, and this was the extent of Fabian Nunez's political career," he said, "I would die and go to heaven, because to me, being here is incredible. Walking around this beautiful building every day, being able to govern for 36 million people in California, to be able to debate, discuss and engage on the issues of the day in a way that allows me to fight for the things I believe in . . . has been just an enormous experience."

The father of three said he has no intention of running for public office again soon. He said he will probably work at least a couple of years in the private sector, though he has not announced a new job.

Nunez still seems amazed by his own rise from a humble, sometimes hungry childhood and his family's transition from Tijuana to San Diego, where he arrived as a 7-year-old "with different-colored socks, maybe just a couple of pairs of high-water pants." He speaks movingly of his father Pablo's work as a field hand and gardener, and of the success in America of his 11 siblings.

"The promise of hope and opportunity in the Golden State is real," he said last week.

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A quick grasp of policy

A charming, athletic man who ditched his glasses and upgraded his wardrobe upon becoming speaker, Nunez got his political start in organized labor, which he has called "the only thing standing between the haves and the have-nots." He was political director of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District before running for the Legislature.

He was 37, with just a year's experience in the 80-member Assembly, when he won a three-way race for speaker. Democrats gambled that he would learn the job quickly and be speaker long enough to accrue power equal to that of the governor and Senate leader.

The risk paid off. Under Nunez, the Assembly has upstaged the more staid, experienced Senate.

Last July, for example, Nunez cajoled Republicans into approving a state budget, then dismissed the Assembly for summer recess, leaving the Senate to debate the $145-billion spending plan for another month in the Sacramento heat. The final budget was two months late and virtually the same as that passed by the Assembly.

Democratic colleagues praise Nunez's energy, passion and quick grasp of policy. He ruled with a strong hand -- and, occasionally, a temper.

Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who led the minority caucus during the early years of Nunez's tenure and is now a congressman, remembers the speaker slamming his office phone hard enough to break it after McCarthy refused to follow an order.

But "he's incredibly charismatic," said Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, a Concord Democrat. "He's what some people would call a vitalist, full of energy and life, and he's strong-willed, so naturally you're going to have some friction from some members and some people outside."

People embraced Nunez, and he returned the favor, said former Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, a Norwalk Democrat who served under Nunez for two years. He noted that Nunez entrusted important posts to then-Assembly members Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) and Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz) after he outmaneuvered them to become speaker.

"He didn't have people back-stabbing him," Bermudez said, "and a lot of it was because of how he mended fences."

Republicans described Nunez as a "bare-fisted partisan." But they also said he aggressively defended the prerogatives of the institution.

When one state senator broke a promise to the Assembly to make changes to a bill he was sponsoring, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) remembered, retaliation from Nunez was immediate: He killed the senator's bill.

Like several other members, DeVore said Nunez's staff used threats and intimidation when necessary to advance an agenda. "You can either be a doormat or a dictator," he said, "and I think he chose the latter route."

Nunez cultivated at least one Republican: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the bond was not instant. Initially, Nunez once said, the two mixed like "oil and water."

But to their mutual benefit, they eventually warmed to each other. What followed was a bumper crop of ambitious legislation, especially in 2006.

"Speaker Nunez and I have had a lot of successes together," Schwarzenegger said Friday through a spokesman. " . . . I wish him all the best in this next phase of his life."

The two agreed on laws to raise the minimum wage from $6.75 to $8 an hour, to allow phone companies to sell pay TV and to reduce prescription drug costs for about 6 million uninsured Californians.

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Healthcare plan

To great fanfare, they struck an accord to scale back California's greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. And they teamed on a sweeping $14.9-billion plan to extend healthcare coverage to most uninsured Californians -- but it was defeated by senators concerned that it could drain state coffers.

That work may not be over, Nunez said last week: "I want to figure out outside this building how I can build the types of coalitions that can get major issues like healthcare done."

As one of five top leaders negotiating the annual state budget, Nunez successfully resisted most cuts that would have hurt the poor, disabled and elderly. And he surprised many observers by being willing to upset organized labor by approving tribal gambling compacts it opposed and embracing provisions in healthcare legislation that unions said were onerous to workers.

Nunez described himself as a champion of the people's interests, but sometimes the public paid for moves that could help special interests.

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Pushed vehicle fees

After midnight on the final day of last year's legislative session, Nunez pushed through a bill that increased registration fees for cars and trucks by as much as $10. Although the money was to subsidize clean-fuel development, opponents said the funds could be used by oil companies to pay for pollution-reduction measures they were already required to take. Nunez has since said a giveaway to oil companies was unintended and has written a second bill, now pending, to clarify the law.

Nunez's final endeavor could fundamentally change the Legislature -- and correct one of his most marked failures. In his seven remaining months as an Assemblyman, Nunez will try for a second time to ease term limits so legislators can stay in office longer. He will tie the proposal to one that would transfer to an independent panel the Legislature's power to draw its own districts.

An earlier Nunez plan to change term limits was voted down in February, after opponents took aim at the speaker in ads that said the measure would "let termed-out politicians stay in office and preserve their opulent lifestyles." This time, Nunez's tenure won't be an issue.

Nunez denied that he is trying to undo one of the biggest defeats of his speakership. Instead, he said, he simply doesn't like to give up. Home-run hitters, he noted, strike out a lot, too.

"I've been willing to fail," he said recently, summing up his time in office. "It's one thing I've grown to be very comfortable with."

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fabian Nunez

Achievements

Elected to Assembly in 2002.

Elected speaker in 2004.

Helped write the nation's first law to restrict industrial greenhouse gas emissions. Wrote laws to discount prescription drugs for low-income Californians and to allow telephone companies to compete with cable companies to provide pay TV service.

Disappointments

Was criticized by media and some donors for lavish spending of campaign funds, including visits to some of the world's finest hotels and restaurants.

Biography

A 41-year-old father of three, married to nurse and consultant Maria Robles. One of 12 children of immigrant parents. Grew up in the Logan Heights neighborhood of San Diego. Earned education and political science degrees from Pitzer College in Claremont. Former political director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Source: California Assembly and Times reporting

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Speakers' tenures

The average tenure of Cali-

fornia Assembly speakers has

shortened since voters im-

posed term limits in 1990. The list since 1961:

* Jesse M. Unruh (D-Inglewood): Sept. 1961 to Jan. 1969; seven years, three months

* Robert T. Monagan (R-Tracy): Jan. 1969 to Jan. 1971; two years

* Bob Moretti (D-Van Nuys): Jan. 1971 to June 1974; three years, six months

* Leo T. McCarthy (D-San Francisco): June 1974 to Dec. 1980; six years, five months

* Willie Brown (D-San Francisco): Dec. 1980 to June 1995; 14 years, seven months

* Doris Allen (R-Cypress): June 1995 to Sept. 1995; three months

* Brian Setencich (R-Fresno): Sept. 1995 to Jan. 1996; three months

* Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove): Jan. 1996 to Dec. 1996; 11 months

* Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno): Dec. 1996 to Feb. 1998; one year, two months

* Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles): Feb. 1998 to April 2000; two years, two months

* Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks): April 2000 to Feb. 2002; one year, 10 months

* Herb Wesson (D-Culver City): Feb. 2002 to Feb. 2004; two years

* Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles): Feb. 2004 to May 2008; four years, three months

Source: California Assembly

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