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California statehouse staffer is a superstar of his own

If he were a basketball star instead of a statehouse staffer, he’d be Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson -- a veteran playmaker, feared by foes, his best moves unleashed just before the buzzer.

But like so many Sacramento insiders, Kip Lipper plays out of the limelight, in the back corridors of the Capitol, unknown to the public whose air and water and ecological ethos he has made his specialty over the last three decades.

As the environmental expert for the state Senate’s ruling Democrats, Lipper has helped craft many of California’s groundbreaking laws in that realm -- and become a foil for Republicans irked by what they view as regulatory excess, and by the economic fallout.

His fingerprints are on the California Clean Air Act, the state Safe Drinking Water Act and the landmark 2006 curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Legislation that boosted recycling, reduced landfill dumping, saved redwoods and cleaned up power plants are also part of his highlight reel.

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Most recently, he aided negotiations that helped break a quarter-century deadlock and produce an $11-billion plan to fix the state’s balky water system and revive the flagging Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

His boss, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), calls him “a force of nature.”

Lipper, 55, is as renowned inside the Capitol as he is anonymous outside. He may not hold an elected post, but friends and foes alike call him the “41st senator.”

“He has more influence than some senators,” said state Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), but that’s not necessarily a compliment.

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“You can’t fault Kip for being good at what he does,” Strickland said, “but I personally believe the voters would rather that the power lies with the people they elected.”

Among GOP staffers -- few of whom would talk about him on the record for fear of his political power -- Lipper has a reputation for legislative sleight of hand bordering on grand larceny.

They talk about bills being “Lipperized” -- changed into something they hardly recognize or left to rot in committee. They fear being “Kipped,” or outfoxed in the sly game of shaping new laws.

During last summer’s heated budget negotiations, a leaked memo from Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) held a telling bullet point: a warning to “keep Kip from writing” a Republican-backed bid for a new offshore oil project.

Lipper calls himself “a legi-crat” and credits the state’s environmental bent to lawmakers, “good guy” environmental groups and a nature-loving electorate.

“I’m pleased to be a part of that accomplishment,” he said. “But I also know it has much less to do with a single staffer.”

Lipper only reluctantly agreed to be interviewed.

“I’m not interesting, hate attention and like to hide in my office,” he said.

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His work space is a solemn, top-floor corner of the Capitol’s old wing. A crush of cardboard boxes rises halfway up one wall -- the detritus of institutional knowledge in short supply in the term-limits era.

The opposite wall displays awards for environmental achievement, framed copies of significant bills and photos: Lipper with former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Lipper shaking hands with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He had a ringside view of the recent water talks, at work and at home.

Lipper lives with his wife and three children in a home set amid oaks and vineyards near the delta, traveling to work each day in an apple-red Toyota Prius.

Some of his farming neighbors are among the fiercest critics of the water deal, which they say could undercut the delta and their operations.

A balding, barrel-chested man with a closely cropped beard and blue eyes behind black-rimmed glasses, Lipper laments having gained 100 pounds since his days as a scrappy point guard in high school in Pasadena during the early 1970s.

He grew up in a politically mixed household. His mother remains a staunch Republican; his late father was a liberal Democrat and former journalist who always told Lipper that the Legislature was “the last bastion of the optimist.”

Lipper’s sister, Donna Lucas, said her brother held his own at family dinner-table debates.

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“He’s wickedly smart,” said Lucas, who went the political route herself but worked for Republicans, including Govs. George Deukmejian and Schwarzenegger. “I don’t like to argue with him.”

Lipper hadn’t foreseen a career in government. But after earning an English degree at USC, he became a legislative intern.

That led to a job in the Huntington Beach office of newly elected Assemblyman Dennis Mangers, a Democrat from Orange County, the site of a fight over the fate of the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

His future as environment guru was set later, when Mangers lost his seat in the 1980 Reagan sweep and Lipper went to work for Byron Sher, a Stanford Law School professor and unabashed protector of nature who had just been elected to the state Assembly.

Over the next 24 years, the Democratic lawmaker and Lipper forged laws to protect clean water, clean skies and forests, and to advance bottle recycling and renewable energy.

“There’s no body of work like it in the United States,” said V. John White, an environmental lobbyist and longtime friend of Lipper. “There’s no legislative staffer like him anywhere in the United States.”

Lipper’s career has not been free of dark moments.

In 1996, GOP Assembly staffers cracked Sher’s computers and discovered fundraising letters that Lipper had drafted on legislative time for his Democratic boss, who was then running for state Senate.

California law bars the use of government resources for political purposes, but state election watchdogs declined to take action.

Lipper was fired by Assembly leaders -- only to be rehired by Sher after he was elected to the Senate a few months later.

“It was wrong and a dumb mistake on my part,” Lipper says today.

Sher was termed out in 2004, and Lipper has worked for the Senate’s top Democrats in the five years since. With a $165,000 annual salary, he is among the highest-paid legislative staff members.

What that buys, Republicans said, is a playbook designed to keep them -- and even some Democrats -- out of the loop.

Lipper springs bill language and analysis at the last possible moment, they said, robbing rival staffers and lawmakers of a chance for careful review.

One longtime Republican consultant said he was dismayed at being told by Lipper that a bill wasn’t ready -- only to find an environmental lobbyist reading a finished copy in a Capitol hallway.

“Such allegations are inaccurate,” Lipper said.

“It’s just a bunch of sour . . . grapes,” said John Burton, a Democrat, former Senate leader and one of Lipper’s former bosses.

Lipper doesn’t always score the winning bucket. He grudgingly went along with a recent deal to let a proposed new football stadium in the City of Industry skirt state environmental rules, a precedent that upset some activists.

But mostly, Lipper has won.

“I do feel that the California Legislature has been the world’s most important deliberative body in terms of advancing environmental policy,” he said.

“I’m proud to have worked for the people who accomplished that.”

eric.bailey @latimes.com


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