Lobbyist Scott Wetch bends Legislature to benefit labor unions

Reporting from Sacramento -- California building contractors were thrilled when waterless urinals came on the market, thinking the devices would save them a fortune in plumbing costs.

The state building code would need to be changed, but that seemed an easy sell. The fixtures would prevent billions of gallons of water from being wasted, and California's environmental lobby could be counted on as a powerful ally.

There was one hitch. His name was Scott Wetch.

Wetch is a Sacramento lobbyist for labor unions, and urinals without water pipes would not be good for his clients in the building trades. His campaign to derail the bill shows why he is considered one of the shrewdest operators in the Capitol.

First he played the health card, arguing that mens' rooms would become breweries for pestilence and toxic vapors.

Then he took a more direct approach, reminding Democratic lawmakers that the bill threatened a key constituency — labor — and specifically his client, the California State Pipe Trades Council and its 30,000 plumbers and pipe fitters.

Finally, he splintered his opponents by crafting a compromise designed to appease environmentalists. The revised bill, signed into law in 2007, allowed developers to install waterless urinals. But they would still have to install the pipes, just in case something went wrong.

"It's absurd," said Kevin Dayton, an executive at the Associated Builders and Contractors of California. "Obviously, waterless urinals are a threat to plumbers getting jobs, and, therefore, he worked to make sure the jobs would continue even as the technology changed."

Wetch doesn't really argue the point.

"I do whatever I can," he said, "to give a competitive advantage to unionized employees."

Capitol observers say the waterless urinal battle was an example of why Wetch, 45, is considered a virtuoso at bending the Legislature to his will.

"He's one of the more powerful lobbyists," said Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). "Part of the reason is that he represents clients that have a lot of credibility and many of us [Democrats] naturally regard them as important stakeholders. The other part is that he plays hardball, and there's no mistake about it, Scott is very good at killing bills."

Wetch's influence, however, belies his modest staff and office. The lobbying firm's name is Carter, Wetch and Associates, but it's basically just Wetch, lobbyist Eduardo Martinez and a receptionist. The firm shares the name of its founding partner, Art Carter, who retired in 2003, when Wetch took ownership of the firm. The offices are located above a fire station about four blocks from the Capitol building.

Despite its small size, however, the firm earned nearly $3 million in fees during the 2009-10 legislative session and the first half of 2011, public records show.

A third-generation native of Sebastopol in Sonoma County's apple country, Wetch started working in the Capitol 23 years ago as an intern in the Democratic Senate president's office while a student at Sacramento State University.

He rose through the ranks as a legislative staffer, then became a lobbyist in 2001 as the full effect of legislative term limits hit home. As veterans left the statehouse, newly elected lawmakers became increasingly dependent on lobbyists to steer the agenda and raise money from deep-pocketed clients.

Wetch, with a brush cut and steely confidence, was ready to help.

"I don't just go into a committee as a lot of people do and fly by the seat of my pants," he said, referring disdainfully to rival lobbyists. "Instead, I'm thinking about what's going to happen two committees from now."

In recent months, Wetch has emerged as a key deal maker on bills to develop wind and solar power. His main task has been to secure a large share of the tens of thousands of new jobs for the 75,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Some lobbyists and others who have crossed paths with Wetch call him a bully.

"He threatens people," said Jose Radzinsky, the former president of San Jose solar system installer Renewable Power Solutions Inc.

For more than two years, Radzinsky tried to win approval from the California Apprenticeship Council, a state agency, to join a state-funded program that would train his nonunion workers to install solar systems. He hoped that his better-trained workers could help him bid on public works projects.

The IBEW saw solar installation as an electrician's job and didn't like the idea of competition from nonunion apprentices. Wetch went to work, lobbying the agency against Radzinsky.

The contractor ultimately won approval, only to find out that his solar installers still lacked the proper credentials to qualify for the higher-wage government projects. Radzinsky later sold his firm and, although bruised by the battle, has grudging admiration for Wetch.

"Scott is there [at the Capitol] every day," he said. "He's really good at what he does."

In addition to electricians and plumbers, Wetch's clients include the unions representing utility workers, sheet metal fabricators and people employed in the forest products industry.

His success also has won over business clients, including the Assn. of California Insurance Cos., lottery equipment maker GTech Corp. and Diageo, the big alcoholic beverage company. Wetch also has lobbied for developer Ed Roski Jr., who is trying to build a football stadium in Los Angeles County.

Blunt, even intimidating, Wetch makes no apologies for what he calls a "tenacious" lobbying style. "If it's a bad bill," he said, "I'm going to go up and say it's a bad bill."

That attitude helped him persuade lawmakers to kill a 2010 bill that would have let cement, steel and other energy-hungry factories produce some of their own solar or wind power, saving the plants money and allowing them to sell excess power back to the power grid.

Heavy industries and environmentalists backed the measure. But the bill threatened the jobs of IBEW and Utility Workers Union of America members. Wetch denounced the legislation as a "ratepayer subsidy to big polluters."

Barbara Barkovich, a consultant for one of the bill's backers, the California Large Energy Consumers Assn., accused Wetch of misrepresenting the measure. At a Senate energy committee hearing, both sides were told to go out to the hallway and work out a compromise.

Wetch didn't budge, knowing he had the votes.

"He was clearly not interested in trying to work something out," recalled Barkovich. "He had a very negative attitude."

Last year, Wetch employed that same talent when he plunged into a personal fight with the California Nurses Assn. and other unions.

The nurses, along with the California Teachers Assn. and others, opposed legislation that would allow specially trained public school staff members, in an emergency, to administer a suppository drug to a child having an epileptic seizure. They argued that it was unsafe for school principals or bus drivers to get involved when no school nurse was available.

Wetch said he was especially interested in the bill because his 7-year-old daughter suffers from grand mal seizures. He got permission from his labor clients to jump into the fray.

"I figured the bill wasn't going to go anywhere if I didn't get involved," he said.

The nurses were livid. They accused Wetch of using his clients' substantial political influence to lobby for the bill, demonizing the nurses' union in the process.

But the Legislature passed the measure, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law. The bill's author, Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), said Wetch made the difference.

"We might not have experienced this kind of success without him," he said.

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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