The first surprise on a tour of Bob Hertzberg’s new house in Van Nuys is the ice cream parlor, with the former state Assembly speaker’s nickname on a neon sign: “Huggy’s Soda Fountain.”
Next is a screening room with hot dog, cotton candy and popcorn machines, and then, in the garage, a shiny green 1958 Chevrolet Apache pickup truck. Across the yard by his office — “where I smoke my stogies, as you can smell” — he opens a door, reaches into a red box and pushes a button.
A rolling metal grille, painted as false French doors, clanks open. Hidden at the edge of the lawn like a speak-easy is Hertzberg’s tequila bar, its shelves lined with Don Julio and many other brands of premium Mexican liquor.
To Hertzberg, a Democrat newly elected to the state Senate after a 12-year break from public office, the tequila bar is more than an entertainment venue. He just built a bigger one, the El Norte version, at his row house in Sacramento and plans to use both to gather Democrats, Republicans, insiders and outsiders to trade ideas on the challenges California faces — the “big stuff,” he calls it.
“What I’m going to try to do, in everything I do, is try to think longer-term,” Hertzberg said over breakfast on a porch at the Van Nuys home.
Four goals drive what he hopes will be an eight-year run in the Senate: expand renewable energy, strengthen California’s water system, shift state authority to local government and overhaul the state’s boom-and-bust tax structure.
Hertzberg, a large man known for draping his arms around people’s shoulders, talks fast, often at high volume. Grand pronouncements abound. The network of alternative fuel stations he envisions will be “phenomenal.” Major tax changes are “gigantically important.”
At 60, he is well positioned to influence state policy in a way that few other legislators can. Like Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow devotee of the long view, Hertzberg has spent the better part of four decades steeped in California politics. His tenure in the Assembly, from 1996 to 2002, schooled him in the arcane skills of lawmaking.
“I know how to get stuff done,” he said.
His two-year stint as speaker put Hertzberg in one of the state’s most powerful jobs just as California was thrashed by the dot-com bust and the electricity crisis. His status as former speaker begs the question of whether he wants to succeed the state Senate’s new leader, Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who must leave the Legislature in four years under term limits.
“I don’t know,” Hertzberg said. “Being the leader is interesting at some level. At another level, it’s very hard.”
For De León, he added, it’s not easy to have a former Assembly leader join the Senate. “He has a little bit of anxiety about me coming in,” Hertzberg said.
In a written statement, De León said he was “excited that Bob, along with the other newly elected members, will be bringing their talents to Sacramento.”
One of Hertzberg’s talents is raising money, most recently $1.5 million for his Senate race against two rivals who together spent about $8,000. More than half his money came from donors in organized labor, healthcare, real estate and construction, Indian tribes and gambling interests, finance, insurance and energy — all of which have business before the Legislature.
“A lot of those checks just came in the door,” said Hertzberg, who won 70% of the vote Nov. 4. “It was really quite amazing.”
In conversation, Hertzberg can be overbearing, and his family life at times has been stormy. He once sued his father in a dispute involving the family law firm. Divorced three times, he’s now unmarried.
A Los Angeles native, Hertzberg broke into politics in 1974 as a driver for Mervyn Dymally, then a state senator running for lieutenant governor. He soon built a large network of friends and allies in Latino political circles on Los Angeles’ Eastside, among them Gloria Molina, Richard Alatorre and Antonio Villaraigosa. After years of practicing law — his clients included Molina’s husband — those political bonds helped him win his San Fernando Valley seat in the Assembly and rise to the speaker’s post.
Hertzberg’s critics say he sometimes lacks focus. As an assemblyman, he took credit for laws advancing school construction bonds and the Valley’s Orange Line busway, but his record rarely exceeded the routine, with scattered successes in securing state money for such programs as gang prevention and traffic relief.
His takeover of the speaker’s job in 2000 was bumpy. He had a falling out with Villaraigosa, his predecessor as speaker, over campaign money and the timing of the transfer of power. The two ran against one another in the 2005 race for L.A. mayor but reconciled by the time Villaraigosa won. Hertzberg chaired Villaraigosa’s transition team.
After leaving the Assembly, Hertzberg built an international renewable-energy business. He and a partner, Edward J. Stevenson of Martha’s Vineyard, invested in solar, wind and electric-car projects.
Their main company, G24 Innovations, was based in Wales. It found some success selling solar strips to power iPad keyboard cases, but creditors eventually seized the company.
“I lost just a ton of money,” Hertzberg said.
Over the last 12 years, Hertzberg also did government affairs work for Mayer Brown LLP, one of the world’s biggest law firms. He has declined to identify most of his clients but named a handful during his campaign for mayor.
They included the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, developer KB Home and Caliber Collision Centers, an auto repair chain then fighting state charges that it defrauded consumers.
Others at Mayer Brown lobbied state and local lawmakers, but Hertzberg said he was “a strategic advisor” behind the scenes. “I’d flip hamburgers before I’d lobby,” he said.
While in the Senate, Hertzberg, whose annual pay will be $97,197 plus about $25,000 for expenses, plans to work in the government affairs practice of Glaser Weil, an L.A. law firm whose main lobbyist at City Hall is Tim McOsker, who was chief of staff to former Mayor James K. Hahn.
Asked whether he would disclose his clients, Hertzberg said, “I don’t know yet.”
Later, he said he would. To avoid conflicts, he said, the firm will wall him off from its dealings with the state.
Substantively, Hertzberg plans to push for structural changes in state government, as he has been doing for years in his work with two civic groups, California Forward and Think Long Committee for California. He was a leading voice in favor of ballot measures that mandated independent redrawing of political districts, open primaries and majority-vote state budgets but believes that’s not enough.
One of his biggest challenges will be to gain support for stabilizing the state’s tax base.
He wants to eliminate the corporate income tax and reduce personal income tax rates, including for the wealthiest Californians, while imposing a new 5% tax on sports tickets and services such as accounting, engineering and legal work. His plan would also increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
That agenda could face fierce resistance, partly from organized labor, partly from business. The task, he said, is to break through it.
“I know what I want to do,” he said. “I know what capacity I have to get it done. And I’ll get it done.”