Sipping iced coffee in the Black Cow Café in Montrose on Friday with Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, I found myself suspending my disbelief, putting aside my deep cynicism as a newspaperman and feeling like I was in the company of a politician actually doing the right thing for the right reasons despite threats and bullying.
It was like watching a remake “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” rewritten as “Mr. Portantino Goes to Sacramento” — the accidental politician becomes the reluctant revolutionary.
In barely two months, Portantino has gone from the relative obscurity of serving quietly and industriously as one of California’s 120 lawmakers to stumbling into the political spotlight as a lone voice challenging the leadership and record of failure of a hopelessly gridlocked Legislature.
He has made headlines in newspapers across the state, inspired editorials sharply critical of Assembly Speaker John Perez’s abuses of his power, prompted two major newspapers to sue the Legislature for refusing to release how much it spends on itself and its staff — that’s taxpayer money, not the special-interest money that puts them into office and provides costly favors to them.
For daring to break ranks from his fellow Democrats and voting against a state budget based on phony revenue estimates while putting dangerous criminals onto our streets early, doing nothing to provide jobs or hold government agencies accountable, Portantino is being treated like a political leper by his own party leadership.
They have issued notices to his staff that they will be furloughed on Oct. 21 for 40 days, claiming that he overspent his budget — the same budget they refuse to release for all legislators. On Thursday, they tried to squelch Portantino’s right to speak on the Assembly floor when he tried to praise three Republicans who joined him in defying the speaker by releasing their budgets themselves.
“I can’t concern myself with retribution,” Portantino said near the end of our 90-minute conversation. “I just have to be who I am and connect to the people I represent. You can’t do anything else.”
This isn’t a personality squabble. It’s about honesty in government. Transparency. Accountability. Solving the people’s problems. Fixing what’s broken. Spending tax money wisely. Looking after the public interest, selling out to special interests.
It’s about hot-air politicians like Perez blowing smoke as he did 18 months ago at his swearing-in as speaker when he talked about “the serious structural issues putting a stranglehold on California government” and how the “reality is that in a state like California, we need to have transparency in government."
It’s about one person among 120 who swore to uphold the laws and the state Constitution and California having the courage to object to bait-and-switch deceits where laws and spending plans are enacted having to do with the measures debated in public.
It’s about one person trying to end negligence in the higher-education system that costs the state $500 million in federal funding for low-income students simply by eliminating a redundant form.
It’s about one person showing courage when so many around him act like cowards.
Portantino is no more a hero than all the other ordinary people who do their best to do the right thing for the right reason day after day, doing their jobs, looking after their families, trying to make their neighborhoods a little better.
He’s just a guy who grew up in New Jersey, the youngest of four children in a proud Italian family, whose father died when he was 11. His mother stood, and still stands, for common virtues. Portantino is a guy who fell in love with the movies as a kid watching TV in the basement, a guy who came to Los Angeles in 1986, went to work in various film production jobs and made enough money to buy a home in La Cañada Flintridge, where he and his college sweetheart raised their family.
“I had no training in government,” Portantino said. “I just met a lot of people in the community, asked questions and learned a little day after day that people just wanted a chance at a decent life, to know their car would still be in the driveway in the morning, and that their kids would get the education they need to have more opportunity.”
He was astonished that there was so little interest in city elections, they were calling them off. He served eight years on the La Cañada City Council, two terms as mayor, and ran for the Assembly in 2006 when Carol Liu, now a state senator, was termed out.
Portantino now is termed out and is looking at a run against longtime Republican Rep. David Dreier in a redesigned district that gives a centrist Democrat a chance — enough chance the Republicans are worried.
The big question is whether the Democratic Party will punish or support a candidate who has defied a failed party hack like Perez.
Portantino scoffs at the question.
“I take policies serious. I don’t take myself seriously,” Portantino said. “Policies should be judged on the merits of the policies, not on the influences of the leadership, or on the leadership.”
RON KAYE can be reached at email@example.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.