Ron Kaye: A question of legislative grease

There are no angels in politics, at least not for long.

Power corrupts, even a little power, even the illusion of a little power can corrupt. That’s why everyone who gets in the political game becomes tainted to one degree or another or they wouldn’t be a player for very long. It’s only a question of time.

Politics is a dirty business, from the big time in Washington to the medium time in Sacramento and Los Angeles, even in the small time in suburbia. Nothing gets done without the grease that dirties the hands of everyone involved, even the ones who try hard to be honest.

I bring this up because of an eye-catching assertion Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) made in a debate last month with Republican challenger Greg Krikorian in the heavily Democratic district that includes Glendale, Burbank and surrounding communities.

Gatto was able to raise $998,069.53 this year, well over five times as much as his challenger and was so sure of victory he gave some 25% of his campaign money to the Democratic Party and other candidates — and still kept $600,000 in the bank for future political uses.

According to official records at Cal Access, Gatto spent only $173,929.92 in the campaign — just $224.97 more than Krikorian was able to raise in total.

Money clearly did not make the difference. That’s why it is so hard to understand the statement that Gatto uttered during the League of Women Voters debate barely a week before the election:

“I am the only legislator out of all 120 who has never taken a sponsored piece of legislation. So I hear all this talk about special interests and with all due respect it’s a bit of, a little bit of a whopper. I have never taken a bill from a special interest. I have never taken a sponsored bill. All of my bills tend to be the, dare I say, wonkish, dare I say a little bit, a little bit, you know, they’re not the necessarily sexy ones that garner the headlines.”

The next day Gatto’s staff amended his claim to bring it in line with a December 2010 story in the San Jose Mercury News which reported that “just two members in the 120-seat Legislature did not introduce a single sponsored bill in the session: Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Orange County, and Mike Gatto, a Burbank Democrat. Gatto joined the Assembly after a special election in June, missing the regular deadline for introducing bills.”

I can’t help but think that this article giving the ambitious Gatto a significant distinction — even though he had won a special election after the deadline to introduce bills — inspired him to strengthen his case that he is a reformer. The Mercury News had created a stir months earlier by exposing that of “more than 1,800 bills — about 39 percent of the total — were sponsored by outside interests. And those sponsored bills made up 60 percent of the legislation that was passed into law.”

That’s what made it so hard to believe that Gatto was the only legislator or one of two who has “never taken a bill from a special interest … never taken a sponsored bill.”

A little bit of Googling quickly called his claim into question.

“Legislative Update – Governor Signs CTA-Sponsored AB 1888,” boasted the California Trucking Assn. just a month before the debate, saying the bill “by Assembly Member Mike Gatto will allow drivers with a commercial drivers license (CDL) to attend traffic school for minor violations in their personal vehicles” to avoid having points added to the records.

“CTA undertook this effort back in November 2011 at the direction of the Board of Directors,” the website posting said.

Also in September, another Gatto bill — AB 1875, limiting abusively long depositions — was signed by the governor, a bill that was described on legal websites as being “sponsored” by the Consumer Attorneys of California, the trial lawyers’ group.

Asked to explain the apparent contradiction to his debate assertion, Gatto dismissed the truckers’ and lawyers’ claims of sponsorship as false boasting to make themselves look good. He insisted they merely supported the legislation he initiated entirely on his own — one because a relative was a truck driver who complained about the law and the other from his experience as a lawyer himself.

“I don’t take sponsored bills because I don’t like the distaste that it imparts to the system,” he said. “I don’t think it is right to give away a piece of legislation to anybody. I think the system loses something the minute you say, ‘OK, I’m going to give away control to some group.’”

He noted the legislative record shows he is the author of both bills and there are no “sponsors” recorded — something he acknowledged was totally up to the lawmaker’s discretion to report.

Maybe, but it’s all too calculated, too glib for me and doesn’t gibe with what I know about the legislative process where sponsored legislation is the norm.

If Gatto means what he says about personal integrity and the integrity of the legislative process, he can do something about it. He’s part of the leadership team, and Democrats, for the first time since the 19th century, are in total control with supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.

If not now, when?

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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