Assemblyman cuts his own path

If the state Legislature were a high school cafeteria, you wouldn’t find Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D- La Cañada Flintridge) sitting with the popular kids.

But that’s just fine by him.

During his five years in Sacramento, Portantino — now fundraising for a congressional bid in 2012 — has clashed with the Assembly’s Democratic leadership on a number of occasions.

When many Democrats cried foul over legislative pay cuts ordered by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Portantino argued lawmakers should also give up their state-provided cars. He’s pushed a salary freeze for the state’s highestpaid employees that Assembly leaders have withheld from discussion eight times, and another Portantino bill to reign in state spending has been left to languish for years in committee.

Furthermore, Portantino was the only Democratic Assembly member to oppose the early release of state prisoners as a cost-cutting measure. Two weeks ago, he was also alone among Sacramento Democrats in withholding support for the dismantling of state-funded local redevelopment agencies, a stance that earned him a stern public talking-to, complete with finger-pointing, from Assembly Speaker John Pérez — the legislative body’s star quarterback.

Though friction with his party’s leadership has not prevented Portantino, a former mayor of La Cañada Flintridge, from achieving significant legislative victories — the creation of a potentially lifesaving public umbilical cord blood collection program, a ban on truck traffic on Angeles Crest Highway, legal immunity for minors who report underage drinking injuries, regulation of for-profit colleges and emergency tax relief for residents impacted by the Station fire — there have been repercussions.

At the start of this year’s legislative session, Pérez removed Portantino as chair of the Assembly’s Revenue and Taxation Committee. It was the second committee chairmanship Portantino has lost, having been stripped his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee three years ago after opposing then-Speaker Fabian Nuñez in his ultimately successful bid to pass the torch to Karen Bass, who preceded Pérez as speaker.

That Portantino had also signed up as a candidate challenging both Bass and Pérez for the speaker role couldn’t have helped.

But for all the drama, Portantino plays down his differences with party leadership and resists labeling himself a wild card.

“I don’t think I try to exert my independence. I just try to represent the district I was elected to represent. There are policy differences and disagreements, and those don’t always sit well with the people who make decisions about who serves on what committee,” said Portantino, 50, a father of two and La Cañada Flintridge City Council member from 1999 to 2006.

“It’s not personal. [Pérez] certainly has a right to pick his committee chairs based on those who agree with his agenda. And I have a right to have my opinion and express myself. That’s the process. My district didn’t elect me to be a chair, they elected me to be a member,” he said.

Pérez declined to comment for this story, but a number of experts on Sacramento politics say Portantino’s apparent independent streak deserves more attention than he’s letting on.


Willie Brown’s shadow

Ask a close watcher of California politics just how significant it is for a state Assembly member to take on a speaker of his own party, and inevitably the answer will include a reference to Willie Brown.

Before term limits forced Assembly members to serve no more than six years (Portantino terms out next year), Brown wielded power to make or break careers as speaker of the Assembly from 1980 to 1995. These days, by contrast, speakers come and go every couple of years.

“A modern-day speaker is never going to have the kind of power and authority that someone like Willie Brown did in the era before term limits, but it’s still a mark of real courage — but also potential risk — to take on your party’s legislative leadership this directly,” Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said of Portantino.

Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego and author of the book “Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism,” believes term limits have gone a long way to liberate individual Assembly members from the controlling influences of party leadership.

“Term limits mean that, as a legislator, you want to do what you think is right for your constituents and for your vision of the state above all else. I think [Portantino has] correctly realized you don’t need to toe the line of your speaker at all times,” said Kousser, an Altadena native.

Former Glendale state Assemblyman Dario Frommer, who termed out of the Assembly in 2006 after serving as its majority leader, paints a slightly different picture. He argues that term limits have in some ways enhanced the role of party leaders and suppressed independent voices by undermining the longevity and status of committee chairs.

“I think power has become much more centralized in a post-term limits world. Before term limits, you had leaders who served a long time, like Willie Brown, but you also had committee leaders who courted much more deference and respect,” said Frommer, an attorney who recently purchased a home in La Cañada Flintridge.

“For example,” Frommer continued, “speakers make their presence felt a lot more often in the appropriations committee, where bills are often amended to reflect the speaker’s wishes or they just don’t make it out of there.”

In Portantino’s case, the Appropriations Committee has for three years been the graveyard for his salary-freeze bill, which targets state employees with annual incomes of $150,000 or more.

“I’ve put the salary freeze bill in nine times, and obviously it’s the leadership that kills it every time. It gets out of the policy committee then it dies in the fiscal committee,” said Portantino.

Before he was replaced as Higher Education Committee Chair, Portantino had also opposed a popular push to expand certain Cal State programs in an era of increasing student fees and capped enrollments.

“How do you look a kid in the eye and say we’re going to make it more expensive for you to go to college but, by the way, we’re going to give out an 18% pay raise?” he continued.” People don’t like the fact that I’ve now introduced the bill nine times, but it’s the right thing to do.”


Bringing it home

For Portantino, it appears the political benefits of charting his own legislative course may outweigh its political costs.

Weeks after his re-election in November to a third and final Assembly term, members of the Cañada-Crescenta Democratic Club announced a unanimous, preemptive endorsement of his likely bid for a seat in Congress next year.

Anticipating that the California Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw political lines to create a Foothills-centric congressional district, Portantino is already raising campaign contributions to potentially square off with veteran Congressman David Dreier (R-San Dimas), whose district currently includes La Cañada Flintridge.

Dana Runge, president of the Cañada-Crescenta Democratic Club, said Portantino’s occasional outlier positions have actually worked to his advantage in winning the group’s support.

“He cares about everybody in the district rather than being a strictly partisan politician, and we definitely respect that about him. We don’t endorse just anybody with a “D” after their name,” said Runge.

In its Nov. 21 endorsement the group applauds Portantino — who supported several bipartisan tax reform bills before losing chairmanship of the Revenue and Taxation Committee — for having “forged coalitions across party lines.”

State Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (R- Tulare) declined to comment for this story.

But Brian Fuller, a Republican activist in Altadena who ran against Portantino in 2008, is skeptical of Portantino’s legislative effectiveness. He believes Portantino has tried to conceal rather than broadcast disagreement with his party’s Assembly leadership to voters, especially when it comes to fiscal reform.

“When I ran against him, I felt like he was part of the system — had a lot to offer, but came up short. He should come right out and say ‘the leaders have stymied me.’ Right now all I’m hearing is ‘I gave it the old college try.’ I think he’s hampered by the fact that if he wants to succeed in [state] politics, he has to go along,” said Fuller.

Portantino, however, credited Gov. Jerry Brown (who only after the interview declared an end to bipartisan budget talks) as starting to crack the mold of legislative groupthink.

After his recent exchange with Pérez, Brown met personally with Portantino in an attempt to woo his vote — a tactic relatively unheard of under Schwarzenegger.

“I eventually did vote for [cutting out redevelopment funding], but by standing on my principles I sent two messages: One to the leadership, that my vote is my vote; and two, I was able to meet with the governor and express the concerns of people in my district,” he said. “I was able to insert myself into a situation where I’m going to have input into crafting polices [for disposition of redevelopment agency assets].”

And far from being a rebel in all things, Portantino voices support for Brown’s effort to place tax extension measures on the ballot, saying he believes having a choice empowers voters.

In the larger picture, Portantino’s Assembly record may illustrate the kind of challenges that face any legislator who hopes to represent a fairly moderate district in a deeply partisan environment.

“My impression is Anthony Portantino is someone who is perfectly comfortable being a maverick and puts a lot of stock in representing what he believes are the views of his district,” said Darry Sragrow, who between 1996 and 2002 served as the Democratic Party’s chief campaign strategist for Assembly campaigns.

And in terms of strategy, Portantino’s contrarian ways demonstrate no lack of local political savvy.

“I think he does this very much with both eyes open. If you support your caucus or leadership, day-to-day life in the Legislature is much easier. But, as far as I can tell, it looks like he’s doing things that stand him in good stead with the voters of his district,” said Sragow, also an adjunct professor at USC. “Can you argue that makes him more viable for another office, like Congress? I’d say yes.”

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