BY HOWARD FINE
When Fabian Nu & #324;ez became speaker of the Assembly two years ago, he surprised many by standing up to the star power of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, even as other Democrats were busy cutting deals.
Now Nu & #324;ez’s resolve has spread. Democrats have taken on Schwarzenegger’s special election agenda and hope to hand the governor his first serious defeat at the polls next month.
“Fabian is more willing to confront and fight than the governor anticipated,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist who has consulted for Assembly Democrats.
But Nu & #324;ez’s aggressive stance has come at a price.
He has few accomplishments in his two years as speaker. Even as the state’s fiscal situation improves, little progress is being made in tackling the biggest problems: overburdened infrastructure, inadequate health care and lagging schools.
Several proposals to overhaul the state’s roads, bridges and other basics, including a $10 billion bond measure from Nu & #324;ez, failed to win enough Republican support.
Democratic proposals for sweeping health care reforms died in committee or were vetoed by the governor.
Nu & #324;ez, who grew up in a family of 12 children in the San Diego neighborhood of Logan Heights and now represents the 46th District in and around downtown Los Angeles, failed to get through one of his own measures , a tax break package for the film industry.
Despite a furious publicity blitz and support from the governor, the measure stalled in the Senate just hours before adjournment, with Nu & #324;ez unable to round up a couple of Republican votes to offset some Democrat defectors.
“The 2005 legislative session won’t go down in history as a brilliant success,” said Timothy Hodson, the executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.
More fundamentally, Nu & #324;ez hasn’t been able to erase the highly negative image Californians hold of their lawmakers. While Schwarzenegger’s favorability ratings have fallen to 36 percent, the Legislature’s numbers are even lower, at 32 percent in the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll.
Nu & #324;ez supporters contend that factors beyond his control , partisan politics, Schwarzenegger’s push for a special election and term limits that reduced the power of his office largely are responsible for the poor legislative showing.
They also say Nu & #324;ez has had to deal with a governor who constantly shifts his politics.
Nu & #324;ez bears some of the blame, according to critics. They say he’s often unwilling to buck union backers to cut bipartisan deals, as previous speakers have done. (Before he ran for the Assembly in 2002, Nu & #324;ez served as political director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.)
The pressure from his own Democratic caucus was most intense in negotiations earlier this year as Nu & #324;ez and Schwarzenegger tried to hammer out a deal to avoid a special election. Nu & #324;ez admits that he and Schwarzenegger were pulled in opposing directions by their allies.
Ultimately, the talks failed to produce a “grand agreement,” resulting in the special election set for Nov. 8.
Some colleagues are disappointed Nu & #324;ez didn’t discipline several moderate Democrats who held up environmental bills. But Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, said that since he came to the Legislature in 2000, “We haven’t had a speaker as popular in the caucus as Fabian.”
Nu & #324;ez occasionally has pushed the caucus to do things it was not inclined to do, Frommer said.
“We didn’t like the budget deal and there were many who were uneasy about the gay marriage and immigrant drivers’ license bills, but he cajoled us into accepting these,” he said.
At the same time, Nu & #324;ez has been stymied by Republicans who see him as little more than a tool of labor. This prevented him from winning Republican support for his transportation bond and film tax credits proposals, despite both having business appeal.
“I’ve had Republican lawmakers tell me they think he’s labor’s guy who has to get permission from labor in order to sign off on any compromise,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant.
Reinforcing this view: a $35,000 consulting contract Nu & #324;ez had with the Voter Improvement Project, a voter-turnout group tied to labor.
Once the word was out, Nu & #324;ez severed the contract. (The issue soon was overshadowed by Schwarzenegger’s multimillion-dollar consulting contract with two fitness magazines.)
If Nu & #324;ez is to rack up gains next year, he needs support from Republicans and Schwarzenegger. And that won’t be easy, especially in an election year.
“The partisanship has really worsened in the Legislature over the last several years,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor at Sacramento State.
Nu & #324;ez himself believes he will be able to cut some big deals next year, especially if the governor’s initiatives go down to defeat next month.
“If those measures are defeated, the governor is going to have to reach out to Democrats if he wants a shot at the general (election),” Nu & #324;ez said. “That’s what I’m hoping he will do.”
Howard Fine writes for the
Los Angeles Business Journal.