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Capitol Gains

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By Jennifer Warren, Photos by Michael Sugrue

Published Jul 1, 2009 11:00 AM


For the first time, two Bruins run the California State Senate — and what a critical time to take the legislative helm. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter) are teaming up to tackle an unprecedented mountain of challenges, including health care and government reform, a water crisis and, of course, a budget mess that's historic even by Golden State standards.

The artifacts of Darrel Steinberg's new life as leader of the California Senate stand out vividly in his ornate office overlooking Capitol Park.

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Darrell Steinberg.

On one table there's a giant Hershey's kiss, a Valentine's Day gift sent by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during the heat of budget negotiations. In another corner stands the cot Steinberg '81 used to catch a few winks the night he locked down the Senate for 45-1/2 hours to compel a vote on the controversial budget deal. And on the coffee table, Steinberg — a runner and health nut — keeps heaping bowls of fruit and peanuts to power him and his staffers through marathon days.

The Bruin political leader has long been known as a man unafraid of the long-odds fight. But few could envy him the multi-dimensional mess on his plate today. When he took over what is arguably the second most powerful job in state government last December, California faced a fiscal crisis that was going from bad to worse and threatening severe cuts to education, social services and other programs close to his heart. For a self-described progressive Democrat who believes in using the power of government to improve people's lives, the timing of his big promotion was not exactly ideal.

But as he has at other points in his career, Steinberg found inspiration in the depths of the challenge — and in the words of a one-time legislative colleague, former Sen. John Vasconcellos of San Jose.

"When I was first starting out in this place, John told me that it's a lot more fun to serve during the good times and a lot more important to serve during the challenging times," Steinberg, whose official title is Senate president pro tempore, recalled in a recent interview. "That's true, and it really sticks with me."

Joining Steinberg at the Senate helm during these challenging times is another UCLA graduate and Democrat, Sen. Dean Florez '87. Their service together marks the first time in history two alumni of the university have held the reins in the Legislature's upper house.

Steinberg, a lawyer from Sacramento known for his collegiality, patience and wonkish approach to politics, surprised more than a few people beneath the Capitol dome when he chose Florez, who represents a rural, Central Valley district surrounding his home town of Shafter, as his majority leader. The two have very different styles — "We're a bit yin and yang," Steinberg admits — and some wondered how well the more confrontational Florez would function in the No. 2 role.

So far, the marriage has been a happy one, both men report, although their managerial styles differ. "Darrell is a very positive, 'we can pull together' sort of guy, and I admire him for that," Florez says. "My job is to look out for the things that can go wrong, and I'm a little more heavy-handed when something needs to get done. I think that's one reason Darrell put me in this position."

The relationship was tested right out of the gate, as the two Democrats' ascension came amid the most severe budget emergency the state had faced in modern history. A projected $28-billion deficit quickly mushroomed to nearly $42 billion. Unemployment skyrocketed. Early income-tax refunds were delayed, infuriating the public. Schwarzenegger ordered layoffs of 10,000 state workers and suspended hundreds of public-works projects.

California, it appeared, was poised to tumble over the fiscal cliff.

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