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Capitol Gains

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.


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.

Despite the crisis, the Capitol's infamous partisanship was hardly in retreat. Indeed, in the sharply polarized Legislature, with Republicans dead set against new taxes and Democrats determined to prevent extensive cuts, reaching a compromise appeared an almost impossible task.

But step by deliberate step, Steinberg nudged his colleagues toward a deal. He cajoled, he wheedled, he lectured. Then he locked down the Senate — even confiscating car keys after learning that a few senators were defying his edict and slipping out. And in the end, he resorted to some big-time horse-trading to get the two-thirds voting majority he needed to end the three-month budget impasse.


Dean Florez.

"We had huge, systemic conflict, and what we needed was a collaborative leader who could sublimate his own policy wants for the greater good," says Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University, Sacramento. "We needed conflict resolution, and Darrell was exactly the right person at the right time."

As proud as they are of the budget compromise, which included more than $12 billion in tax hikes and billions in cuts to education and programs for the poor, Steinberg and Florez know their work on California's fiscal woes is nowhere near done. But the agreement did give the senators some breathing room to focus, at least temporarily, on other priorities. One top goal they share is an expanded emphasis on government oversight, stemming from a mutual belief that good governance is not just about passing bills.

As Florez puts it: "My philosophy is that in tough times, we need to stretch a dollar. We need more efficiency. We need to hold hearings and ask tough questions and find out what the executive branch is doing to implement laws we've already passed."

Toward that end, Steinberg created a Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, turning a team of investigators loose on the vast state government bureaucracy. Their first target: California's In-Home Support Services program, which helps low-income and elderly people avoid costly nursing homes by delivering care in their own homes. Limited oversight has allowed fraud to infect the fast-growing program, which is expected to serve 440,000 people at a cost of $5.4 billion in federal, state and county funding this year, the Senate inquiry found.

In terms of policy priorities, Steinberg and Florez have a meaty list, topped by the urgent drive to produce a comprehensive agreement on California's water crisis. As the state experiences its third dry year in a row, the water wars of decades past remain largely unresolved. Steinberg has convened a working group and wants a bill that solves the state's nagging water-delivery needs while stabilizing the crashing ecosystem of California's biggest wetland — the sprawling Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Expanding health-care coverage to the uninsured is also high on Steinberg's agenda. Despite the Legislature's decades-long struggle to make progress on the issue, Steinberg's optimism about reform is strong this year because the state now has a powerful ally — the federal government. "Our past attempts were ambitious and very well-intended, but we were attempting it with one hand tied behind our back because we had no partner," Steinberg said. "Now we do."

Universal coverage may be the ultimate prize, but Steinberg wants to start by expanding the health-care umbrella to cover California's 700,000 uninsured children. "You build a foundation, create confidence, and move forward from there to accomplish something even bigger," said Steinberg, reciting a formula that sums up his approach to leadership across the board.

Steinberg's other top goals include establishing the world's most aggressive renewable energy standards, revamping public schools so they reduce dropout rates and better prepare students for the new economy, and reversing the erosion of state funding for California's public university system.

"We want the University of California to continue to be the great equalizer, the great beacon, the great research institution," says Steinberg, whose studies began at UC Berkeley and continued with a B.A. at UCLA and a J.D. from UC Davis. "But we're not going to be able to say that if we don't invest in it and stop this feast-or-famine approach to financing."

And then there's the vast issue of government reform. Once considered a snoozer, this is a topic gaining traction by the day. Steinberg's ambitions are not small. He wants to overhaul the way California finances state and local government; reform the ballot initiative process; change the two-thirds super-majority vote required to pass a budget and other revenue measures; and — sacred cow of all sacred cows — modernize California's tax structure.

"We tax goods but we don't tax services, even though we've moved to a service-based economy," Steinberg notes. "Politically, it's very difficult, but it needs to be talked about."

Sidebar: Across the Aisle Bruin Republicans offer their own prescription for economic health. Not surprisingly, it begins with tax cuts.

Fortunately for Steinberg, he has a lot of time for talk. A father of two who sports a buzz cut and drives a Toyota Prius hybrid, Steinberg is in only his first term as a senator. That means he could serve in the top post until 2014, an eternity in the "here today, gone tomorrow" era of legislative term limits. A tenure of that length, of course, raises expectations. So to deliver results, Steinberg is striving to create a new culture in the statehouse, one that emphasizes the involvement of both parties and both houses in major policy discussions from the get-go. Sometimes, that also means involving Schwarzenegger, who works amicably with Steinberg and has nicknamed the Senate leader "Steiny."

Florez, the grandson of farm workers and the first Latino student body president at UCLA (in 1986-'87), faces a far earlier exit, with his Senate term ending in 2010. On top of his duties as majority leader, Florez is roiling the Capitol waters as chairman of the Senate Food & Agriculture Committee. Traditionally, the committee has mostly represented the food production perspective, but Florez has expanded the focus to include food distribution and consumption, along with animal welfare.

"My family has been in the valley for 100 years, but we've been the ones picking the fruit," says Florez, who spent his teenage summers working in a potato-packing plant. "So my perspective on agriculture is a little different."

His next move is a run for lieutenant governor. In the meantime, however, Florez is happy to march forward through this unsettling year as Steinberg's first lieutenant, committed to keeping the ship afloat until California's sea calms once again.

"We're great partners," Steinberg says. "I think we both believe that effective leadership means being honest with people about the challenges, but giving them a sense of confidence that times will get better. I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't believe we can turn this around and accomplish great things for California, and I intend to be part of an era that does so."