Ask just about anyone who has hung around the state capitol a while — reporters, lobbyists, staffers — and they will tell you that 98% of our legislators forget who they are and why they are there within two years of being elected.
The external pressure to do the bidding of special interests that supply the campaign cash — and the internal pressure to do the bidding of party bosses who control staffing, committee assignments and the fate of legislation — are so great that few can resist becoming part of the culture of corruption.
Anthony Portantino is one of the 2-percenters. He's no angel, as he likes to point out, but he has talked truth to power on more than a few occasions and taken some stands that require a degree of courage.
He is someone who dared to challenge for the Assembly speakership, someone who refused to back prison realignment and abolition of redevelopment because they were poorly crafted bills, someone who became the lone Democrat to vote against the 2011 budget because no one really knew what was in it, someone who Speaker John Perez punished for his independence by stripping him of a committee chairmanship and slashing his office budget.
Yet, Portantino defiantly fought back, forcing Perez to release budget records showing how the Assembly spends its money and how it uses its funds as a political weapon to punish and reward.
“In Congress, all the leadership positions are elected, so there is a sharing of power,” Portantino said last week over breakfast at Conrad's in Glendale. “Here there is no sharing of power because the speaker appoints the leadership team. Back in Willie Brown's and Jess Unruh's day, they understood that to be powerful you had to share it. You had longtime members who had cache, who had the bully pulpit, who had power in their own right and had to be respected.”
Our meeting was kind of an exit interview for Portantino who was termed out after six years in the Assembly and was left with nowhere to go — at least for now — in the game of political musical chairs that has developed under term limits.
Carol Liu holds the Senate seat in the foothills area for four more years and his hopes of running for Congress fell flat when redistricting put him in Rep. Adam Schiff's district.
Portantino recalled that on his first day in the state Assembly after serving two terms on the La Cañada-Flintridge City Council, he introduced a bill to set up a public umbilical cord blood bank so that everyone, no matter how poor, could have access to potentially life-saving stem cell transplants.
Winning approval for the idea was the easy part, but it took four years before he was able to win passage with bipartisan support for a $2 increase in the fee for birth certificates to fund the program.
On the day of the vote, Portantino — overcome by emotion and with tears welling up — could hardly get the words out to urge his colleagues to support the fee hike.
“A lot of people regard umbilical cord blood as my signature bill,” he said. “It was something I learned from a neighbor whose life was saved 20 years ago by what was then an experimental technique. Listening to what people are saying — that's where you get the best ideas about problems and how to solve them. That's really sort of who I am.”
Talk about a bleeding heart liberal — not to be confused with a knee-jerk liberal — that's who Portantino is, wearing his heart on his sleeve.
But it's not his efforts to ban open carry of handguns, impose regulations on private for private colleges, push for an improved mammogram early detection program or set up a fellowship program for undergraduates from historically black colleges that got Portantino the most attention.
It was his very public fight with Perez, someone often called the tyrannical Speaker Perez.
Hit with a loss of staff and with other staffers facing unpaid leaves for more than a month because of his budget vote, Portantino filed a public records request for all information on Assembly spending, a move that prompted the L.A. Times and Sacramento Bee to sue and successfully force the release of the records every year.
“What makes the speaker so powerful is the economic piece, controlling the purse strings, the committee assignments, who gets the best offices,” Portantino said.
“Understand that the moment you need something, you have to be prepared to give it up to preserve your independence,” he added. “There's an old saying: ‘Don't fall in love with your bills.' That's what gives them the leverage. The lesson I try to share with folks is that it's not the trappings. That's why they went after my staff because they knew that was what mattered to me.”
Portantino believes changes to term limits that allow new legislators to serve 12 years in a single house will lead to greater independence and a more open culture. Two important reforms he'd like to see are a requirement that all bills be in print three days before they can be voted on and an end to the legislature's exemption from the public records act.
He's weighing his options now that he's out of office and getting involved with nonprofits engaged on issues he cares about, while still hankering to get back into politics.
“There's so much more to be done from the reform perspective, about making a difference in people's lives,” he said. “As a public official you can never buy into the notion that you can't make tomorrow better. The moment you buy into that you let the corruption win.”
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.