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Contra Costa Times (California)
Dec 29, 2006 - 01:00 AM

by Steven Harmon, MEDIANEWS SACRAMENTO BUREAU

Moderates may shift state Senate

Four business-backed moderate Democrats are expected to play a pivotal role in the upcoming legislative session by helping block any legislation considered onerous by business leaders such as laws intended to protect consumers and the environment or health insurance reforms that place a heavy burden on employers.

Southern California Democrats Lou Correa, Gloria Negrete McLeod, Ron Calderon and Alex Padilla were elected to the state Senate in November after receiving millions of dollars in campaign donations and independent expenditures from corporate political action committees.

"There's no question the Senate will have more members we certainly hope will be sensitive to the needs of employers," said Vincent Sollitto, spokesman for the California Chamber of Commerce. "When you have more moderates in the majority party, you're likely to ensure... we don't end up with bills that are extreme or hostile to business."

Their election comes at a time when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is hoping to build support for his top priority, health care reform, with a goal of covering 6.5 million uninsured residents. Schwarzenegger has said he's looking for solutions that don't include tax increases or mandates forcing employers to cover employees -- and he now has four more likely allies in that battle.

"These four senators, along with some holdover moderates, will make it easier for the governor to get his work done," said Tony Quinn, a political analyst. "They can play an interesting role because of the governor, who wants to do centrist things."

And they'll provide cover for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, who won't have to worry as much about being attacked from the left as he moves to meet Schwarzenegger toward the middle, Quinn said.

The four moderates -- all from largely Latino, middle-class districts -- not only defeated liberal opponents in their primaries, but replaced solidly liberal legislators. And they increased the size of the Senate moderate caucus to about a dozen, which can be crucial in a caucus of 25. All but Padilla previously served in the Assembly.

It helps that Perata has already established himself as a pragmatic leader willing to compromise with Republicans.

"Senator Perata has always focused the attention of the caucus on bipartisan ways of getting kitchen table issues done and not getting caught up in ideological warfare," said Jason Kinney, a Democratic strategist. "The incoming senators share that world view."

Democrats hold a 25-15 margin in the Senate, and a 47-33 edge in the Assembly -- exactly the same as the 2004-2005 session. Legislators get sworn in Monday, but begin the session in earnest on Jan. 3.

Correa was the big prize for the Democrats. In what proved to be a decisive move, Perata personally recruited Correa to take on the liberal establishment's choice, former Assemblyman Tom Umberg, in the Democratic primary. Umberg was supported by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and the major labor groups. Correa won the primary handily and then narrowly edged out Republican Lynn Daucher in the Orange County district, allowing the Democrats to retain their 10-vote margin in the Senate.

"Perata saw the need for a more conservative Democrat to win that district," Quinn said. "And Correa won because he had big-time pro-business independent expenditures in the primary, and they held a Democratic seat that Republicans thought they had a good chance to win."

In the political calculus of how things get done in the Legislature, Perata now owes a debt to Correa for running, Quinn said, and Correa owes a debt to business for supporting him.

That's the payoff for the business community's strategy to cultivate pro-business Democrats, said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist for the California Chamber.

"It's important that the business community not view Democrats as wearing horns," Sragow said. "And it's important for the long-term health of the Democratic Party that we accommodate business interests. The only way to gain the confidence and trust of voters is to avoid ideological extremes and reflect the voters, who are for the most part in the middle."

The centrist movement opens up the possibility of working with "reasonable Democrats," said Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine.

"We'll have more input in limiting the number of bad business bills that come out of the Legislature," Ackerman said. "I don't think we'll get a critical mass to get 21 votes to do the things I'd like to see, but it'll make it a more moderate body."

But, if pro-business Democrats stand in the way of pro-consumer legislation, Democrats won't be distinguishable from Republicans, said consumer advocate Jamie Court.

"There will be a tug of war for the heart and soul of the Senate," Court said, "and it's going to be up to the leadership to make sure the Democratic Party stands for their traditional values of consumer and environmental protection, and not just helping their biggest donors."

Labor groups don't appear worried about the pro-business leanings of the new lawmakers.

"I don't think these four Senators will abandon working people on behalf of the conservative chamber," said Art Pulaski, executive secretary for the California Labor Federation. "I don't think these are people who'll advance a conservative corporate agenda. So, the chamber claims four people. Even if they did have them in their pocket, which they don't, it doesn't change what comes out of the Senate."

It has in the past. The three former Assembly members have blocked pro-consumer legislation before, walking away from crucial votes in committees or on the floor. The three have had low voting percentages, reflecting a high number of abstentions on corporate reform, environmental regulation and other tough-on-business bills.

On a vote on raising air quality standards in 2002, for instance, Negrete McLeod and Calderon both walked away. Asked later why she refused to vote on the bill, AB 1101, Negrete McLeod, said, "How to marry the two together, air quality and business, that's the rub. The answer is not to impede on business."




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