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On Hertzberg’s Horizon

The California Assembly speaker looks forward to being a private citizen.

by Mike Levy

January 31, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Robert Hertzberg

Robert Hertzberg

Even though Robert Hertzberg will step down from the speakership of the California Assembly on Feb. 6, he still has plenty to say. The Sherman Oaks Democrat, as a rule, keeps busy.

On what he sees as his responsibilities, he's fond of quoting from the Talmud: "You are not expected to complete the task; neither are you allowed to put it aside." There is plenty of work to be done in California, from last year's energy crisis to the needs of the Jewish community, and Hertzberg, 46, sees it all as his job. So he just keeps going and going.

Even stepping down from the speakership 10 months early is a fulfillment of this goal. "I wanted to establish a tradition of turning over the office of the speaker in an orderly way," he says, "to allow for a smooth transition." By Feb. 26, when the Assembly's new crop of legislation has to be introduced, Speaker-elect Herb Wesson (a Culver City Democrat nominated by Hertzberg) will be installed and ready to see it through from beginning to end. "It's the right thing to do," Hertzberg says.

"Let me tell you why it's particularly important; you know, are you someone who believes in something or are you just promoting yourself?" After six years in the Assembly, the last two as speaker, Hertzberg is ready to rejoin private life.

For the first time in recent memory, the outgoing speaker is not campaigning for another office. While he may go back into the ring sometime in the future (he's considering a run for state attorney general in 2006), his aspirations won't affect his activities much. Hertzberg has done the work of an aspiring politician throughout his life. Raising money for politicians and causes, working for campaigns, knocking on doors, making phone calls.

Hertzberg, who took over the speakership from his friend Antonio Villaraigosa (who lost to James Hahn last year in the L.A. mayor's race) is one of these good government types who took on elected office out of a sense of obligation -- money and access he had well before. "I had my own law firm," he says. "I had a business in Arizona, I did office development, we had an industrial bakery, international trade in Egypt, so much."

Now, not only is he not running for office, he has not yet decided which jobs he will be taking on once he is free of his responsibilities as speaker. But certainly it will be jobs, plural, for in addition to the law firms and investment banks eager to have this man on board, there are a few other projects close to his heart. While he'll get to stay closer to his Sherman Oaks home without the regular commute to Sacramento, he will probably keep up the 100-plus hour weeks he worked as speaker. Ask him why and he'll refer to the Talmud. "We did fabulous things for California," he says, " but now, we're still not free to set it down."

The Hertzberg speakership coincided with some rough-and-tumble times in California politics. Hertzberg held the Legislature together through the energy crisis and the once-a-decade redistricting process, and pushed through billions in school bonds. "I've been fabulously surprised at how much you can get done. Really, I knew what I was getting into. ... I don't sweat the small stuff," he says.

He published two resource books while in office and has two other books in the works. The San Fernando Valley Resource Guide, put out by his Assembly office, will surprise any Valley-basher. The index alone is 25-pages long -- from Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School to Young Israel of Northridge (plus some non-Jewish resources). And there was the much-publicized "Yiddish for Assemblymembers," a handy 26-page booklet to help his co-workers.

In his remaining months in the Assembly -- he'll stay in his 40th District seat until the term ends in December -- look for Hertzberg's thoughts on water, electricity and the legislative process in the op-ed pages. "Before I leave I want to contribute something to the debate," he says. He's working on a popular history of Los Angeles, and -- of course, another book -- a guide to the legislative process.

"There's two themes to what I did. One, I sought to focus on the big picture issues, the Pat Brown-esque big picture. Two, I tried to create the tools to allow us to think long term. I reorganized the speaker's office; built new offices across the street, to give the staffers a sense of permanency, a real professional workplace with child care." For all his big-picture work, however, Hertzberg still feels "some of the biggest achievements are small achievements, solving problems for regular folks, you know? The endgame is to make California work for people.

"Henry Kissinger said, you better do all your thinking before you get into office, because once you take office there's no time to think. I did a lot of thinking before I ever ran for office." Indeed, before his run for state office, Hertzberg was a local leader in the Jewish community, serving on the boards of the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Hebrew Union College, among other commitments. He plans to "sign up" with these organizations again.

One thing he looks forward to in private life is really talking to people again. "Before you get in office, you know people, you talk to people. The minute you get elected, that minute, there's a line outside your door. You have meetings. You hear presentations; people want things from you. After a while, the white-guy-in-a-suit from the Jewish nonprofit looks pretty much like the white-guy-in-a-suit from Chevron," he says. He never accepted the "dialogue" model for communities working together, either. "Dialogue? What do you need a dialogue for? Dialogue shmialogue, pick up the phone. I do it every day."

One more thing he wants to do every day -- see his children. With wife Cynthia, Hertzberg has three sons, ages 10, 12 and 14. With all the plans, all the jobs, the books and the work Hertzberg has set before himself, it's easy to forget that this is a family man with a bar mitzvah to plan.

"I worked my heart out and did what I needed to do in the Legislature, and I accomplished some great things and I'm excited. I basically spent the entire time in a full sprint. So, I'm happy I'm going home."




The race is on to take over Robert Hertzberg's 40th District Assembly seat, when the outgoing speaker is termed out at the end of this year. Two Democrats and one Republican candidate have filed to run for the southern Valley seat; all three are Jewish.

The Republican candidate, Connie Friedman, is a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition Board of Governors and a longtime Valley Republican activist. Friedman owns a human resources consulting firm, The Human Aspect, in West Hills.

Most observers, however, believe that the 40th District seat will go to one of the two Democrats -- voter registration in the district runs 49 percent Democrat to 32 percent Republican, and 60 percent of the district voted for former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race.

Hertzberg has endorsed his former policy adviser, Andrei Cherny, 26. A graduate of North Hollywood High School and Harvard, Cherny worked as a White House speechwriter in the Clinton administration and participated in writing the 2000 Democratic Party platform. He has also published a book on public policy.

Running against Cherny in the March 5 primary is another up-and-coming Jewish Democrat, Lloyd Levine, 32. Levine worked two years for the state Employment Development Department prior to becoming legislative director for Democratic Assemblymember John Longville. Levine's father, Larry Levine, is a well-known Democratic political consultant and anti-secession leader in the Valley. Levine lists Rep. Joe Baca and State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, both Democrats, among his endorsements.

Cherny and Levine, are scheduled to debate the issues on Thursday, Feb. 7, at a 7 a.m. breakfast organized by The Executives, a fundraising group for the Jewish Home for the Aging. Warner Center Marriott; $20 (members), $22 (nonmembers). For reservations or more information, call (818) 774-3331. -- Mike Levy, Staff Writer

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