August 12, 1999
Weighing His Options
Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg considers a run for the speakership, while he's not ruling out a future in city government
Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg strides through his district offices at a pace usually reserved for a commuter late to catch and early morning flight to Sacramento -- a situation with which the busy politician is all too familiar. Here, within the confines of his home turf, his energy bounces off the walls, only slightly contained by his gracious manner.
Robert "Call me Bob" Hertzberg is the most likely candidate to replace his close friend, the popular Antonio Villaraigosa, as speaker of the state Assembly -- that is, if he doesn't decide to follow the path of other prominent Los Angeles lawmakers and pursue a run for city government.
"Do I want to be speaker? The answer is yes. Am I actively seeking the job? The answer is yes," Hertzberg said. "But the one thing I've learned in politics is that you can never fall in love with it or with your position in it. This job is very difficult; it takes every bit of energy I've got. So while I am interested in being speaker, I need to work through that first and then decide whether to run for city attorney."
Unlike prospective opponents such as Councilman Michael Feuer, Hertzberg is well known throughout the city in areas such as South Central and East Los Angeles. Hertzberg's ties to the emerging powerhouse that's the Latino community run deep, dating back to the beginning of his political career as a canvasser for the Democratic Party in East Los Angeles in the mid-1970s.
"It wasn't planned by design; I didn't even know those bridges [between the Jewish and Latino communities] needed to be built," he said. "All I knew was that I wanted a 'real' political experience. So much of politics in the Jewish community in the 1970s centered around fund raising and writing checks. I wanted something more grass-roots. That was how I got involved with the Eastside, because the politics there were more face to face."
But how will Jewish-Latino relations fare if Villaraigosa, who is expected to run for mayor of Los Angeles, ends up in a race against another likely candidate, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky? Both men have strong ties to the Latino and Jewish communities from which they respectively sprang, with some crossover. Will it mean another Katz-Alarcon situation?
Hertzberg says no.
"I honestly don't think it would be that bad," he said. "Antonio has a very good relationship with the Jewish community. He's not a race baiter; even if people tried to provoke him into it, I don't think he would take the bait."
Hertzberg represents the 40th Assembly District, which encompasses Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, Reseda and parts of Encino and Canoga Park. He lives in Sherman Oaks with his wife, Cynthia Telles, an instructor at UCLA Medical School's Neuropsychiatric Institute, and their three sons from previous marriages. Prior to his election in 1996, he served on the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission, as well as chair of the California Advisory Commission on Youth (1978-79) and as a member of the California State Board of Pharmacy (1984-88). From 1991 to 1995, he chaired the Dean's Council of Hebrew Union College and was also vice president of the American Jewish Committee.
Within the Assembly, Hertzberg is known for his affable nature ("Watch out, he hugs," warned a fellow journalist) and his ability to work both sides of the aisle. Hertzberg fought for -- and won -- the Assembly's approval of the controversial AB 39, which required all managed-care plans to cover prescription contraceptives. The measure, coupled with Senate Bill 41, authored by state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo/San Francisco, will put an end to 39 years of discrimination against women, who pay substantially more for birth control than men, according to Hertzberg's staff. The legislature had visited the issue every year for the previous four years, but three prior bills had been vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.
As for his work within the Jewish community, Hertzberg recently joined forces with Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, on several bills in response to the recent bombings of three Sacramento-area synagogues, including one measure to support building a permanent institution in Sacramento to teach about tolerance and discrimination.
Steinberg called Hertzberg "a great leader."
"He combines all the important qualities of leadership: He is highly intelligent, he understands people, and he understands that being a legislator is largely about solving problems," Steinberg said. "He's also a very decent person, which is significant. When you have great responsibility like he does, you need to be guided by a solid inner core, and Bob's got that."
Hertzberg pushes hard for his constituents, even on issues with which he personally does not agree. Take Valley secession, a very hot issue in his district, which is home to the leaders of Valley VOTE. The assemblyman said he is "not pro-secession," yet he pushed for the state legislature to shell out $1.8 million for the secession study. He said it was only fair that the state foot part of the bill, since state guidelines rule the secession process.
"I believe the people have a right to petition their government," Hertzberg said. "There is a sense, legitimately so, that the Valley is not getting our fair share. Things used to be different when I was growing up and people drove into the city to work. But now I read in a study that 60 percent of the people who live in the Valley work in the Valley."
Hertzberg strongly believes that, should the break-up of the Valley from the city of Los Angeles go through, it would be better to break off into smaller cities than one "Valley City." He and his staff have spent several months collecting information into a report that compares the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, the latter of which is composed of independent cities, including Glendale and Pasadena.
Hertzberg notes that one positive effect of the Valley secession is the surge of interest in local government. He said he hopes the trend toward "town halls" and community activism continues to grow.
"People getting to know each other is the foundation which government is built," he said. "I don't care if you are a Democrat or a Republican, registered to vote or not registered -- if you are part of the community, you are part of the fabric of government. Part of the problems with today's politics is that we only look at the high-propensity voters and not the average family. It's a mistake to be so limited in our focus."
A Taste of Real Politics
One of Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg's greatest concerns is the lack of young Jews interested in politics these days. That is why, Hertzberg said, he actively recruited a high percentage of Jewish students to fill the 45 internship slots accorded his office.
"Our greatest successes as a people throughout history, particularly in the United States, has been our interest in getting involved in the community. We must continue to encourage that involvement," Hertzberg said.
The Summer Internship Program runs from June through August, although many high-school-age students continue throughout the year. Interns are not paid but often find the opportunity to work in a legislator's office a welcome addition to their professional experience.
Justin Levi, 18, of Encino, already knows that he wants a career in politics. He said what he liked best about working for Hertzberg was the opportunity to have a hand in policy-making. Levi spent the summer working on a research team for a report that compared the cities of the San Gabriel Valley to those of the San Fernando Valley, a report that Hertzberg hopes will make a difference in how the Valley secession study plays out.
"You get to do real work here, not just filing and copying," said Levi. "I like the project I'm working on because Valley secession is such a big issue. To actually have a role in determining the opinions of elected officials on that issue is a great experience."
Levi said the one area he found most challenging about working in a government office was the sluggish pace.
"I don't want to say the legislature is inefficient, but it is a slow process, and to see how slowly everything moves can be frustrating," he said.
While some interns are, like Levi, on a definite career path, others become interns unsure of their political future. Although Aaron Teeter's parents see him as lawyer or lobbyist material, Teeter, 19, is not so sure.
"It's a lot more tedious than I thought it would be -- a lot of work and a high stress level," Teeter said. "The assemblyman really hustles. I've never seen someone fly so much between two cities."
Teeter, a national champion in parliamentary debate, said he appreciates the experience of working for a legislator like Hertzberg.
"I'd become so cynical about politics in modern American society. But he really tries to appease everyone," Teeter said. "He's a great man and he works his heart out. Term limits don't seem to frighten him; he seems anxious to get more young people into government. "