Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dominoes fall as lawmakers prepare to take office for next session

SACRAMENTO — If there's one upgrade Senator-elect Mark DeSaulnier is looking forward to, it's the daylight he will have in his new office.

DeSaulnier, a Concord Democrat elected to the Senate after two years with a windowless Assembly office, will finally have a view of the outdoors as he moves to the upper chamber.

"There are no cavelike offices in the Senate, even for Republicans," said DeSaulnier, who essentially switched seats with term-limited Tom Torlakson, who returns to the Assembly for one final two-year term. "I like natural light."

Come Monday, DeSaulnier and 38 other lawmakers will be sworn into new seats at the Capitol — either by moving from one house to the other, or from the outside as first-timers or old-timers returning from a hiatus.

They won't return to the Capitol until Jan. 5, when the 2009-10 session gets under way.

Freshman lawmakers haven't had much time to savor their victories, much less lay the groundwork for their political debuts. They have been kept busy in legislative training classes, making hiring decisions for their staffs, and generally preparing to uproot their previous lifestyles.

It's the biennial term limits-era tradition of musical chairs and dominoes, where one move sets off a chain of events that sets into motion countless other moves — people, files and furniture, for starters.

One recent hire, by incoming Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, could mean the Advertisementdemise of a blog site popular among liberals and Democrats. Skinner, replacing Loni Hancock in a district that takes in parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, tapped Frank Russo as her chief of staff. Russo, a legal counsel for former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, runs the California Progress Report and is looking for someone to hold down the Web site for the next four months. After that, he's not sure if he can secure enough funding to keep it afloat.

Skinner, a former member of the Berkeley City Council and a member of the East Bay Regional Parks Board, is one of 25 newcomers to the Capitol, and she is unlikely to veer from the liberal agenda Hancock — who is moving over to the Senate to replace departing Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

Another newcomer from the East Bay, Joan Buchanan, will likely take a sharp turn from her predecessor, Republican Guy Houston, in the 15th District, which meanders from the northern Santa Clara County line through parts of Contra Costa and Alameda counties and into Sacramento County.

Buchanan was one of four Assembly candidates to shift Republican seats into Democratic hands, and though her victory over Abram Wilson was close — 52 percent to 48 percent — she said she doesn't feel that she'll have to temper her goals.

A former executive with Delta Dental, Buchanan said her top priority is to seek solutions to the ongoing fiscal crisis and argues that tax hikes should be part of the budgetary mix.

"My read is that no one likes paying taxes, but if you spend the money wisely, they can accept that," Buchanan said. "People move out to suburban communities to raise their families, and education is very important. People are willing to pay a little more if it means maintaining high value schools for their children. ... I don't think the rules of the game are the same as two years ago. I do think the dynamics have changed."

Hancock, in assuming Perata's Senate seat, which encompasses parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, won't inherit his power and will likely have the same staff of 10, even as her constituency more than doubles from 423,000 to 850,000.

Hancock is vying to chair the Natural Resources Committee, but two other lawmakers are competing for the same post. If she doesn't get it, she could end up chairing the Election Committee, where she's planning to launch an initiative to eliminate the state's constitutional requirement of a two-thirds super-majority on budget bills.

Torlakson, on the other hand, will lose half of his staff in moving back to the Assembly — and give up the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee — as he prepares to run for state superintendent of public schools in 2010.

Beginning their second two-year terms will be Assemblymembers Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, who was recently elected as chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, and Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley. Hayashi has also been caught up in the musical chairs game: She's not only taking the third-floor office of outgoing Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, she's hired Lieber's former chief of staff, Cory Jasperson.

Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, will embark on the second half of her first Senate term.

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