All in the family: Assemblyman follows in his father’s footsteps

The very mention of Assemblyman Brian Nestande’s family name holds resonance for a certain generation of California political insider. It recalls a political era that stands in stark contrast to the divisive and dysfunctional budget process the state just endured.
The freshman Assemblyman is the son of Bruce Nestande, an Orange County Republican Assemblyman from 1974-1980. Bruce Nestande belonged to a cluster of moderate Republicans in Sacramento led by Fresno lawmaker Ken Maddy, the one-time Senate GOP leader. The Maddy clan has become a form of political shorthand for those who are nostalgic about a time in state government that, 30 years later, has been hailed as some kind of gilded age of partisan cooperation.

Brian Nestande is among those who speaks longingly about the time when his father was in the Assembly. But he is optimistic that in the throes of political and fiscal crisis, the culture of the Capitol may change for the better.

Nestande survived a bruising primary, becoming a proxy in an ongoing war between auto dealerships and insurers. Nestande’s Riverside-based 64th Assembly district includes Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and most of the City of Riverside.

The freshman Assemblyman is not a partisan warrior. He is soft-spoken, and seems comfortable in his own skin. And at times, he shows glimpses of a wit that is as dry as the air in the desert cities he represents.

Capitol Weekly spoke with Nestande last month, before the state budget was passed, about the state budget, growing up around politics, and going into the family business.

Capitol Weekly: Tell us a bit about your professional background in politics.

Brian Nestande : I worked for a Congressman named Michael Huffington.  He came and went pretty quick. I worked in his Congressional office for about two years. Then, I got a job offer from Sonny [Bono] to move to Palm Springs to manage his Congressional campaign.  So, I went to DC as Sonny’s chief of staff, and when he died, I did the same for Mary until 2000 when I worked on McCain’s campaign.I moved to California in 2000 to be his state director, and then started a consulting practice.
What was the 2000 McCain campaign like out here?

It was a pretty low-budget deal. It was me, only, at first. Then we had like two other paid staff. I remember he only came out California about three times. Everything was about New Hampshire. We couldn’t even get signs, because they said everything goes into New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But when he came out the crowds were just insane. When we showed up to the [state Republican Party] convention, it was just mayhem. You couldn’t get through the crowd.

So, how is the political culture in Sacramento different than D.C.?

Actually, it’s very different. Oddly enough, DC is better run. Probably because it’s just a larger institution, but it has more of a professional aspect to it. Just the way you get your committee assignments, or the offices. Back in DC, it’s a lottery and seniority system. If rooms are available, it’s a lottery, and you get what’s available.There’s no power plays over things like that.
Another example is the bills. It’s so hard to move a piece of legislation there – I think the average is about six or eight years before a bill gets passed. So, that lends itself to a different process in terms of your work.

What about the budget process in Sacramento?

The Big 5 obviously doesn’t exist in Washington. It is more of an open budget process. With everything moving through Big 5, it takes away a little bit from the committee process.

And I think that’s partly due to the bill deadlines here, as opposed to just having it worked on throughout the year. Deadlines don’t move things from one house to another in Washington.

And on the budget in process, here, they put everything on the table in one package, and I think it’s too big to try to negotiate in one shot. We’re trying to do everything at once.

Do you think term limits makes that more difficult to do?

Probably. Everything’s a rush to judgment, and term limits probably part of that. Maybe we’re just too big for that. It’s more to the moment instead of long-range policies and how to implement them.  Something that may not be this term, but might take a few terms to get done. Now, hell, you’re gone by the time that path barely begins.

I think the process and the state don’t fit each other. We’re such a big state with deadlines on top of term limits – I think all of those things make it difficult.

Did you support Proposition 93, the change in the term limits law that would let you serve 12 years in one house?

No, I voted against that. I support the concept, and I think it would have passed if it had not been self-serving for the people that were there. I would love to have that same bill, but say people that are in now are not grandfathered in. Then, I think the public would accept that you’re not doing it for your own job – that you’re doing it for the betterment of the state, long-term. I’d love to support something that my successor can take advantage of, but I cannot.

So, as a Republican in a house dominated by Democrats, I imagine your legislative ambitions are modest?

(Laughing) I’m very optimistic.

What are you going to be focused on?

I’ll be looking at some budget reform, a couple of constitutional amendments. But my thing is not a lot of legislation, first of all. I’m going to focus less on the number of bills and more of the process.

And in this first year, I want to get up to speed on my committee work. I want to take this first year to learn the committees and talk to people in those industries, and see where some change can occur. (Note: Since our interview, Nestande was listed as the author of  AB 8XX, part of the budget package, which streamlined some environmental regulations on tractors and other off-road diesel equipment.)

So, you’re the vice-chair of Assembly Education. Is that a particular area that you’re interested in?

It is now (laughs). Obviously, that’s going to be my priority right now. And I have a great resource in Dr. Dave Long who was the former Education Secretary. He’s a constituent of mine, and was superintendent of Riverside County schools. He’s a wealth of information, well-respected on both sides of the aisle.

I had a chance to sit down with him last week, and we’re going to make it an every two week sit-down, so I can feed off of his experience. And I’m meeting with the local superintendents and gathering information and gathering thoughts.

Did you spend much time in Sacramento when your father was in the Assembly?

Well, we actually lived up here. He worked for Reagan when Reagan was governor, so we lived up here for about four years. When he ran, we moved back down to be in the district.

Do you have any sense of Sacramento then versus Sacramento now?

One thing I do remember, I was a pretty impressionable kid, taking in being around my dad. I remember, for instance, when Ken Maddy ran for governor, he came down to stay at our house. I specifically remember, ‘Here’s a guy running for governor,” and I was probably only eight or something. But I was involved in and understood politics at a very young age.
I could name the state controller, because that was a guy my dad had run against twice and lost – Ken Cory. How many kids knew who the state controller was?

I just don&rsq
uo;t remember a partisan part to it. I do remember Democrats and Republicans in the campaigns, of course, but I don’t remember vitriol in the process. And that might be because it was a little bit below the radar. You obviously didn’t have blogs in those times. But it was a lot about policy and I just don’t remember the sharp partisan rhetoric.

I remember coming up here and meeting Jerry Brown, when Jerry Brown appointed my dad to the California Transportation Committee. You had a very liberal governor appointing an Orange County Republican to the CTC.

I remember going to lunch with him, and literally pulling up in his Duster. Personally, I saw him engaging with my dad, and it was a very non-partisan situation.

How about the internal party politics? That gets pretty nasty too.

Yeah, I saw a little of that first-hand. But a lot of that is just personal, not ideological.

What about a freshman class identity? Is there any common experience you guys have being elected during this financial crisis that might transcend party lines?

I’ll tell you why I’m optimistic. When we came here, we went into our budget vote. We got locked down. We were immediately into this lockdown situation, and you’re voting on something that literally was just laid on your desk, and without any staff to help you with the process or any time yourself to read the legislation.

So, I think Freshman Democrats saw the same thing we saw – that this doesn’t seem like how we should be functioning. Whereas if it happened in June, we might be more accustomed to how things work up here. But having that thrown in our faces right away, a lot of said, wow, this is how this place actually works?

And so, from that, a lot of us, from both parties, have said we really do need reforms. And that’s not a partisan issue.

Would there be repercussions for you voting for a tax increase in your district?
Among some people, yes. There is a resentment from a lot of people that they do not think the state has done enough to solve its fiscal problem, and are talking about taxes before making cuts in government spending. They see that as irresponsible, and it angers them. And rightly so.

Counties do not have the luxury of raising taxes, and they’ve had to cut and make tough choices. The perception is the state has not.
I think you can differentiate that from taxes in a different framework. And the down side to the sales tax increase is that it hurts our local governments. Cities pass local sales increases for all sorts of different projects, and so on. And a new state sales tax takes away the cities ability to do that.Local sales taxes pass because people intuitively trust local governments more.

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