Capitol Weekly’s Top 100 List, Part I

Lists like the one you are about to read are a lot like most hairpieces: They’re probably a bad idea, but they do get a lot of people talking.

Capitol Weekly spent weeks talking to top California political professionals to get a consensus on the top influence peddlers, power brokers and political players in California. The list is varied – there are Democrats and Republicans; labor leaders and captains of industry; people who are little known outside of Sacramento circles, and international superstars.

One thing you will not find on this list is elected officials. We debated whether to include politicians on our list, but ultimately decided that would be too easy. We were looking for people whose political skill and influence transcends the position they hold.

Another thing that jumped out at us was the lack of Latino representation on this list in proportion to the amount of political power Latinos wield in California, and their growing clout inside the Capitol and around the state. That is due, in large part, to our decision not to include elected officials. If we had, there would have been many more Latino names included.

In this week’s edition we have the first 50-person installment of the Top 100. Next week, we will provide Part II with an additional 50 names.

And by the way, why 100? It’s Capitol Weekly’s way of celebrating April as the 100th month of the new century. Okay, it’s a stretch but we’ll use any excuse for a party.

Certainly there will be much debate about the names on this list – and even more debate about those who are not. While we think we can make a solid case for everybody that we’ve included, our great fear in producing this list is that we are missing someone who obviously belongs. But hey, that’s what the comments section is for. And while we’re not fishing for sympathy, you should know that compiling this list was much harder than it looks.

There was one moment of horror in putting this together: One likely candidate asked us if slots on the Top 100 were for sale, which apparently is the practice with some lists of notables. The answer is an emphatic No.  

Be sure to let us know what you think of our list so far and look for the second installment in next week’s paper. Offer your comments below the published list, or send us a letter to the editor. And for those of you who didn’t make the cut this time around, hey, there’s always next year…

1. Susan Kennedy, chief of staff, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
If there was a consensus Number One on our list, it would be Susan Kennedy. The former PUC commissioner was called in by Gov. Schwarzenegger after the 2005 special election debacle. Kennedy quickly guided the governor to reelection, and became the center of power in California government. She has the ear and the trust of the governor, and is not afraid to step on a few toes along the way.

2. Jerry Perenchio
If you ever want to feel inadequate about your life’s accomplishments, spend a minute or two reading Jerry Perenchio’s bio. He promoted Muhammad Ali fights, represented Marlon Brando, and owned the largest Spanish-speaking television network in the country. And everything he touched seemingly turned to gold. Perenchio, now 78, remains a major donor to Republican causes, and recently chipped in $1.5 million to pass the measures on the May 19 ballot.

3. Donald Bren, chairman, Irvine Co.
Bren, chairman of the Irvine Co., is a force in state politics as a major player in land development politics. Bren has also been a pivotal member of the New Majority, a group of well-funded, Orange County Republicans that is more socially moderate than many of their Republican counterparts. He also  has been a major booster for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

4. Maria Shriver, California First Lady
More than just a political spouse, Shriver is part of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s inner circle and a political force in her own right. She is the unabashed Democrat who, along with Kennedy, transformed the Schwarzenegger administration after 2005.

5. Eli Broad, partner, KB Home
If money talks, then everybody listens to Eli Broad, the billionaire L.A.-area developer who puts money into political and charitable causes. He’s bankrolled numerous causes over the years and has mentored governors. In the 2007-08 election cycle he spent nearly $1 million, including $100,000 on a statewide redistricting reform measure and another $100,000 to ease traffic congestion in Los Angeles. He is a major funder of EdVoice, which continues to push for third-path education reform and take on the teachers unions. He has given millions of dollars to local universities and art programs, including $25 million for stem-cell research, and $100 million each to Harvard and MIT.

6. Steve Merksamer, partner, Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor
Steve Merksamer, former chief of staff to Gov. George Deukmejian, is one of the state’s most influential political-legal players. His 16-lawyer firm is involved in a myriad of political issues and dispenses legal advice and political strategy to a national and international big-business clientele. One specialty: The intricacies of financial disclosure and campaign donation laws.

7. Michael Peevey, President, California Public Utilities Commission
As head of the five-member CPUC, Peevey has powers that most elected officials in California can only dream of. In essence, Peevey has taxing authority, since the CPUC sets rates for investor-owned utilities. And while he suffers the occasional legislative setback, Peevey has proven to be one of the most effective and enduring bureaucrats in California. He and his wife, Sen. Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, make quite the California power couple, but that’s another list altogether.

8. Mary Nichols, chairwoman, California Air Resources Board
With the passage of AB 32 in 2006, and a governor determined to make an environmental legacy for himself, Mary Nichols has become arguably the most powerful regulator in the state. And as the law to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions continues to phase in, the role for the ARB, and for Nichols, will only increase. Nichols enjoys support from many Democrats, and was first appointed to the job she now holds by former Gov. Jerry Brown. It’s easy to imagine Nichols staying in her current post should Brown get his old job back next year.

9. Aaron Read, lobbyist, Aaron Read & Associates
Read is one of those Capitol figures who is more than just a lobbyist – he is a power broker. In addition to building one of the largest lobbying firms in the state, Read has become a critical deal-maker inside the Capitol halls. Read’s clients include law enforcement groups, doctors and local governments. It’s a pretty good bet that when Read himself is walking the Capitol halls, there’s some kind of big deal going down.

10. Joe Nuñez, Associate Executive Director of Governmental Relations, California Teachers Association
It’s hard to know exactly who from CTA to place on this list. Is it David Sanchez? Scott Day? Ultimately, we decided on Nuñez, a former state board of education member who has been a persistent critic of the governor. But all that is water under the bridge. Schwarzenegger reappointed Nunez to the state board in 2007 (though Senate Republicans killed his reconfirmation) and now, CTA and the governor are standing arm in arm heading into a special election ballot.

11. Courtni Pugh, executive Director, SEIU California State Council
If Courtni Pugh was looking for an easy new job, this wasn’t it. Since taki
ng over for Dean Tipps in 2008, SEIU has been in the middle of an ongoing war with United Healthcare Workers, a battle to renegotiate state contracts, lingering budget fights, and deep divisions over what to do about the May 19 special election. Now, Pugh is ready to lead the charge against the governor, and others in the labor community who have signed off on the measures on the May 19 ballot. Welcome to Sacramento.

12. Allan Zaremberg, president, California Chamber of Commerce
As a former chief legislative advisor to Governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, Allan Zaremberg knows his way around the Capitol. And as the president of the state’s largest and most influential business organization, Zaremberg continues to wield influence in state government. The Chamber has been a major backer of Gov. Schwarzenegger, standing with the governor during the recent budget standoff, despite a revolt from the Republican Party’s right wing.

13. Jim Brulte, California Strategies
Over the last 15 years, there has been no more enduring force in California Republican politics than Jim Brulte. He has been the leader of his caucus in both legislative houses. He was the California point person for then-Gov. George W. Bush when Bush launched his presidential bid in 2000. He was a mentor to numerous staffers in the building, including Finance Director Mike Genest. And he continues to be a sounding board for the governor, and wanna-be governors alike. His mentorship of Steve Poizner has helped the Insurance Commissioner earn GOP bona fides, and Brulte’s stock can only rise if Poizner can find a way to win the GOP nomination.

14. Richard Blum, chairman and president, Blum Capital
Maria Shriver is not the only political spouse on our Top 100 list. The husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein is also the head of a major equity investment management firm and a UC Regent.

15. Bob White, partner, California Strategies
White, the former chief of staff to Gov. Pete Wilson, is the man who brought the super firm to Sacramento. And there have been times when the California Strategies office has felt like the kitchen cabinet for the Schwarzenegger administration. In some ways, the firm is the post-partisan, private-sector doppelganger to Schwarzenegger’s ideologically diverse inner circle. The collection of Republican and Democratic powerbrokers, media spinmeisters and strategists under the firm’s umbrella is impressive by any measure.

16. Bill Devine, lobbyist, AT&T
Perhaps no single company has had as much legislative success in the Capitol over the last five years than AT&T. And their chief lobbyist, Bill Divine, has amassed quite a track record when it comes to legislative victories. Divine helped shepherd through a plan to deregulate cable service in 2006 that is arguably the most significant deregulation bill in California since the state’s flirtation with a deregulated energy market.

17. Kip Lipper, staff to Sen. Darrell Steinberg
By all measures, Lipper is the most influential Capitol staffer on environmental issues. His influence is so pronounced that colleagues’ refer to him as “Senator Lipper.” Whether it’s greenhouse gas emissions or renewable energy, if a major piece of environmental legislation moves through the Capitol, it will inevitably have Lipper’s fingerprints on it.

18. George Soares, partner, Kahn Soares & Conway
Soares’s client list reads like a who’s who in the world of California agriculture – from sheep to walnuts. If there’s a major policy involving farming or agriculture, odds are that several of his clients are in the middle of it, and Soares is in the room helping to broker the deal.

19. Gale Kaufman, Kaufman Campaign Consultants.
Gale Kaufman has been a legislative staffer, and has run numerous candidate campaigns. But in the era of term limits, she has become a pillar of Democratic politics. While she has scaled back her legislative candidate portfolio, as counselor to the California Teachers Association, she has been intimately involved in initiative campaigns for the last five years, including this May’s special election.

20. Peter Douglas, executive director, California Coastal Commission
People joke that there are four branches of government in California – the legislative, the judicial, the executive and the Coastal Commission. The commission has done battle with state and local authorities alike, and often emerged victorious. In fact, the Legislature moved to clip the commission’s wings a few years back, altering the appointed terms of the commissioners. But it is Douglas, who does not have a vote on the board, who is the commission’s real political power. For a generation, Douglas has taken on the role as guardian of the state’s 1,100 miles of coastline, and has become a Mandarin of California politics.

21. Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary–treasurer, L.A. County Federation of Labor
The County-Fed is still a major force in Los Angeles politics. Carrying on the legacy of her late husband, Miguel Contreras, Durazo has developed a close political relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants to be governor. She bucked many in the labor movement, and became an early supporter of Barack Obama’s campaign, eventually becoming a national co-chair of the campaign. Closer to home, the County-Fed is still an arbiter of local political power, helping decide which candidate will run for which political seat, and when.

22. Frank Schubert, President, Schubert Flint Public Affairs
There’s no question that Frank Schubert is the Republican political consultant du jour. In addition to being the mastermind of the Proposition 8 campaign, Schubert also helped drug companies and got involved in initiative campaigns in Oregon and Nevada. But the Proposition 8 campaign has given him, and his firm, a national profile.

23. Richard Milanovich, chairman, Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians
The initiative wars in Indian country have passed, for now, as have the fights over new tribal compacts. And though gaming tribes have also been hit by the current economic slowdown, the tribes remain a vital force in state politics. Many issues persist, including the ongoing efforts of the hotel and restaurant employee union to organize workers at tribal casinos. As the head of the largest of the gaming tribes, Milanovich remains the major foil to HERE’s efforts. And his continued willingness to spread political money around ensures that Agua Caliente remains a potent force. 

24. Thelton Henderson, judge, U.S. Circuit Court, Northern District
Since being appointed to the court by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Judge Henderson has presided over some of the most significant cases in California. Among them was a landmark case involving methods of fishing that endangered dolphins, a case that overturned voter-approved limits on campaign contributions, and his 1997 ruling that struck down a voter-approved ban on affirmative action programs. Since 2005, Henderson has held the state’s prison system in receivership, arguing that substandard medical care in the prisons was a violation of prisoners’ Constitutional rights.

25. Danny Curtin, director, California Conference of Carpenters
In a list that is heavy with labor leaders, Danny Curtin stands out. With his close ties to Schwarzenegger and his support of public-private partnerships, Curtin has become the governor’s go-to guy in the labor movement – much to the chagrin of others in organized labor who have been at odds with the governor for years. While he is resented by many of his labor colleagues, Curtin remains a force inside the horseshoe and in the state.

26. Ronald George, chief justice, California Supreme Court
As chief justice of the seven-member state Supreme Court, Ron George, a Pete Wilson appointee, clearly is powerful in both law and politics. He also heads the Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the courts. He’s “administratively innovative, affable and seemingly inexhaustible,” and “one of the most active and influential justices in California history,” as a veteran court watcher reported.  Last May, the Court held 4-3, George was the swing vote and wrote the opinion, that the ban on same-sex marriage in California violated the equal protection clause. Angry gay marriage foes have threatened a recall against George and other justices.

27. Joe Lang, partner, Lang, Hansen O’Malley and Miller
Joe Lang wields invisible power. His lobbying firm is consistently among the top billing firms in the state. Best known perhaps as a lobbyist for tobacco companies and racing interests, Lang and his firm have his hands in a diverse set of interests from telecom to energy to local governments. Particularly within the Legislature, Lang is often looked to as a closer on mega-deals hatched within the Capitol.

28. Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
There’s no bigger player in the California water world than MWD. And with Kightlinger taking over the reins in 2006, the district has been more engaged with state officials, and by most measures, has proven more savvy. And though a deal on a water bond remains elusive, Kightlinger remains a major player in the negotiations, empowered with the authority to speak for the interests of Southern California. 

29. Gerry Parsky, chairman, Aurora Capital Group
If there’s a board or commission that needs a leader, Gerry Parsky’s your guy. Or at least if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Gerry Parsky’s your guy. Currently, Parsky is heading a commission reviewing the state’s tax policy. This in the wake of Parsky’s leadership of a commission that reviewed the state’s public pension systems. Parsky became a force in state Republican politics through the George W. Bush campaign. He worked in the Treasury Departments of Presidents Nixon and Ford, and was appointed to the UC Board of Regents by Gov. Pete Wilson.

30. Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, CEO, Magic Johnson Enterprises
He is one of the most coveted political endorsements in Los Angeles, and a major force in the city’s business community. He’s an international spokesman for HIV awareness, and, oh yeah, he was the greatest point guard in the history of the NBA. Could Magic Johnson be the next mayor of Los Angeles? Maybe. Or perhaps he’s content growing into his role as kingmaker, and difference maker in the state’s largest city.

31. Rick Claussen, founding partner, Goddard Claussen
Rick Claussen is a founding partner of Goddard Claussen and viewed among political pros as a wizard with ballot initiatives. Rightly so: He’s won nine out of every 10 initiative campaigns he’s handled. That track record prompted Gov. Schwarzenegger to ask Claussen to pull another rabbit out of the hat. Claussen is handling the campaigns for the May 19 special election propositions that are intended to help balance the budget. Statewide polling shows the measures in deep trouble.

32. Richard Polanco, president, RGP and Associates
Polanco, a former Senate Majority Leader and eight-year veteran of the Assembly, is viewed as a tireless deal-maker, and insider’s insider and an effective Capitol infighter. His client list is small but exclusive – such as  AT&T and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Unlike his years in the Legislature, Polanco now cares to fly under the radar, and he seems to be the go-to guy for people who need help, and fast. For a recent example, just ask Bill Burke.

33. Mac Taylor, state legislative analyst
After years as a deputy to Elizabeth Hill, many Capitol watchers have noticed a slightly different tone coming from the non-partisan LAO lately. The campaigns pushing for passage of the measures on the May 19 ballot were so angry at the LAO’s fiscal analysis of the measures that they pondered filing a lawsuit against the analyst. And his office’s analysis of the state stimulus funding set off whispers in the Capitol from those who suggested Taylor was advocating deeper state education cuts so the state could capture more stimulus dollars. Hill was cautious to her fault, but in his first few months in office, Taylor has proven more likely to take a stand, and is proving to be a different kind of legislative analyst.

34. Will Kempton, director, Caltrans
Caltrans Director Will Kempton, who started his transportation career at Caltrans 36 years ago, manages 22,000 workers, a $14 billion budget and some $10 billion of ongoing construction projects. He’s handled finance, legislative liaison and congressional affairs – all a mix of money and politics that proves valuable in the Capitol. An agile, polished bureaucrat (this is not said in disparagement) Kempton was picked by Schwarzenegeer to run Caltrans in 2004.

35. Jack Kavanagh, founder, Rough and Tumble
Anyone who wants to know what’s going on in California politics day-by-day  has had Kavanagh’s site bookmarked for years. Readers will notice that this list that is notably short on media personalities. But as press corps coverage continues to wane, Rough and Tumble endures.

36. Mark Baldassare, Public Policy Institute of California
PPIC is best known for its statewide polling. But beneath the surface is a team of top-notch state researchers who have become a valuable resource for political leaders throughout California. And in this era of term limits, that expertise is more valuable than ever. With a beefed up presence in Sacramento in recent years, PPIC has helped fill the gaps as institutional memory – and the press — continues to bleed out of the Capitol.

37. John Kobylt & Ken Chiampou, talk show hosts, KFI AM
The L.A.-based radio shock jocks crossed the line from entertainment to political players during the recall of Gray Davis, and they have reemerged as a force during the state budget crisis. In January, they threatened any GOP legislator who voted for tax increases with their “head on a stick” schtick. Simplistic, angry, entertaining, and deeply conservative, they are building a loyal following in the Los Angeles market. Drawing crowds at rallies, they hope to defeat measures on the May 19 ballot.

38. Bill Magavern, director, Sierra Club of California
As the Sacramento-based director of Sierra Club California, Bill Magavern is a critical environmental voice as it relates to government policy and legislation. He and his colleagues weigh in on all things environmental: water, air, timber, land use and, increasingly, global warming. He bird-dogs the Air Resources Board, testifies at hearings and invokes the cachet of the Sierra Club to support – or oppose – legislation.

39. Howard Dickstein, attorney
The former attorney for the California Tribal Business Alliance may be one of the least familiar people on our list to the wider public, but his history in Indian gaming—and Indian politics—goes back more than two decades. He featured prominently in the effort to legalize Indian gaming, and in many of the legal battles since. His side did go down in the biggest initiative campaign ever—the 2007 to turn back expanded compacts by four large gaming tribes, but Dickstein and his firm, Dickstein & Zerbi, remain prominent players.

40. Geoffrey Kors, executive director, Equality Cali

The fight over gay marriage in California has elevated Kors into one of the most visible grassroots activists in the state. His organization, Equality California, spent nearly $12.5 million in the fight against Proposition 8, and continues to raise money as the battle over gay marriage moves through the courts.

41. Kevin Sloat, principal and founder, Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates
Kevin Sloat, a veteran Capitol insider and ranking executive in both the legislative and executive branches, founded his lobbying firm, Sloat Higgins Jensen, 12 years ago and has been a major player in the world of advocacy ever since. His blue-chip clients include Accenture, Cisco Systems, Verizon, Black & Decker and the City of San Diego, and more than four dozen others.

42. David Crane, special adviser, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
A longtime close friend and adviser of Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Crane’s power stems from his proximity to the governor. He currently serves as the governor’s “special adviser”— a loosely defined position but one that is indispensable to Schwarzenegger. Crane is considered a guru when it comes to public-private partnerships. As the governor pushes his infrastructure agenda forward in the midst of a budget crisis, Crane has been out promoting how these types of deals have financed school and transportation projects across Europe and Asia. But he faces some stiff opposition from unions and fellow Democrats.

43. Ross Johnson, Chairman, FPPC
Acerbic, bare-knuckled and smart, Ross Johnson was the Republican leader of both houses of the Legislature and one of the original tax-cutting Republican cadre known as the “cavemen.” He knows where the legislative bodies are buried – indeed, he helped bury them. That knowledge is invaluable now as he heads the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog, where he enforces laws governing campaign contributions and financial disclosure.

44. Michael Burns, Chief Executive Officer, KP Public Affairs
Year after year, KP is at or near the top of the lobbyist billing list. The firm is stocked with experts in their respective fields, ranging from energy to water to technology. KP does not play the lobbyist schmoozing game the way some other Capitol power brokers do. Their strength comes from their policy expertise. And Burns’ team, both in the lobbying and the public affairs arena, is consistently impressive.

45. John Burton, former Senate leader
The soon-to-be-named head of the California Democratic Party, Burton served in the Assembly, the Congress, again in the Assembly and then state Senate – ending his colorful career as the leader of the Senate. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a liberal, blue-collar champion with a penchant for profanity, deal-making and an encyclopedic memory. A memorable moment: Working his parliamentary magic to get California’s first greenhouse gas emissions law through the Legislature in 2003.

46. George Skelton, columnist, Los Angeles Times
Newspapers do not own the same post in the collective consciousness that they once did, but despite all the recent unpleasantness, the Times is still the Times. And Skelton is still the leading voice of the paper in Sacramento. A former UPI reporter, Skelton still hustles and refreshes his sources. Anyone who’s ever been to lunch at the Broiler knows that. As the ranking dean of the Capitol press corps, Skelton’s column is still a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in California politics.

47. Joseph Dear, Client Investment officer, CalPERS
 Joseph Dear is not well known, even in the tight political world of the Capitol, but he should be. Dear stands at a crucial juncture of politics, business and government. He is the new chief investment officer of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, and as such he sits astride $175 billion in assets. He oversees all classes of CalPERS’ assets, including domestic and international equity, Treasury and agency debt, mortgage-backed securities (uh-oh), currency overlay, venture capital, leveraged buyouts and hedge funds. Phew!

48. Donna Lucas, president and CEO, Lucas Public Affairs
Lucas, former chief of staff to Maria Shriver and a ranking official in Gov. Schwarzenegger’s inner sanctum, Lucas is sort of the political insider’s insider. She handles corporate clients, unions, non-profits, even the State Compensation Insurance Fund. She was a deputy press secretary to Gov. George Deukmjian and California press secretary for President George H.W. Bush.

49. Stanley Zax, president, Zenith Insurance
Zax was a major player in the 2004 efforts to reform the state’s workers compensation system. And through that process, Zax struck up an unlikely friendship with then-speaker Fabian Nuñez, who now serves as a board member for Zenith. Within the multibillion-dollar worker’s compensation insurance industry, the colorful Zax is considered a legend in his own time, a combination of savvy businessman and political fighter.

50. Craig Cornett, budget director, Sen. Darrell Steinberg
These days, the budget is the only game in town, and no one does it better than Craig Cornett. Cornett is the Legislature’s budget expert, and the master innovator when it comes to creative ways to patch over the holes in the state’s dismal budget picture. That might explain why Steinberg worked so hard to lure Cornett away from the Speaker’s office as one of Steinberg’s first acts as pro tem.

Check back next week for the final 50!

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