Migden appointment: A surprise, even by Capitol standards

Most of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 11th-hour appointments came as no surprise: Friends, allies and administration workers were rewarded – sometimes well rewarded – in a ritual that has become a tradition for outgoing governors.

But one appointment stood out. Former state Sen. Carole Migden, a liberal San Francisco Democrat, was named to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the nation’s first state agency created to protect and regulate the collective bargaining rights of farm workers. The ALRB was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, then in his first term, legislation that was supported by the late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez.

Migden, despite repeated efforts, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Migden’s selection came as a surprise because she had a stormy exit from the Senate and because the governor had vetoed her major bill sought by unions, the so-called “card check” legislation that would ease the unions’ ability to sign up new members. Migden, unlike many of Schwarzenegger’s well-connected appointees, has had little interaction with Schwarzenegger and is recovering from a bout of embarrassing political controversies that landed her out of office two years ago.

The move could put the former lawmaker in position for a political comeback of sorts, provided she clears Senate confirmation, which is likely. Capitol insiders say her lack of connection to Schwarzenegger wasn’t critical to her appointment, but that the driving force behind the selection was Migden’s friend Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff and second-most powerful person in his administration.

The board meets publicly twice a month, and is composed of five members and a general counsel, all appointed by the governor. The ALRB is charged with overseeing union elections for farm laborers, and investigating complaints of unfair labor practices on farm sites.  The position pays a salary of $128,109.

In its heyday, the ALRB was a focal point for Chavez and the UFW in resolving labor disputes of the 1970s. Its activities today, however, capture just a fraction of the attention that it received during the height of farm labor reform.

It is one of many positions often reserved for an outgoing administration’s top cronies, but it was a curious choice for someone who not long ago was at risk of becoming a persona non grata in Capitol circles.

A staunch Democrat from San Francisco, Migden’s tenure fueled her reputation for both great intellect and a foul temper. She’s been called “Sacramento’s scariest boss,” and rated the same by a 2006 staff survey by Capitol Weekly.

Richie Ross, her 2008 campaign manager who worked with her on labor legislation, chalks it up to her passion. “I’m a New Yorker so I kind of interpreted her aggressiveness fondly. I could see the passion she would bring to an issue.”

Her last campaign, a primary battle against fellow Democrat Mark Leno, was fraught with a number of public relations nightmares. In 2007, she pled no contest to a misdemeanor reckless driving charge after she caused an accident in her state-owned SUV during a now-infamous 30-mile ride down Interstate 80.

Attempting to access funds from previous campaign accounts, Migden was slapped with a record $350,000 fine for violating campaign finance laws.

In March 2008, delegates to the state Democratic convention refused to approve her endorsement, voting it down 298-742. In one last tirade, Migden prompted Senate officials to send her Capitol staff home, after she was heard berating them from the hallway.

Controversy surrounding Migden didn’t end with her Senate term.

In a move that drew criticism and wonderment, Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed Migden to a coveted spot on the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board, another six-figure salaried post, just days after she left office. The appointment was rumored to be a good will gesture toward incoming Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, who sought a soft landing place for the former lawmaker. Statements from Schwarzenegger’s office indicated the incoming Senate leader had recommended Migden.

But within months, Migden was out of a job again when Schwarzenegger moved to eliminate the board, calling it a waste of government funds.

Migden had hinted at a desire to stay in public office, toying with the idea of running for a seat on the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors.

But with the governor gone, and new blood setting up shop in the Capitol, the last-ditch appointment was a bizarre one for Schwarzenegger, especially on policy grounds.

The last major bill Migden carried, her only major foray into labor politics, would have made it easier for farm workers to unionize by allowing workers the choice of either card-check elections or secret ballot elections. It was vetoed by Schwarzenegger not once, but twice after Migden drafted an alternate version with a sunset clause.

A Sacramento Bee analysis showed she had one of the highest veto rates in 2008, with 77 percent of her bills returned without a signature.

“Migden and Schwarzenegger would never be two people who would travel in the same circles,” said one observer who was a longtime staffer in the building.

Ross, a longtime union lobbyist, says it might have been a sort of olive branch for their disagreement over the card-check legislation. “The governor was sincerely interested in helping us, but philosophically the bridge was too far for him,” said Ross. “It was his way of expressing his ongoing fondness for what the farm workers’ union represents.”

Other Capitol insiders say it’s a much simpler case of the governor taking care of those close to his top advisor. Some cite a long friendship between Migden and Kennedy, who came to be known as “the little governor.”

Schwarzenegger included both Kennedy and her wife, Vicki Marti, among his final appointments while  still in office.

“I would not be surprised if Susan Kennedy did have his ear on this, because they’re both from the Bay Area, and they probably see eye-to-eye on a number of issues,” said one staffer who wished to remain anonymous.

Ross dismissed the idea that political patronage earned Migden a “soft landing spot.”

“The last thing Carole Migden needs is a soft place to land, the last thing she needs is a comeback,” he said.

“She was an advocate when she had no power, she was an advocate when she had a lot of power. This is just another thing in her life where she’ll do what she’s always done – which is speak up, loudly, abrasively, in that New York accent, on behalf of people.”

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