Mod Squad focuses 2006 election hopes on state Senate races

On it’s face, it looks as if the California Legislature may be getting more
liberal next year. Almost all of the members of the Assembly Moderate Caucus
will be termed out of office this year, including it’s two “co-conveners,”
Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, and Juan Vargas, D-San Diego.

In all, 11 of the Mod Squad’s 14 core members will be leaving their seats
next year, either because of term limits or to seek another office. And
there’s not guarantee that moderates will be replacing them in the newly
opened Assembly seats.

David Townsend, who does pro bono work as a political consultant for the
caucus, says while the Assembly’s Moderate Democratic Caucus may diminish
somewhat, on a whole, the Legislature’s Democratic Caucus may become more
moderate. But for the first time, he says, many members of the caucus will
likely come from the Senate in 2006, and that’s where the PAC run by
Townsend hopes to focus its efforts.

“We’re looking to pick up 9-10 new moderates in the Assembly, which would
give us about 12 or 13 seats total,” he says. “But many Assemblymembers who
have been members of the caucus will be graduating to the Senate.”

The Mod Squad, as the group has been called, was started by Assemblymembers
Robert Hertzberg and Dennis Cardoza in the late 1990s, primarily to try to
diminish the influence of trial lawyers in the Democratic Caucus.

“It was simple: If Democrats didn’t toe the line on tort (reform), they
faced challenges in primaries,” Townsend says. “Hertzberg and Cardoza
enlisted me as a volunteer. I receive no compensation, and hire other people
to run all of the campaigns.”

But Townsend has helped raise, and spend money, for moderates in Democratic
primaries. The Caucus has its own political action committee, and raises
money from groups many other Democrats can’t or wont, including insurance
companies, tobacco companies and oil companies.

According to records at the Secretary of State’s office, the Mod Dems’ PAC,
Moderate Democrats for California, spent more than $1.1 million during the
last election cycle. But all of that money was spent on Assembly
candidates. This cycle, Townsend says, the group, like other moderate,
pro-business groups, and focusing in on Senate races.

Among the candidates in contested Senate races likely to receive money from
the caucus are former Assemblyman John Dutra, a former leader of the Mod
Squad who is running against Assemblyman Johan Klehs and former
Assemlbywoman Ellen Corbett; former Assemblyman George Nakano, who is
running against Assemlbywoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach; Ron Calderon, who
is in three-way primary with former Assemblymen Marco Firebaugh and Rudy Bermudez; Lou Papan is also likely to get help in the June primary from the
group, as is Gloria Negrete-McLeod in her race against fellow Assemblymember
Joe Baca, D-Rialto.

“These are proven moderates,” says Townsend. “We, like (the Chamber of
Commerce-controlled) JobsPAC and some others want to look to moderates we
know with proven track records.

More liberal wings of the parts, in particular the environmental community
say they hope to recapture some Assembly seats currently held by moderates
that they hope liberals can take back in the June primaries.

“I think it’s safe to say that the Senate is going to become more
conservative no matter what,” says Rico Mastrodonato with the League of
Conservation Voters. “It’s not going to be quite as progressive friendly as
it has been.”

Mastrodonato says his group also plans to get involved in some legislative
races. They have endorsed Jenny Oropeza against Nakano, despite the fact
they have backed Nakano in the past.

“We wouldn’t expect any leadership on environmental issues from him,”
Mastrodonato said of Nakano. “But Oropeza has always been there” for the
environmental community.

Mastrodonato said two Assemlby seats currently held by Mod Caucus members –
Canciamilla and Joe Nation, D-Marin, are clear targets for his group. LCV is
supporting Contra Costa Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier against Canciamilla’s
wife, Laura, and is backing Jared Huffman in a crowded primary in Nation’s

Mastrodonato says there are “only aobut 30 solid environmental votes” in the
Legislature, and says the odds of getting to 41 this year are slim. But
moderates are feeling much more optimistic about their ability to effect
next year’s state Senate.

So what practical impact would a moderate battalion have in the Senate? In
the Assembly, the caucus has been able to exert influence at key moments in
legislative floor proceedings. In May 2004, as a major legislative deadline
approached, the caucus has a list of 17 bills that were targeted for defeat
on the Assembly floor. Bills on a host of issues from access to emergency
care to elder abuse to financial disclosure laws were all defeated on the
Assembly floor with an assist from Moderate Democrats.

Last year, the Squad focused their efforts on environmental legislation,
derailing a number of measures toward the end of the legislative year. A
bill to map out asbestos to increasing penalties for air polluters went down
to defeat.

Townsend says moderates could have similar influence at key leverage points
in the Senate next session. “Were six of those members to be elected to the
Senate, they would have the power to kill bills that are unnecessarily
painful to business.”

But not all Democrats see it that way. They view the moderates as
obstructionists. Sen. Deborah Ortiz, who’s SB 109 was killed last year,
accused the Mod Squad of siding with oil companies over the wishes of their

“The ‘Mod Squad’ is the single greatest impediment to progressive
environmental legislation in Sacramento,” Mastrodonato wrote the the LCV
annual legislative scorecard last year. “Sure, they cast the easy votes, but
when every friend is needed on strong environmental legislation, the Mod
Squad is usually missing in action or an enemy combatant.”

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: