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Transportation lobbyist Watts cuts through Capitol gridlock

Mark Watts first began working on transportation policy in California during
the governorship of Jerry Brown. Since then, he has held critical
transportation posts in every area of government, from a decade at Caltrans
to a post as undersecretary for transportation to serving as chief of staff
to one of the few Republican speakers in the last 50 years.

Now, Watts, after spending a decade in the private sector, has climbed the
ranks of the transportation-lobbying world and is perched at the top. He
counts local governments, from California’s fastest-growing city, Elk Grove,
to San Francisco, as clients. And he serves as executive director of
Transportation California, a politically connected business and labor
coalition that was a major force in this year’s bond negotiations.

And, oh yeah, Watts may be the only man to ever challenge Sen. Martha
Escutia, D-Montebello, to a competition of tequila shots–and win.
But more on that later.

Watts currently heads the Sacramento lobbying firm Smith Watts & Company.
His partner, D.J. Smith, is widely viewed as California’s leading consultant
on local sales tax initiatives–the tool local governments use to fund
transportation projects.

The Smith-Watts pairing makes the lobbying firm the go-to-guys for
transportation. What’s more, the firm’s former partner, Will Kempton, now
serves as director of Caltrans, a 22,000-strong agency with a $9 billion
budget.

“He has so much pressure and responsibility we know better than to bug him,”
says Watts, who first worked with Kempton at Caltrans in the early 1980s.

Watts admits that “it is unique having a person I’ve worked with 25 years
ago as the Caltrans director.”

Today, Watts’ key post is as executive director of Transportation
California, which counts the Associated General Contractors (AGC), the
Operating Engineers and the Alliance for Jobs as members. This year, the
group organized the signature gathering to qualify the so-called Proposition
42 “fix” for the fall ballot, which would have prevented legislators from
raiding highway funds for other purposes. The Legislature ultimately placed
a similar measure on the ballot, Proposition 1A. And four years ago,
Transportation California led the charge to pass Proposition 42.

“His expertise is well-recognized and his experience is invaluable,” says
Tom Holsman, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors.
“He started as a technical adviser to Transportation California and several
years back became a major source of guidance. He moved on to become the
executive director.”

Watts first began working for the Legislature as a transportation consultant
for the Assembly Ways and Means committee in 1985. By 1988 he was staff
director.

In 1994, then-Gov. Pete Wilson tapped Watts to join his administration as
undersecretary for transportation in the Business, Transportation and
Housing Agency. It was a job Watts held for only a year, as Assembly
Republicans came calling for him in early 1995.

Despite the fact that Assembly Democrats had lost their majority in the 1994
elections, then-Speaker Willie Brown, D-San Francisco, deftly maneuvered
himself into a power-sharing agreement with Assemblyman Jim Brulte, R-Rancho
Cucamonga.

Brulte recruited Watts to serve as the first-ever co-administrator of the
Rules Committee, which controls the purse-strings of the lower house. Watts
describes the turbulent times of the mid 1990s as some of the most trying of
his career.

“It was very challenging because the Democrats had been there for 15 years,”
he recalls. “I was trying to ramp up and understand where all the money was
squirreled away.”

Watts’ post at the Assembly’s top administrator was short-lived. When
Assemblywoman Doris Allen, a Republican, was swept into the speaker’s
office, in another Brown-engineered maneuver, she fired Watts on her first
day.

Months later–after Allen had been recalled by furious Republicans–newly
elected Speaker Curt Pringle named Watts as his chief of staff.

“Mark is seen in the building, and I certainly feel the same way, as a guy
who can get stuff done,” says Pringle, now the mayor of Anaheim, a city
which has used Watts as a lobbyist.

One of the hallmarks of Watts’ success is his bipartisan disposition. In a
45-minute interview, Watts offered only glimpses of partisanship, mentioning
only briefing the importance of streamlining environmental reviews and the
efficacy of design-build construction. Republicans and Democrats alike sing
his praises.

“I am personally a moderately conservative Republican,” he adds. “But
you’ll find even when I was in partisan position that I was open and fair.”
And sometimes that means socializing with Democrats.

During the Pringle speakership, then-Assemblywoman Martha Escutia was known
to boast of her tequila-drinking prowess. The Latina legislator from the
barrios of Los Angeles challenged any Republican to a tequila-shots contest,
or so the story goes.

Pringle selected Watts.

“That is one of the duties of a chief of staff,” Pringle jokes on the phone.
The pair squared off–there are rumors of a full bottle consumed–only to
finish with an equal number of shots.

“Some will argue that it was a tie,” says Pringle. “But Mark was using beer
chasers and Martha was using water chasers and [Sen.] Richard Polanco
declared Mark the winner.”

Watts even made it to work the next day.

Watts’ determination–in his professional life–has served him well. He
continues to work closely with legislative leaders from both parties.

He credits Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, with bringing
transportation infrastructure to the forefront last year, and says he often
socialized with former Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, when he was Senate
leader.

“Can I critique pieces of the bond package? Sure,” says Watts. “But I think
the package is pretty holistic. It provides new capacity and it is a pretty
well-rounded.”


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