Fabian Núñez doesn't think compromise is a dirty word. California's Assembly speaker has played a classic legislative leadership role as the bridge between a Republican governor and a strongly liberal majority Democratic caucus, helping to forge and shepherd through a long list of impressive legislation over the past couple of years.
His personal scorecard includes a $40 billion infrastructure bond package, a $7 billion prison building and rehabilitation measure, and a landmark global-warming law that is already being imitated by other states. "Some people feel you can't compromise because you're setting your values aside," he continues. "I believe the opposite. You're fighting for your beliefs when you can move the ball forward."
During the term-limits era, California got in the habit of changing speakers nearly every year. The decision to let a freshman have time to grow in the job — Núñez, still just 40, was elected speaker in 2004 after one year in office — has certainly paid off. "They had been a rudderless ship for many years," says Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.
Núñez personally carries more legislation than the average speaker, but his real importance has been as the state's main policy fulcrum. He's been able to exploit Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's hunger for major deals, while shaping legislation that's more to the Democratic majority's liking. For instance, Schwarzenegger had proposed a big infrastructure package, but Núñez saw to it that much of the money would go to education and housing. If "Schwarzenegger is the celebrity author," the Los Angeles Times editorialized this year, "Fabian Núñez is certainly his principal ghostwriter."
Núñez's pragmatic streak was on display during negotiations last year to provide a prescription drug discount to uninsured residents, which followed a humiliating defeat. Núñez had sponsored legislation to mandate discounts, which went before state voters as part of the 2005 special election ballot. The drug industry put up its own, competing initiative and the messages in the hugely expensive campaign ended up canceling each other out. Both measures failed.
But Núñez wasted no time in bringing all parties back to the table to fashion a successful voluntary discount program that will become more like a mandate after its third year. "One thing you learn when you become speaker," he says, "is that the art of politics really comes down to knowing how, when and how far to compromise."
Núñez, one of 12 children of immigrant parents, clearly leans toward the liberal side. Under his direction, California will offer the highest minimum wage in the country come January. He co-sponsored a bill to legalize gay marriage and was author of a law, which Schwarzenegger revoked shortly after taking office, to issue drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants.
Schwarzenegger was notably dismissive of Núñez when he first became speaker. The two fought mightily over budgets and "like cats and dogs," as the speaker says, over Schwarzenegger's own special-election ballot initiatives. But the fighting led to friendship as the two spent hours together and learned each other's similarities. First lady Maria Shriver even babysat Núñez's kids so the governor and speaker could spend more time together.
The unlikely pair became real partners, leading to the flood of major legislation. Some of his colleagues criticized Núñez for cooperating so much with a Republican governor during last year's election season, but Núñez was more than willing to get Schwarzenegger's signature on the kind of legislation he wanted.
"He is a liberal, obviously, but he's kind of a street-level pragmatist, rather than a philosophical ideologue," says Dan Walters, a political columnist with the Sacramento Bee. "A lot of people around him are ideological hair-splitters. "He's interested in bottom-line results, rather than in splitting ideological hairs."
Photo by Marc Longwood