Politics & Government

Unlikely Assemblyman Steve Fox accustomed to beating the odds

Between terse responses, his asthmatic wheeze labors across the table. Wearing a dark suit with two pea-sized stains around the buttons, Steve Fox briefly makes eye contact before shuffling across his Capitol office and returning with a collection of campaign buttons.

A half dozen pins sit snugly in the frame – Fox for hospital trustee, for college board, for city council and, improbable as it sounded at the time, for the 36th Assembly District. Fox knows nobody expected him to make it to Sacramento. When he won his seat by 145 votes in 2012, the self-described conservative and former Republican became the first Democratic legislator to represent the Antelope Valley in 34 years.

Republicans will need his seat if they want to prevent Democrats from again controlling a supermajority in the Legislature’s lower chamber. That leaves the 61-year-old freshman as the most vulnerable incumbent in recent memory.

Unlike two years ago, when then-Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said he was trying to win five target races and had the fortune of winning six, Democrats are all in for Fox. Party leaders have helped him land high-profile legislation, loaned him a stable of talented political operatives, coordinated a massive voter-registration drive in his district and directed a stream of contributions to his campaign account.

“We picked up this seat thanks to Mr. Fox, and we are going to help him keep it,” Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins said in a recent interview. “I know he comes off as a really nice, congenial, ‘thank you, Madam Speaker’ (guy). But he didn’t get elected in a district that no one thought we would take without having an underlying tenacity. He’s going to stick to it. Don’t underestimate him.”

Though Fox finished the primary 8 percentage points behind Republican Tom Lackey, the accidental assemblyman, as he’s sometimes called, has spent his life quieting skeptics. A janitor-turned-math teacher, Fox took the bar exam 28 times before opening his law firm.

“Nobody’s perfect,” he said through a nagging cough, the result of severe allergies. In the courtroom, clients say he reminds them of the disheveled but wily 1970s TV detective Columbo.

Fox estimates he’s stood for election more than 100 times going back to his youth. Asked if his wife of 33 years ever tires of the constant campaigns, he jokes that the running part she’s used to; it’s the winning that’s new. Fox was recalled 16 months after being elected to the Antelope Valley Hospital District. He ran to regain his seat and finished first among five contenders for three seats. He has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his own campaigns.

“He is a hardworking individual who has gotten here only through his wit and ability to maneuver,” said Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, D-Burbank. “For me, he’s the perfect example of don’t judge a book by its cover.”

‘The best of every world’

Fox’s district is centered in Palmdale and Lancaster, rival Los Angeles County cities separated by what locals call the “cactus curtain.” Experts attributed Fox’s win to a trio of factors: shifting demographics that favor Democrats, increased voter turnout in a presidential election year and a relatively uninspired campaign run by Republican Ron Smith.

Democrats are laying the groundwork to rally potential voters in what is expected to be a low-turnout year. Nancy Bednar, a political science professor at Antelope Valley College and Democratic activist, said while the party will likely exceed its goal of registering 20,000 voters, she still expects the competition to be significantly more fierce.

“Lackey is not making the same mistake” Smith did, she said.

Lackey is a retired sergeant from the California Highway Patrol. Recently elected to his third term on the Palmdale City Council, he has staked out positions as a conservative law-and-order candidate who would work to bring down taxes and promote job growth.

Fox’s own focus has been on returning jobs to the district, jump-starting the local economy and working to expand education. Representing an area as famous for sonic booms as it is windswept tumbleweeds, he authored a $420 million aerospace tax credit analysts estimate will create about 1,100 jobs. As redevelopment agencies were eliminated, he lobbied to restore $2.7 million to finish building low-cost homes. He helped steer more than $60 million to area water agencies for projects designed to boost efficiency in the desert.

Fox typically votes with Democrats on education bills and often breaks with his party on proposals to raise taxes and fees and infringe on gun rights. He drafted a proposal to study the creation of a CSU Antelope Valley and authored a law that provides extra instruction to students struggling in juvenile court schools.

In a region where Democrats hold a slim advantage in registered voters, he wraps his re-election theme of jobs and education with a neat nonpartisan bow: “Common sense ideas pushed by the two-thirds majority.”

Fox said he tells voters, “You are getting the best of every world.”

“I am not going to put down Republicans in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I was a proud Republican for 30 years, until the party left me. We have done more these last two years and brought more deliverables to the district than the last three decades.”

It’s a bold statement for an area that has long been associated with two GOP families: the Knights and the Runners. Pete Knight was an Air Force test pilot who set a speed record before his election to the Assembly. He was succeeded by husband-and-wife George and Sharon Runner and then Pete Knight’s son, Steve Knight.

“Lackey is an honorable guy,” Steve Knight said. “He’s been elected for 14 straight years in the district. He’s got huge name ID. … Not many negatives.”

‘No one will find out’

Fox has a reputation for annoying his adversaries. Supporters find his doggedness endearing and consider him a watchdog. The hospital board recall came after he raised questions about high salaries, patient satisfaction and the health of the employee pension fund.

Others dismiss him as disruptive and tone deaf. In 2012, the local Antelope Valley Press printed the latest of its “Anybody but Fox” editorials and concluded that the serial candidate has repeatedly “left the entity to which he was elected in worse shape than when he arrived.” A 2009 editorial from when he ran for Palmdale City Council called him a “pretty decent guy” with an “absolutely sincere belief that public service is his vocation, and his destiny.” But he also was described as probably the only well-known candidate ordered to clean up his “mess of a yard” by city code enforcement.

More recently, he was accused of blurring the lines between his taxpayer-funded office and his private law practice. A former employee at the law firm who went on to work in his Assembly office has filed a lawsuit alleging she was forced to continue her old duties – “this time for free.” Kristina Zahn claims Fox brushed aside her repeated complaints about performing unpaid law office duties while working for the state. “No one will find out,” the lawsuit quotes him as saying.

Fox has pledged a vigorous defense, calling the lawsuit “meritless” and “ridiculous.” He said he gave his former law practice staff the opportunity to work for his state office and some were dismissed because they were not up to the task. “This was sour grapes, and I am going to fight it tooth and nail,” he said.

Critics also accuse Fox of leaving the GOP out of opportunism and of avoiding controversial votes. Fox didn’t vote on bills to raise the minimum wage, expand abortion access, boost rights of domestic workers and allow transgender students to use school facilities reflecting their gender identity.

Fox said he promised early on to vote the way his evenly divided district would want. His staff regularly checks emails and phones to tailor the approach. He said he’s instructed his own party not to “play dirty,” and stressed that the tenor of the attacks, many of which he’s faced before, are precisely why he left the GOP in the first place. The local newspaper has long opposed his campaigns, he said: “The bottom line is they don’t give me a fair shake.”

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, said Fox’s sometimes-scruffy look and his wheezing, the result of allergies to trees, grass and dust mites, causes people to discount him.

“People were dismissing him because of the noises when it is out of his control,” Garcia said. “He also was at a disadvantage because the first things people talked about was he ran so many times and his previous party registration.”

As someone who once felt pigeonholed as a “bomb-thrower” herself, she related. They met at ethnic restaurants off the grid, and she challenged him to move beyond spaghetti and meatballs or pepperoni pizza. When he goes on TV, she makes sure his shirt is tucked and his hair combed.

“It was like: ‘You got here. People believe in you,’ ” Garcia said. “ ‘You’re a fighter. You have talent. Let’s figure out some way to exploit that.’ ”

‘Old country lawyer type’

Among the believers are Sharon Chavez and her husband, Sal, a retired machinist at Lockheed, who raised their grandson until age 6, when their son took him back. Unbeknownst to them, he put the boy up for adoption. With no real legal recourse, the Chavezes opened the phone book and scanned it for a lawyer.

“I always pray for things,” said Sharon Chavez, 71, of Rosamond. “So I prayed, and God gave me Steve Fox.”

Fox devised a plan to have the child’s estranged mother move in with the Chavezes, and then apply for custody. Over the objections of the adoption agency, he convinced the judge to order the boy back from Pittsburgh, where he was living with another family. The boy, who turns 17 next month, was adopted by his grandparents. The case inspired Fox to write a bill that expands grandparents’ rights.

Fox’s clients range from fast-food workers to hospital employees to prison guards. He characterized his work as a seasonal business: December is reserved for personal injury because people need money for holiday shopping, he said; February is for bankruptcy cases so they could pay off their credit cards; April they get their tax returns and can finally afford the divorce; and “every holiday is a DUI.”

He still practices law, sometimes from a desk at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento. At district events, constituents still pepper him with legal questions.

“I see him as the old country lawyer type that buys food for his clients if they need it,” said Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, Fox’s seatmate at the Capitol. “He’s holding onto some of these cases because without Steve Fox, they have no one.”

Fox’s third-floor Capitol office, referred to by an aide as The Fox Den, is decorated with odes to his statesman hero, Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British prime minister of Jewish birth and celebrated literary figure.

Fox, whose Jewish father helped liberate a concentration camp during World War II, says he draws inspiration from Disraeli’s drive, ambition and perseverance. “I like his quote that ‘men with missions do not disappear till they have fulfilled them,’ ” Fox said.

“He beat the odds. He never gave up. He climbed to the top of the greasy pole.”