Capitol Alert

New California senator Steve Glazer walks political tightrope

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda,  talks with Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León at the Capitol last week.
Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, talks with Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León at the Capitol last week. rpench@sacbee.com

In his first full week as a California state senator, Steve Glazer faced the gauntlet: a deadline crush of 207 bills for which he had only days to prepare.

Over the objections of oil companies, he supported ambitious new renewable energy goals for the state.

He voted against a measure, marked as a “job killer” by the California Chamber of Commerce, to expand guaranteed family leave.

When legislation came up to increase the minimum wage and unionize child care workers, priorities for organized labor, he didn’t weigh in at all.

Such is the tightrope walk for the self-described centrist, a Democrat from Orinda who won his suburban East Bay district promising independence from unions, the business community and other special interests that traditionally are California lawmakers’ biggest political backers.

“Certainly, I am bringing a different view than, I would say, a typical Democrat,” he said as he assessed his first days in the Legislature.

To get to his sunny new fourth-floor office overlooking Capitol Park, Glazer survived a losing Assembly bid last year and a scathing intraparty special election this spring that drew an unprecedented $7.3 million in outside spending.

A re-election campaign looms already next year. Veer too far to the left, and he risks alienating the crossover independent and Republican voters who drove him to victory; veer too far to the right, and the local Democratic activists who backed his opponent, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, could push for a serious liberal challenger.

“He has a very careful balancing act going into 2016. It’s very difficult to be all things to all people,” said Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio, who led labor’s anti-Glazer campaign during the special election. “He needs to throw Republicans a bone.”

Glazer arrived at the Capitol less than three weeks ago looking to build bridges. Joined by family and friends on the Senate floor for his swearing-in, his opening remarks highlighted minimum-wage high school jobs he once worked at Orange Julius and Jimboy’s Tacos in Sacramento, and a busboy position he took in college “to help pay the rent.”

Five months spent picking oranges and grapefruit at a kibbutz in Israel “gave me a great deal of appreciation for all those who grow and harvest our food,” he said.

And after a year in which the California Teachers Association twice spent heavily to defeat him, Glazer thanked “all the public school teachers” who “made a big difference in my life and, I know, who make a big difference in the lives of millions of our students every day.”

The oath of office was administered by Gov. Jerry Brown, whom Glazer advised during Brown’s 2010 election campaign and successful 2012 push for a temporary education tax.

Brown never weighed in publicly during either of Glazer’s high-profile races, but Glazer declines to discuss whether he asked his former boss for an endorsement: “That’s a communication I don’t want to go backwards on.”

Any strain between them was put aside for the ceremony. “That was very meaningful to me,” Glazer said. “It was an old friend who wanted to come and be supportive and encouraging.”

In his first week, Glazer toted around a thick binder full of background material on the hundreds of bills before him, and a cheat sheet with his fellow senators’ names and pictures. With no time to hire a team of his own, he said, Democratic Sens. Richard Roth of Riverside and Cathleen Galgiani of Stockton were particularly helpful, donating their staff and research to help him review legislation.

Despite assertions by opponents during his campaign that Glazer’s close ties to the business community would isolate him from the caucus, fellow Democrats said he’s been embraced, especially given his arrival in the midst of one of the busiest times of the session.

“With no staff, I can’t imagine how anyone would make it through,” Roth said. “We’re a very welcoming group.”

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León declined to be interviewed but said in a statement, “The Democratic Party is a big tent with plenty of room for diverse opinions.”

Republicans have reached out to welcome Glazer as well, though he said none have come to talk to him about legislation. Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, who said he developed a great respect for Glazer last year after Glazer became an outspoken critic of the BART strike, called on election night to congratulate him.

Glazer’s top adviser, however, might be Sen. Isadore Hall, D-Compton, with whom he shares a desk.

“I love my seat. I love my seatmate,” Glazer said. “He’s given me a lot of advice about things and the unwritten rules of the house.”

For example? “Well, he’s promoted bow ties. He says he thinks I can carry a bow tie,” Glazer said. “He offered in committee Tuesday to get me one.”

Despite the Senate’s camaraderie, difficult policy choices remain.

Painted as a friend of tobacco companies during the election, Glazer voted for measures that would raise the smoking age to 21 and more strictly regulate e-cigarettes.

He has also broken from his caucus 32 times, more than any other Senate Democrat since he arrived.

Glazer opted not to support the minimum-wage increase – to $13 per hour by 2017, then annually by inflation beginning in 2019 – but he didn’t vote against it either, instead decamping to the lounge off the Senate chambers during the debate.

He said he reserved “laying off” a vote for those measures where he shared some concern with proponents but disagreed with the specifics.

“I’m very sympathetic to the issue of income inequality and the need to find ways to be responsive to that issue, but I felt that the bill was too aggressive with indexing,” Glazer said. “It takes away the choice down the road for other Legislatures to evaluate the economic situation facing the state and the impact on small business.”

Tensions from the election – which ended with California Democratic Party Executive Director Shawnda Westly suggesting that Glazer won “a cynical campaign to appeal to Republican voters” – have not fully subsided.

Westly said her pointed election night statement was “reflective of the values of the Democrats in the district.” She chided Glazer for not voting on the minimum-wage increase, as well as legislation to ban new oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast and to make public more information about new water wells.

“He said he was going to make the tough choices, but ducking votes isn’t a tough choice,” Westly said. “Now is Senator Glazer’s time to show what he believes in.”

Glazer brushed off the comments as bitterness by the party that endorsed his opponent and lost, but his frustration was palpable. He returned to the subject several times during an interview. He said he won’t be intimidated by a California Democratic Party that he said has become too powerful to respect differences of opinion within its own ranks.

“Does that mean I’m not a Democrat? What’s her point?” he said. “I’ve never seen a Democratic Party leader critique a sitting state senator two weeks after they’ve been sworn in. It seems distasteful and unprecedented and counterproductive.”

A posterboard with 10 governing principles sits by Glazer’s desk. (No. 1: “Represent the people of our Senate district, not political parties or special interests.”) He points to specific principles to explain why he parted with fellow Democrats on various votes – state mandates that he thought would be better left as local decisions, or bills that he felt were political jabs at opposing interests.

That’s the great honor, and the most humbling thing, for the veteran political strategist, who has worked for everyone from David Roberti, the state Senate’s former Democratic president pro tem, to former Chief Justice Rose Bird.

“When you’re advising someone, you’re giving them options. And when you’re a candidate, you get to make the choice,” he said. “You get to make your own choice and live with it.”

Whether the Democratic Party supports Glazer in his re-election bid next year depends on local activists, Westly said. But “the electorate is going to be very different in 2016 than in 2015,” she added. “He hasn’t got much time to show what kind of leader he’s going to be.”

Marty Wilson of the California Chamber of Commerce promises Glazer’s “re-election will be a high priority for the business community,” which poured millions into a campaign on his behalf. Maviglio said unions would “rather spend our efforts elsewhere” and are waiting to see whether they can work with Glazer rather than launching another major drive to take him out.

Glazer compares the politics to a weather system over the Capitol – it’s impossible not to be affected by or react to it. But he’s trying not to fixate on the fact that he could be out of a job by next November.

“A lot of legislators operate from a place of fear,” he said. “I’m not going to have any regrets.”

Alexei Koseff: (916) 321-5236, @akoseff

Selected votes

These are a few of the decisions Sen. Steve Glazer has had to make since being sworn in:

Yes

  • SB 4: Allows undocumented immigrants access to health insurance
  • SB 128: Legalizes assisted death for terminally ill patients
  • SB 350: Sets ambitious new renewable energy goals for California

No

  • SB 406: Expands guaranteed unpaid family leave
  • SB 499: Replaces state teacher assessment system with locally negotiated evaluations
  • SB 546: Establishes review of significant health insurance rate hikes

Did not vote

  • SB 3: Increases the minimum wage
  • SB 20: Makes public reports on new water wells
  • SB 548: Unionizes child care providers
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