Capitol Alert

Adam Gray: A canny California politician forges his own path

Assemblyman Adam Gray questions Sen. Mark Leno about his measure to regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products during a hearing July 8 at the Capitol. The committee opted not to vote on the bill, angering Leno.
Assemblyman Adam Gray questions Sen. Mark Leno about his measure to regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products during a hearing July 8 at the Capitol. The committee opted not to vote on the bill, angering Leno. AP

Marc Levine’s bill was about to get buried, and he almost wasn’t in the room to see it.

Levine, a Democratic assemblyman from San Rafael, earlier this year offered a measure that would have allowed liquor makers to sell their products at their distilleries, disrupting an alcohol regulation system that rigidly separates creators, distributors and sellers.

To pass it, he had to go through the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee and its chair, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced.

Before Levine could take his seat and make his case, Gray moved the bill to interim study – a way to sideline legislation without an up-or-down vote. Levine strode into the room as Gray suggested the move, crying, “I object!” after Gray asked if there were any dissenters. His opposition was useless.

The bill has since been resurrected, but at the time the move left Levine fuming.

“This was a petty, small thing that occurred and makes the Legislature look bad,” Levine told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

The maneuver was the sort that has sculpted Gray’s reputation at the Capitol – bold, business-friendly and at times aggressive. In April, he was stripped of a committee seat soon after challenging the chairman’s authority to advance an agriculture-friendly water bill. In July, he killed an anti-tobacco bill by demanding amendments the author said would render it meaningless.

Moderate Democrats in California’s Legislature must tread a narrow middle path, squeezed between the agenda of more liberal leadership and the demands of their centrist constituents.

But Gray, the latest in a line of middle-of-the-road Central Valley Democrats who periodically cross the party line, has proved to be an adept operator who can draw on years of experience inside the Capitol to advance his agenda. He has gained notice for his bare-knuckle approach to chairing the so-called GO committee, which considers measures affecting well-heeled and politically generous gambling, alcohol and tobacco industries.

“He understands the system,” said Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who has found common cause with Gray on issues like water policy. “It’s a big maze up here, and knowing who to talk to, who not to talk to and how the system works is a big help.”

I’m not going to be intimidated by anybody.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced

Raised in Merced, Gray’s exposure to politics came early. He was a teenager when he volunteered for the Assembly campaign of Dennis Cardoza, who was a family friend. It was around then that Gray met his future wife, Cadee, the daughter of former legislator and congressman Gary Condit, for whom Gray interned. Gray’s father-in-law had his own maverick streak, openly challenging Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s leadership in the late 1980s and losing clout and committee posts as a result.

Fresh from college, Gray traded a job at his family dairy supply store for a post in Cardoza’s office. It launched a career that would wind through five legislative offices and began his training on how to navigate the corridors of Sacramento as a Central Valley Democrat.

“The leadership doesn’t elect you, and that’s one of the lessons I tried to instill in Adam – you get elected by the people you represent,” said Cardoza, who was elected to the Assembly and later to Congress.

Like other moderates, Gray seeks a middle course. He has taken tens of thousands of dollars from oil companies yet last session joined Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, perhaps the Legislature’s foremost environmentalist, in pushing a bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing. He rejected as too extreme the drilling moratorium proposals that fellow Democrats proposed.

“We have a lot of oil production in the Central Valley, but we also have a lot of agriculture, and agriculture is dependent on groundwater,” Gray said. “I want to make sure our groundwater is protected in the Central Valley, but I don’t want to see these jobs in and around the oil industry go away, either.”

A quarter of Gray’s constituents in the Merced-centered district live in poverty, the sixth-highest rate of any Assembly district. Voter registration – 40.8 percent Democratic and 35.4 percent Republican – makes it a contested district at election time. Without traditional bastions of Democratic support like high union membership or environmental-minded voters, Democrats must stay on good terms with business interests, particularly the influential agriculture industry.

“A lot of California’s pressing problems are still very much in our face,” Gray said. “As we’ve seen economic growth and success in the coastal regions – L.A., certainly the Bay Area – we’ve not shared in that success.”

Like other Democrats from the area, Gray has also worked with Republicans. When Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders pushed a package to restrict groundwater pumping, Gray joined moderate Democrats and Republicans in opposing it; the same coalition pushed for more storage dollars through state water bonds. Gray signed on to the Assembly Republican leader’s push to limit Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits. He was honored last year by the California Rifle and Pistol Association.

“Adam has a fair amount of Republican support and has cultivated that pretty adroitly,” said Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse. To be a moderate, he added, “you have to stand up to your own party oftentimes, and that can have repercussions.”

Earlier this year, with the State Water Resources Control Board poised to restrict what growers could draw from San Joaquin River tributaries, Gray authored a bill requiring the board to pay for extra groundwater pumping resulting from the new restrictions. He pushed Assembly Bill 1242 out of its first committee over the objection of the more liberal chair, banding together with moderate Democrats and Republicans.

Soon after, Gray lost his spot on the committee. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, called the change “part of a larger restructuring of several committees” unrelated to the vote.

Gray says he was simply representing his district.

“We’ve had many discussions about our disagreements and sometimes our agreements on water,” Gray said. “The speaker represents San Diego. I represent Merced.”

While Gray’s experience has been an asset, it has also been a liability at times. His last boss was Ron Calderon, a Democratic senator who was stripped of his seat last year after federal prosecutors charged him with accepting bribes in exchange for steering legislation. Gray has been subpoenaed to testify in the case.

“I was as shocked as anyone,” Gray said of Calderon’s indictment.

The association surfaced last year in anti-Gray campaign mailers depicting Calderon as “the teacher” and Gray as “the student,” part of the California Republican Party’s attempt to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat him.

It didn’t work. Democratic Party committees poured in $245,000, and outside groups funded by dentists, physicians, insurance firms and other business groups buoyed Gray with nearly half a million dollars. Gray won by 4,400 votes.

Fresh off winning re-election, Gray secured the chairmanship of the Governmental Organization Committee. The industries the committee regulates have contributed generously to his campaigns. Tobacco companies gave his campaign and ballot committee $23,000 last cycle. Alcohol companies and industry groups gave his campaign $38,000. Native American tribes with gambling interests gave over $50,000 more.

Legislators rank the committees they want to join, and Gray said his choice of committee reflected his experience working for committee members. Condit led the same committee in the 1980s. Cardoza and Calderon both served as a members.

“One of the reasons I chose to run for Assembly was I watched the institutional memory kind of eviscerated over the 15 years I was involved as a staff person,” Gray said. “I had been involved with GO issues for many, many years.”

He has wielded his chairmanship in a way that has vexed some colleagues. First came his handling of Levine’s liquor bill, which Levine at the time called “the weasel’s way out.”

Drama spiked again during a recent hearing on electronic cigarettes. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and public health advocates hoped to reclassify the devices as tobacco products, noting that they deliver tobacco-derived nicotine. First they would need to surmount a committee widely regarded as sympathetic to tobacco interests. “My eyes are wide open,” Leno said ahead of the hearing.

Gray proposed a group of amendments, including one saying e-cigarettes are not tobacco. A lengthy back-and-forth ensued before members voted to add Gray’s amendments. Leno renounced the bill, which did not get a vote, and afterward called the hearing unlike any he had seen in his years in Sacramento.

“The format seemed to me without any reason or purpose, the format being the chair was insistent that either I take all four of the recommended amendments or the committee would force it upon me,” Leno said. “What was the purpose of all of this insistence that it be done his way?”

Leno said the changes defeated the entire purpose of the bill.

For his part, Gray said he refused to “rubber-stamp” bills and send them along – “under my leadership in GO, that’s not how we’re going to work,” he said – and argued that even the amended version represented “the strongest e-cigarette regulatory bill to move out of the Legislature ever.”

“(Leno) wanted a bill drafted his way, and that was the only way, and anything other than that wasn’t going to be acceptable,” Gray said. “I’m not going to be intimidated by anybody to not take the time to do good public policy work.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

Adam Gray

Party: Democratic

Residence: Merced

Age: 37

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2013

Career: Aide to legislators Dennis Cardoza, Herb Wesson, Fabian Núñez, Jerome Horton, Ron Calderon

Assembly committees: Chair, Governmental Organization Committee; member, Aging and Long-Term Care Committee; member, Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee