Going My Way?
In an extensive Q&A with the Brentwood News, Mike Feuer, our state assemblyman for the last six years, discusses his years in Sacramento. In this interview, he discusses the highs and lows, what he’s most proud of and what disappointments remain. Feuer has been termed out of office and is now running for City Attorney.
By By Jeff Hall - Brentwood News | October 15, 2012
Mike Feuer in West Hollywood by Yolanda Pulakis
Q. Mike, it’s easy for everyday citizens to get the impression Sacramento is a real political cesspool. What’s it really like? What works, what doesn’t? If you could wave your magic wand, what would you change?
A: The Capitol is bustling and exciting, full of energy and idealism. When focused on top priorities, legislators can do great things -- and have, against significant odds, in this session. But the Capitol is also too heavily influenced by special interests, frustratingly partisan at times, too reactive to the issue of the moment and insufficiently focused on solutions to long-term problems.
Several years ago I co-chaired a bicameral committee on government reform. Senators and Assembly members traversed the state, holding hearings on the most important structural changes we could make, especially to the budget process, to make California government more effective. As a result, I introduced a sweeping package of reforms, built largely on the efforts of a bipartisan group called California Forward. Elements included a majority vote budget, performance-based budgeting, multi-year budgeting and more. Separately I also pushed for changes that would focus the Legislature on the state’s most pressing problems: limiting the number of bills each member could introduce, dramatically expanding oversight of existing programs, more collaboration between members of both houses and other changes. Most of my proposals required bipartisan support, and no Republican would support them.
While we now have a majority-vote budget, I would like to see these other changes institutionalized, among other things.
I would also eliminate or at least further reform term limits, so legislators have more incentives to tackle long-term problems and are better able to withstand pressure from special interests. And I would replace our current campaign system, in which candidates and officials are dependent on private fund raising, with publicly-funded campaigns. I think the quality of public decisions would improve dramatically.
Q. What have been your proudest accomplishments while serving in Sacramento?
A: I’m very proud of the laws I’ve written, many of which will have significance for years to come. A number of laws come to mind:
• the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, of which I was a joint author, giving important new rights to families facing foreclosure;
• the law requiring handguns to be microstamped, so law enforcement can determine from shell casings at crime scenes who bought the crime gun;
• the law requiring drunk drivers in L.A. and elsewhere to install ignition interlocks, so their cars won’t start unless they are sober;
• my bills to transform L.A.’s transportation system by enabling Measure R and Measure J to go on the ballot;
• the law assuring kids with pre-existing conditions to have access to health insurance;
• the law establishing California’s Green Chemistry program, to get cancer-causing chemicals out of consumer products;
• multiple consumer protection laws, including requiring nursing homes to post their quality of care ratings; protecting seniors contemplating reverse mortgages; assuring that seniors and others don’t lose their life insurance for nonpayment without a warning; and providing purchasers of used cars at Buy-Here, Pay-Here dealers the first warranty for used cars ever in California;
• the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, creating the nation’s first pilot project testing the efficacy of a right to counsel in civil cases where basic necessities of life are at stake;
• laws clamping down on California’s ties with Iran, including the law prohibiting California from doing business with companies with meaningful investments in Iran’s energy sector; and many more.
I’m also proud of my work behind the scenes, especially defending California’s environmental laws and playing key roles in resolving a host of issues relating to judicial system funding, more than $1 billion of transportation projects, and the NFL stadium proposal in downtown Los Angeles, among others.
And I’m proud of our work here in Los Angeles, where we’ve successfully tackled innumerable constituent problems, held job fairs, college fairs and small business trainings, and helped create park space, protect hillsides from fire danger and establish partnerships for water conservation.
It’s been a very rewarding six years.
A. Several. Families and small businesses have been grappling with astronomical health insurance rate increases, resulting in many Californians going without health insurance altogether. I came very close to passing AB 52, my legislation giving state officials the authority to reject excessive health insurance increases. After passing the Assembly, the bill stalled on the Senate floor, where the insurance lobby has particular horsepower. I devoted myself to getting that bill enacted and was deeply disappointed it didn’t become law. But the bill generated lots of momentum and attention, and in 2014 an initiative based on my bill will be on the statewide ballot.
Dependency courts adjudicate the rights of foster kids who’ve been abused or neglected. Those kids often languish in a dramatically underfunded system that frequently fails them. I’ve wanted to shed light on the flaws in this system, but dependency courts generally are closed to public view. So I authored legislation to open these courts to the public, vesting discretion in judges to close them if doing so would be in the best interests of the kids involved. Most of California’s leading newspapers editorialized in support of it. The legislation got held up in committee. But that bill, too, became the catalyst for major change, with the Supervising Judge of L.A.’s Dependency Court ordering a pilot project to test the efficacy of opening these courts.
My major disappointment, though, has been the tens of billions of dollars of cuts to crucial education and health programs necessitated by the recession. While the cuts were necessary to balance our budget in the absence of new revenue, they will impose great hardship on many.
Q. Any particularly great memories? Anything perfectly ridiculous happen while you served in the Assembly? Any good gossip you can share?
A: There are many memories I will cherish. I thoroughly enjoyed chairing the Judiciary Committee, particularly those hearings on very complex or sensitive issues where we fought past partisanship and reached consensus.
It’s always quite thrilling to get that decisive vote on a key bill, knowing at that moment that what was only an idea months earlier is poised to become the law of the state. I’m fortunate to have a number of dramatic moments like that.
On the ridiculous front, often we’ve worked well into the night on the Assembly floor -- sometimes for nearly two consecutive days without sleeping. This happened most during budget season and before bill deadlines. When I was in college and law school I never worked all night, so delivering a speech on the floor under those conditions has taken some getting used to. Let’s just say we don’t all do our best work at 4:00 in the morning.
As for gossip, if it’s anything really good I’m sure I’m sworn to secrecy.
Q. Has it been hard on your family, having you on the go all the time?
A: My wife and kids have been very understanding, but sure, it’s a constant challenge. When I first was elected to the Assembly both our kids were home. (They’re in college back east now.) And my job required me to be in Sacramento Monday through Thursday, 7-8 months out of the year. So I frequently flew to Sacramento on Mondays, back to L.A. Tuesday nights, up to Sacramento Wednesday mornings and back to LA on Thursdays. My kids would protest that they were so busy with homework at night that it would be OK if I stayed in Sacramento throughout the week. But I thought my presence was important, if only for a couple of hours at night. Still, I’ve been away from home a lot, and this has required tremendous teamwork and patience from everyone in our house. That’s particularly true of my wife, Gail, on whom the burden of my absence has fallen more than once. We’ve been married for 29 years, though, and somehow we’ve figured it out.
Q. Is the “California Dream” still real? Or are our best days behind us? What must we do to get on a better path?
A: I think by the “California Dream” you mean the opportunity to work hard, put a roof over your head, put food on the table, live in a safe community with great public schools, and one day retire in relative comfort -- all in a beautiful state with a gorgeous climate and warm, inviting people.
For too many Californians that dream seems out of reach. But that can change.
Governor Brown recently observed that throughout our history California has attracted both dreamers and eminently practical people. As the Governor said, it takes both to make our state work. Stability and practicality are important, but without vision and innovation, we won’t grow. On the other hand, dreamers need to implement their vision in the real world. California needs leadership that hits on both these cylinders.
Dreaming big is a key. That means investing again in our colleges, universities and public schools; transforming our transportation system, as L.A. voters are poised to do with Measure J in November; making affordable healthcare truly accessible to everyone and spurring growth in our biotech and high tech industries. Making practical changes to the way we do business must happen too, by reforming our broken tax system, plugging special interest loopholes and eliminating redundant or anachronistic regulations. I believe we can accomplish these things. In just the most recent legislative session we enacted major protections for homeowners facing foreclosure, and reformed our pension and Workers Compensation systems. So positive change is possible. I’m just impatient for more.
Q. You are now running for City Attorney. What does the City Attorney do, exactly?
A: The City Attorney writes all L.A.’s laws, advises the City Council, Mayor, and key city agencies, sues on behalf of the city, defends the city in all litigation, prosecutes all misdemeanors and much more.
Q. Why should people vote for Mike Feuer?
A. I hope voters will support me because of my vision for the office and my record of service. My background directing one of the nation’s leading public interest law firms (Bet Tzedek Legal Services)--helping tens of thousands of clients whose homes, health care or livelihood were at stake -- is great preparation for being the lawyer for the People of Los Angeles. So was my work fighting gun violence, supporting alternatives to gangs and promoting ethics and transparency in government on the City Council. As Brentwood’s representative in the California Assembly, I’ve served as the Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, and have advanced major reforms of our justice system and written some of the state’s most important public safety legislation. My background as a litigator at two of the state’s top law firms and as an educator at UCLA Law School also has prepared me to lead the third largest public law office in the United States.
And I hope my vision for the office is compelling. The Los Angeles City Attorney is essentially the Attorney General of the nation’s second largest city. I will work to make it the most effective public law firm in America. I want to connect the office to L.A.’s neighborhoods by doing all I can to reinvigorate the Neighborhood Prosecutor program. I intend to reduce lawsuit payouts that drain taxpayer dollars which should be devoted to putting police on the street, repairing sidewalks and keeping libraries open. The office desperately needs to refocus on our city’s top priorities--like job creation and public safety--rather than pursuing the incumbent’s priorities of targeting ticket scalpers and pushing to put peaceful protestors in jails that ought to be filled with serious offenders. And I will use the law to protect consumers, combat slum housing and improve our environment.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish in office, assuming you win?
A: I want to have played a meaningful role in making our neighborhoods safer, our codes more effectively enforced, our environment better, our business climate more robust, our government more efficient and transparent and more. I’ll do all I can to bring energy, vision and integrity to the job.
Q. You have served as City Councilman, a Member of the Assembly and now you are running for City Attorney. It seems fair to label you as a lifelong public servant -- or career politician, depending on how one looks at things. What do you think of term limits?
A: I am not a fan of term limits. I think that’s what elections are for -- if voters don’t like an official they should vote for someone else. At a minimum I think terms should be less restrictive. California voters took that step recently, allowing future legislators to serve for twelve years in either house.
From what I’ve seen of term limits, they focus lawmakers on competition with each other, rather than collaboration to solve problems. Term limits inspire short-sighted fixes to long-term problems. They empower lobbyists and long-time staff--two groups notoriously resistant to fresh thinking and innovation.
By the way, while I’m very proud of my service in elective office, I’ve actually worked most of my career as the Director of Bet Tzedek (one of the nation’s leading public interest law firms), an attorney in private practice and an educator at UCLA Law School and the UCLA School of Public Affairs than I have as an elected official. Each of these experiences has made me a better elected official.
Q. You are very popular in Brentwood, many are rooting for you. What is your ultimate goal, politically? If you could win any office, how high would you want to go? What do you hope to accomplish, politically, before the clock runs out?
A. Well, you’re being very nice. In general, my goal is to be the most effective public servant I can be. I don’t have an ultimate political goal in any particular sense, in part because I think one’s current constituents get short shrift if one is always eyeing the next office. I’ve told my current and previous staffs that we should rivet ourselves on doing the best possible job, period. If we do, our constituents will be the better for it--and that’s the important thing. Being able to awaken in the morning and be focused till bedtime on how to make the world better -- that’s exciting.
Q. Anything else you’d like to say to the citizens of Brentwood?
A: Just that it’s been a real honor to represent Brentwood in the Assembly. I have always been especially grateful for the way Brentwood has embraced my office and me. This is an exceptional community, and it will continue to get even better. Thanks for letting me express my appreciation to the community, Jeff.
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