The California Players

DEC. 28, 2010

It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for nostalgic looks back and fond retrospectives on 2010’s most memorable events and personalities (this is due, in great part, to the fact that nearly everyone in the Capitol is on vacation so virtually nothing is going on). So it wasn’t a surprise when I noticed that Sacramento Democratic campaign consultant Roger Salazar Tweeted a link to the big “California Influencers” story in the November/December 2010 issue of Campaigns & Elections.

The story is a run-down on the “top 100 players in California politics today” (Salazar made the Democrats’ list, which accounted for his Tweet). Now the fact that the list is split equally between Democrats and Republicans is a bit problematic, since California politics is weighted heavily in the former’s favor.

This made for a strange list of “top” Republicans, which includes such notable losers as absurdly overpaid Meg Whitman for Governor consultants Jeff Randle, Mike Murphy and Rob Stutzman – who ran one of the worst gubernatorial campaigns in the history of the California Republican Party – as well as Whitman herself. “Though she didn’t win, her deep pockets could make her a force to be reckoned within future elections,” the magazine lamely noted.

There were also some quirks in the list of powerful Democrats. For instance, I can’t imagine U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is particularly pleased that Campaigns & Elections considers her “California’s 800-pound gorilla.” And what’s with putting Controller John Chiang on the list – the guy couldn’t produce the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Review less than nine months after the end of the fiscal year (other states somehow do it in three months) if his life depended on it.

Anyway, after perusing the list, I couldn’t help but notice that Campaigns & Elections had left out a few people – individuals arguably far more powerful than many of the consultants and staffers who did make the cut. So in the interest of being fair – and of finishing my column – I’ll offer a few blurbs on those I believe truly influence California politics, good and bad:


Mary Nichols

How Nichols – who refers to herself as “Chairman” of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a job she held under both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown – missed the cut is beyond me. Let’s forget for the moment that CARB is the awesomely powerful state agency that will not only implement the state’s far-reaching greenhouse gas reduction laws but also has the power to put people in prison for violating clean air regulations. Anyone who can knowingly place a CARB scientist with fraudulent credentials in front of her board before a key vote on diesel regulations and then not only escape getting sacked but also end up on the list of those most likely to keep their jobs in the new Jerry Brown administration has considerable power.

Kip Lipper

His job title is “environmental consultant” in the state Senate, but that doesn’t do the guy justice. Think of an environmental bill – any bill – that’s come out of the Legislature in the last decade, and I guarantee Lipper made it happen. “Lawmakers used to jokingly ask whether a bill had been ‘Lipperized’ – and they still say that, only no longer in jest,” Capitol Weekly reported in April.

Tom Umberg

Talk about under the radar. This former Orange County Assemblyman and Clinton Administration assistant drug czar is the current vice-chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is responsible for what might end being the biggest, most expensive public works project in state history. Normally on the sidelines, Umberg has lately been running the authority’s monthly hearings because Chairman Curt Pringle – his old Orange County adversary – became a no-show right when news surfaced that he was potentially in violation of the state’s ban against officials holding “incompatible offices.”


Richard Mersereau

A few months ago I asked Senator Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, who was the most powerful Republican legislative staffer. “Richard Mersereau,” he said without hesitation. “Lipper’s strength is getting legislation passed, but Mersereau has a more difficult job in stopping bad bills from passing.” In fact, everyone I asked that question to mentioned Mersereau. It’s a thankless job being Policy Director for the Assembly Republican caucus, which will most likely be in the minority for the next decade, but someone has to do it.

Dan Schnur

When Governor Schwarzenegger appointed him chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) in June of this year, Schnur –a former political consultant and current director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC – knew he wouldn’t hold the job for long. No mere caretaker, Schnur immediately convened a special “task force” of two dozen consultants, attorneys and FPPC staffers and asked them to thrash out ideas for updating the Political Reform Act, the law that governs elections and campaign ethics in California, with the goal of getting potential legislation (or ballot measures) ready by the first of the year. Which they did. Not bad for a guy with about six months on the job.

Nathan Fletcher

Fletcher, R-San Diego, may not be especially powerful now, but it’s likely he soon will be. He will start his second term in the Assembly in January, but he’s already being mentioned as a future San Diego mayor, and who knows what after that. Did I mention he’s just 34?

-Anthony Pignataro

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