In politics, timing is everything, and just about the timeliest politician in California at the moment is Democratic Assemblymember Fred Keeley, who was named earlier this month to the Assembly Pro Tem slot--second most powerful position in the largest house in the state Legislature.

Keeley, whose 27th District covers most of coastal Monterey County and all of Santa Cruz County, was elected to the Assembly in 1996 and quickly began climbing the majority''s organization chart, at the top of which is speaker of the Assembly. By the end of his first term he was caucus chair, No. 4 on the leadership list, and fresh off a convincing win with 65 percent of the vote over his Republican rival.

In the era of term limits, with assemblymembers gone after three terms (six years), the parties have learned to be quick on their feet. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa''s decision to name Keeley to the pro tem spot formerly occupied by Santa Monica Democrat Sheila Kuehl, could put Keeley next in line for the speaker slot, possibly as early as next year, when Villaraigosa could step aside to give the incoming speaker time to prepare for the next election.

Villaraigosa, who is considering running for mayor of L.A., is also said to be considering Van Nuys Assemblymember Robert Hertzberg for the speaker pro tem job. But Keeley is also being considered as chair of the powerful Budget Committee, and is said to be on a short list to become head of the Resources Agency, a cabinet-level job that would make him the state''s top environmental watchdog.

Wherever Keeley lands, his district will have considerable clout in Sacramento. After 16 years of Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, there is enormous pent-up political energy and pressure on Democratic Governor-elect Gray Davis to make important, progressive changes in California. Serving as speaker under a governor of the same party would present a unique opportunity for achievement. Is Fred Keeley that good, that lucky or both?

In an interview with local journalist John Yewell, here''s what the Assemblymember had to say about his role in the Legislature, his goals for the coming year, and his political aspirations

John Yewell: We''re going to have a new speaker in 2000.

Fred Keeley: That''s correct--or before.

JY: Are you suggesting that Villaraigosa is grooming you as his successor?

FK: The speaker has been extraordinarily kind to me in terms of the opportunities he''s given me to participate in leadership. And I''m interested in continuing to try to serve the people of the district and the people of the state of California in whatever capacity I can.

JY: Would I be off-base if I said there''s a possibility that you could be speaker after the 2000 election?

FK: OK, here''s my flippant response: In the era of term limits, if you''re not at least talked about as speaker, then there''s something wrong. Everybody gets to be speaker for a day. Just kidding.

JY: I''m going to press you until you just finally slap me around.

FK: Let me tell you why I''m being a little careful about this. It''s the speaker''s duty to announce, not mine. The speaker has talked to me about two ideas: one is in leadership, one is in committees. They are both very exciting opportunities for me and represent a significant advancement in terms of where I am now. And where I am now has been quite an honor.

JY: After 16 years of Republican governors, there''s a lot of pent-up momentum for social change. What are the priorities for the Davis administration? What will be your role?

FK: Wednesday night after the Tuesday election, the speaker pulled the leadership team together and had a dinner in Sacramento, and one of the things he asked me to do then was to prepare some thoughts about how we would conduct the business of the majority between the time the Legislature comes back into session the first week of January and the time the budget takes over, which roughly happens around the first week in May.

JY: You''ve said that you want to present a set of goals that were not so ambitious that they would be too controversial, but that represent real change so that people don''t get the impression that the new governor and new majority are just trying to make token changes.

FK: I think they''re largely going to fall into four issue areas: education, environment, guns and health care. The governor-elect has already indicated that he is going to call the Legislature into special session immediately for the purpose of focusing on education. Now within the other three, for example in the area of guns, I think it''s likely that we will see bills early in session on a ban on assault weapons and a "Saturday Night Special" ban.

JY: An expansion of the current ban on assault weapons? To include what?

FK: To include a wider variety. What happened last time is that the ban was circumvented by the manufacturers simply by defining away their weapon. They would say that the clip isn''t really being used as an automatic, that they "prohibit" in their specifications anyone tinkering with their gun to allow it to become an automatic weapon. Second would be "Saturday Night Specials," which will be a bill similar to the one Sen. Richard Polanco (D-L.A.) had vetoed last year. Those two issues resonated, and voters want some action on those.

In the area of health care, the short version of the issue is that there''s a very strong concern out there that HMOs have transferred decision-making from health-care professionals to health insurance bureaucrats and that patients have really gotten dis-empowered. For example, there was a bill by Senator-elect Liz Figueroa of Fremont that last year died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

JY: What was it?

FK: That bill would essentially say that an HMO could be held liable for their medically related decisions. The test here is, what do you call practicing medicine? If an HMO makes a decision that you can or can''t have a test or medical procedure, in many people''s view they will be practicing medicine. We think that when something goes wrong and liability should be assigned, it makes sense to have them in the net as possible folks who can be held accountable.

Also, there was a bill last year by (Democratic) Assemblyperson Helen Thomson of Davis to require HMOs that offer products in California to at least offer a mental-health component to their product. That is also an issue of empowerment for consumers.

Gov. Wilson was literally a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance companies when it came to any bills on Health Maintenance Organization accountability. We''ll signal clearly that a new day has dawned on that subject. In the area of the environment, we simply have to re-authorize the Superfund at the state level, because otherwise communities are left with state cleanup sites and a share of cost that is far beyond their abilities to deal with. So you end up with these environmental nightmares. There was a clean-water bill by Assemblymember Carole Migden (D-S.F.) last year which would have increased the penalties for violations of the state Clean Water Act, and the administration was not interested in that. The current level of fines in my view and the view of a lot of people is not a strong enough deterrent.

There''s a lot of frustration among local environmentalists and county officials that they are powerless to do anything about abusive logging practices, and that the California Department of Forestry has lain down and played dead. Many people would like local control to be returned. My very first bill that I introduced in the Legislature was a bill to do exactly that.

JY: Will you try again?

FK: I will try again. The question is how: through the budget, through trying to participate in the decisions about a new director of the Department of Forestry and the members of the state Board of Forestry, through the Legislature, through rule-making? The answer is probably all those things. I have begun discussions with a statewide group of environmentalists that''s interested in looking at comprehensive forest management and timber reform in California. There has been some thought to looking potentially at a year 2000 ballot measure statewide. The courts in a San Mateo case a few years ago said the state has pre-empted local government on how to timber harvest, but not where to timber harvest.

JY: But didn''t previous law freeze timber harvest zones in place?

FK: There''s a mechanism in the law for making changes in that. It''s a pretty high standard, but there''s a mechanism for making changes.

JY: The timber industry is enormously powerful in California. In the past, well-intentioned, even liberal governors have found it very difficult to buck the timber industry.

FK: Or worse, or worse, which is that Jerry Brown signed the bill that took away local control.

JY: How will Gray Davis be different?

FK: The Board of Forestry has been in the pocket of the timber industry for 16 years. If the governor-elect is good on his word, that he''s going to govern in the mainstream and would merely balance the Board of Forestry, there would be significant changes, as far as I''m concerned, that would be very positive.

JY: Personally, are you still in favor of more local control?

FK: Absolutely. For me it''s a fundamental philosophical issue. It''s the only area of land use in California that the state has pre-empted. You can get away with it with forestry because timber harvesting [is concentrated in just a few districts].

JY: The Agriculture Labor Relations Board has been hostile to farm workers for the past 16 years. Apart from appointing new members to that board, do you see any legislative remedies for farm workers?

FK: The appointments are enormously important. They are the governing body, they are like the judges of disputes over the enforcement of the Agriculture Labor Relations Act in California. It''s much like the Board of Forestry, which has been in the pocket of the timber industry for 16 years. The ALRB has not been a balanced body for 16 years. The underlying law is actually fairly good. It''s the enforcement of the law through the administrative arm that I think has been awful. It can and should get a lot better.

JY: Are Democrats in California today looking at Clinton''s first two years, ''93 and ''94, and saying to themselves: "This is our model for what not to do?"

FK: In regards to not having the governorship, you know, Democrats have marched across the desert for 16 years. I think the lesson is, when you get to the oasis, don''t dive in. There''s the oasis, there''s plenty of water, things are going to be fine. Just be intelligent about it, be smart about it, be careful and methodical so that we can accomplish what we need to accomplish. If we can hold this together in the 2000 election, we get to redraw the districts in California.

JY: You beat me to my next question. Isn''t redistricting the most important medium-term goal here?

FK: Absolutely. The most important. We have to be careful and at the same time achieve a record of accomplishment in two years that positions Democrats well for re-election in 2000. That''s why I think in education, the environment, HMO reform [and] guns that we [need] early, measurable victories to point to; then [we can] go into next year and build on those. Voters like the idea of divided government, it creates a sense of balance. But they''ve given us a unique opportunity and to deliver on those things that we talked about that resonated with them.

JY: In other words, don''t betray the trust?

FK: Don''t betray the trust, don''t go off in directions that the voters don''t consider high priorities, work in the priority areas. That doesn''t mean we can''t have bills that are cutting edge and push the envelope. We''re expected to do that. It''s a legislature, and we should do it. But first and foremost, govern in the mainstream values that this year happen to be good Democratic issues.

JY: Are there some controversial issues that might create tension within the Democratic majority?

FK: I certainly think anything that would deal with new fees and taxes is still a very delicate issue in California. The hit on Democrats is they''re tax-and-spend liberals, and if you give them the keys to the kingdom, your taxes will go up.

JY: Another knock on Democrats is that they''re in the hip pocket of organized labor.

FK: I think in California there''s a lot of work to do to get back to even. For example, the decision by Gov. Wilson to get rid of overtime after eight hours, which shifted to overtime after 40 hours a week--that''s a very important issue for working women and men and not just organized labor. I would expect that we''ll see that as an issue of getting back to even, to undo some of the things that were done.

JY: How about stronger OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] enforcement of workplace safety laws?

FK: I think you''ll see that. Clearly an issue for organized labor is strong enforcement of workplace safety. I would think so long as the economy is doing well in California, the governor-elect would entertain bills on that subject matter. I think as soon as the economy starts to stall, or show signs of a recession or slowdown, any kind of concern, I would guess that he''s going to want to see the economy continue to roll along. When you have peace and prosperity, Democrats do very well electorally.

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