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SPEAKING DOUBLE TALK ASSEMBLY LEADER NUNEZ DOGGED BY 'FABIAN FIBS'.

Byline: JILL STEWART Capitol Punishment

LAST spring, I was stunned to hear California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez announce that the elusive deal to fix California's disastrous workers' compensation system was imminent.

I knew that Nunez's claim was almost certainly not true. The reformers had Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with them but were hotly opposed by anti-reformers: sleazy doctors, lawyers and ``injured'' workers who game the system at the expense of truly injured Californians. Even then, Nunez and the anti-reformers were supporting deal-killers.

Some said Nunez fibbed about an imminent deal so he could portray himself as a problem-solver a hair's breadth from success, then blame others for the obstacles. Then his veracity problem emerged again and again, on different issues. Fabian Fibs became so frequent that journalists started asking whether utterances by Sacramento leaders would turn out to be ``a Fabian.''

Let's look at the speaker's mounting struggle with believability:

--Last summer, Nunez joined what I dubbed the ``Squawk Box Seven'' - left-wing Assembly members who schemed to worsen the budget gridlock. The Squawk Box Seven didn't realize an intercom was turned on, blasting their secret plotting throughout the Capitol. Nunez was heard indicating that if the gridlock could be worsened, voters could be duped into approving a ballot measure to let the Legislature approve budgets (and more taxes) with a 55 percent vote instead of a two-thirds vote.

--In December, Nunez assured Californians he would work with Schwarzenegger. But in Spanish, he told Mexico's La Cronica what emerged as the truth: ``I have already personally declared war on Schwarzenegger. ... This is only the beginning of the confrontations with Gov. Schwarzenegger.''

--To gain the speakership, left-winger Nunez assured moderate Democrats that he would give them three of five leadership posts. Moderate Assembly leader Joe Canciamilla of Martinez says once Nunez nailed their votes, he appointed only Dario Frommer of Glendale, who's not particularly moderate. Left-wingers got the other four jobs. Now Nunez is pressuring duped moderates to shut up.

--Several times, Nunez announced a workers' comp deal was imminent. Not even close.

--In early July, Nunez claimed the budget was nearly wrapped: ``Unless somebody blows it up ... we're closing it today.'' In truth, Nunez was demanding big changes and fighting proposals to allow nonunion bus drivers at public schools (saving vast sums) and to reform a ``sue your boss'' law. Nunez claimed that these Republican proposals were last-minute obstacles. In fact, they had long been on the table.

--After the budget-signing ceremony in Sacramento, Nunez, who was absent, bizarrely insisted he hadn't been invited. Schwarzenegger and his aide, Richard Costigan, both noted they'd personally invited Nunez. The Nunez camp went suddenly silent, and claims about this nonexistent slight died with a whimper.

Democrats whom I asked about Fabian's Fibs went pale - but didn't deny it. One aide to a top senator told me, ``We don't know why he's doing it, and we certainly can't talk about it.''

If he starts now, it will take Nunez months to regain people's trust. But Nunez, a former amateur boxer, has succeeded by being unyielding. As a top union organizer, he once cheered a 1995 union rally to ``bring Washington to its knees.'' He organized protests against Proposition 187, badly blundering when he roused immigrants to march with Mexican flags.

Early this year, we saw a peeved Nunez announce that, unlike then- Speaker Herb Wesson, he would ``not negotiate'' while the governor riled Californians up about Sacramento gridlock. I immediately asked Nunez: Did he even accept the fact that the Legislature created the huge deficit Schwarzenegger inherited?

Nunez's response? ``The budget deficit is a problem that (Schwarzenegger) has created by rolling back the car tax. He made the promise to roll it back, not us. ... I did not agree to operate on a bipartisan basis.''

That's clear now. But Nunez's frequent attacks aren't hurting Schwarzenegger, whose post-``girlie men'' approval rating is at 65 percent.

In Sacramento, leaders operate on handshake trust. Democratic Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Republican Sen. Chuck Poochigian of Fresno, recently named by California Journal as the legislators with the most integrity, deal honestly with both sides of the aisle. That's why they are powerful.

The Journal also named Republican Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield as top rookie of 2004. Nunez got second place - an obvious slight. The Journal noted that the means by which Nunez became speaker were clouded. Says McCarthy, ``Fabian knows that I don't think his tactics are wise, but people have to go their own way.''

But it's one thing to dissemble if you're playing union politics. It's quite another to do so when you represent all Californians. Nunez should learn from past Speakers Antonio Villaraigosa and Bob Hertzberg - good Democrats who dealt it straight. Otherwise, the phrase ``a Fabian'' may become part of the Capitol lexicon.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color) Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, is gaining a reputation among Sacramento lawmakers as a dissembler.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 29, 2004
Words:827
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