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Ron Kaye: Don't always go to the party

August 20, 2011|By Ron Kaye

Sipping iced coffee in the Black Cow Café in Montrose on Friday with Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, I found myself suspending my disbelief, putting aside my deep cynicism as a newspaperman and feeling like I was in the company of a politician actually doing the right thing for the right reasons despite threats and bullying.

It was like watching a remake “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” rewritten as “Mr. Portantino Goes to Sacramento” — the accidental politician becomes the reluctant revolutionary.

In barely two months, Portantino has gone from the relative obscurity of serving quietly and industriously as one of California’s 120 lawmakers to stumbling into the political spotlight as a lone voice challenging the leadership and record of failure of a hopelessly gridlocked Legislature.

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He has made headlines in newspapers across the state, inspired editorials sharply critical of Assembly Speaker John Perez’s abuses of his power, prompted two major newspapers to sue the Legislature for refusing to release how much it spends on itself and its staff — that’s taxpayer money, not the special-interest money that puts them into office and provides costly favors to them.

For daring to break ranks from his fellow Democrats and voting against a state budget based on phony revenue estimates while putting dangerous criminals onto our streets early, doing nothing to provide jobs or hold government agencies accountable, Portantino is being treated like a political leper by his own party leadership.

They have issued notices to his staff that they will be furloughed on Oct. 21 for 40 days, claiming that he overspent his budget — the same budget they refuse to release for all legislators. On Thursday, they tried to squelch Portantino’s right to speak on the Assembly floor when he tried to praise three Republicans who joined him in defying the speaker by releasing their budgets themselves.

“I can’t concern myself with retribution,” Portantino said near the end of our 90-minute conversation. “I just have to be who I am and connect to the people I represent. You can’t do anything else.”

This isn’t a personality squabble. It’s about honesty in government. Transparency. Accountability. Solving the people’s problems. Fixing what’s broken. Spending tax money wisely. Looking after the public interest, selling out to special interests.

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