"I WANT TO DO MORE…"
California Assemblyman Jerome Horton has represented the state's 51st district for nearly six years, but his time is up. PT sat down with him recently to find out what his job is like as the clock runs out.
PT: You're about to leave the Assembly due to term limits, along with 19 of your colleagues. What can you tell us about your final term in the Legislature?
Horton: During any legislative term, you learn things that make you want to change the law. For example, in the last few months, my interaction with the youth authority and the prison system has made me want to act in those areas. I understand, however, that my authority to make changes isn't the same as before. On the flipside, my knowledge and capacity are increased, so I want to do more. This aspect of term limits is frustrating because it diminishes the consistency and continuity of policy planning. My successor is a very accomplished individual, but he's going to have to start all over when he comes in. So, I feel an obligation to him and to the constituency to transfer as much knowledge, and as many connections and resources to him as possible.
PT: What about your relationships with other members? Do they write you off as some have suggested?
Horton: I've always believed in the power of the vote as a legislator, and that continues to exist as long as you have it. You learn a couple of things though. First, that power is predicated upon one's ability to influence others, and second, that there are certain leverage points that allow you to do that—aside from that fact that you happen to be an elected official. Once you understand that, you can continue to have influence over the process. So, it's one of those situations where most of the members will view you as a learned, senior member. They'll continue to seek you out for advice on certain issues. Now, if you're able to effectively employ those skills that you have learned over your five, six years in the Legislature, you now know how to influence the Legislature better than any other person in the body.
The complicated part of politics is divining the personality of individual politicians and what moves them to make the decisions that they ultimately make. Those characteristics are different for each member.
PT: Is it frustrating to leave right when it would seem like you're starting to get a handle on all of the different personalities in the Legislature?
Horton: That's true, but even though the personalities may change, the game remains the same. Once you learn the game, it's a very valuable tool for getting things done. Not every legislator goes to Sacramento with the intent of understanding power and how to attain and direct it. Many representatives go to the Legislature with their own specialties and singular goals for what they wish to accomplish, and so they're not really part of the inner workings of the system. Those who are realize quickly that it's rather easy to accomplish one's goal in the legislative process.
But therein lies a problem. Without the historical knowledge necessary to navigate the process and the structures, it can be very difficult to accomplish things. Now, with term limits, each member that comes in has to accumulate as much historical knowledge as possible very, very fast. Then they have to accumulate the negotiation skills and other tools. It's a huge disadvantage for the constituents.
PT: How is that manifest in the policies that come out of the Legislature though?
Horton: Well, many of the problems facing California are long-term problems, and over the past eight years, we've been putting band-aids on cancer. That's not to say that people aren't trying. Some of these people in the Assembly are the most committed, energetic people you'd ever meet, but it's a systemic problem.
When I came into office, the class was far more academic and policy oriented. Probably about 80-85% of my time was spent on policy. But as the turnover in the legislature increased, you could see that the new members coming in spent more and more time on politics than policy. The amount of time that each new class spends on politics has increased to the point that we've become more of a political body than a policy-making institution. The process is therefore far less deliberative. Many of the most complex issues may get a hearing lasting an hour, and in others, they're lucky if they get 5-10 minutes.
PT: You talked about the challenge of trying to transfer knowledge to your successor. What kinds of things do you do to make sure the knowledge and resources are passed down effectively?
Horton: I was fortunate because I identified a candidate that I would support for my seat six years ago. So, over the past two years, I began to familiarize him with the office, the process and the challenges of the district. We meet periodically to talk about the transition and how the different needs of the district should be addressed. When I came into the office, it was empty and I had to start from scratch. My goal is to transfer as much as possible to the Assemblyman-elect so that he can focus on developing his own style and his own methods.
PT: Do you approach the job differently in your last term?
Horton: I don't think I've changed myself, but near the end I kind of got frustrated with the dysfunctionality of the process. I took it upon myself to try to send as much legislation back to the committee that I could from the floor. I was a little more aggressive on the floor in that way than I was in the past. Statistically, I probably voted "no" more in my last term than I did previously. If things were flawed, I knew I wouldn't see them again so I just tried to kill them.
PT: Assemblyman, thank you for your time.
Assemblyman Jerome E. Horton represents California's 51st Assembly District. He chairs the Governmental Organization Committee and also serves on the committees for banking and finance, utilities and commerce, and arts, entertainment, sports, tourism and Internet media.