Bob Hertzberg on Political Lessons for the Next Generation of Leaders


In this exclusive interview with VX News, former CA Senate Majority Leader and former Speaker of the State Assembly, Bob Hertzberg lays out five pieces of advice that he has learned throughout his impressive political career for a future generation of decision-makers, based on some of the most important impacts he has made during his career. Additionally, Hertzberg shares his concerns on the evolution and dissipation of local newspapers and how to continue to convene power for good in spite of it.

In a recent TPR excerpt of Zev Yaroslavsky’ new book, Zev's Los Angeles: From Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power. A Political Memoir, the local leader explores his motivations in writing it, where different stories offer “…lessons about how to use power, how to make government listen to the people it serves, and how to bring about change…” You’ve been involved in politics and government for a similar amount of time. Share with our readers some of the lessons you’ve learned throughout your career and from where you’ve derived them.

Bob Hertzberg: You know, I am inspired by and completely agree with supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky when he lays out his “…lessons about how to use power, how to make government listen to the people it serves, and how to bring about change.”

I want to add to his inspiration with a couple of thoughts that I had with respect to a few big issues that I worked on over the years. Here are a few examples: 1. initiative reform, 2. redistricting, 3. Plastics recycling, 4. education funding,  5. the Orange Line, and 6. privacy.  Each is helpful to inform the message I want to share with you in this interview.

I started in politics about the same time Zev did. I took a different path. When he was at UCLA, he was an extraordinary advocate for Soviet refuseniks; when I was at UCLA a few years later, I was organizing political  campaigns locally. At that time, I felt  my value was to help others get elected.  Honestly, in those early days, I was not interested in elected office for myself. I didn't run for office until some 22 years later, when I got so frustrated with the fact that I saw so many candidates who I worked hard for just bought into the system and made decisions almost exclusively focused on re-election.  

In this interview, I want to share some thoughts that support Zev’s lessons about how to use power, how to make government listen to the people it serves, and how to bring about change.

1. Respect and Trust:  One of the great challenges in politics is that so often we think we're right. We don't want to listen to the other side. I'm not suggesting we agree with them or compromise our values. We have different constituencies, and I couldn't get elected in a lot of areas of California where other people do. They do what it takes to get elected and represent the voters in their community. I think that listening deeply and trying to walk in their shoes is critically important. It shows respect and builds trust. Don’t look down your nose at those who don’t always agree with you. Ask questions and listen as much as you talk.

How does that manifest for me? When I ran for speaker, I got elected unanimously because I didn't punk the Republicans.   I made sure they had decent offices. I made sure when they had small minor requests we said, okay. I didn’t vote for them, but I built respect. I tried to listen to what they had to say and build those relationships. A consequence of that was getting their support for school funding that was desperately needed. For 16 years the legislature tried to pass funding for schools and they weren't able to get Republican support. I was able to get two-thirds support when the legislature was a small majority of Democrats.  As Zev wrote: “ you are not going to get things done unless you build coalitions to get things done.”

2.Be a Possiblist:

Zev mentions a quote in his book from his  incredible wife Barbara Yaroslavsky. She said, “A pessimist has no motor; an optimist has no brakes.” Correct. I would like to offer a friendly amendment to that by virtue of my experience. I take inspiration both from Jackie Kennedy and John Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy called her husband a “possiblist”: an idealist without illusion. Kennedy talked about compromise. Never compromise your values, but often compromise your position in order to respect the other side to get things done. At the end of the day, as I mentioned,  Zev talked about change through coalition building. I'm a possibilist.  A few years back, Alastair MacTaggart put an initiative on the ballot regarding consumer privacy. It had serious problems, and our senate leadership came to me to see if we could get it off the ballot. It seemed impossible. My chief of staff was upset that we were putting so much time in trying to get the measure off the ballot.  At the last minute we were able get the flawed privacy initiative off the ballot and pass the replacement:  California Consumer Privacy Act, the nation’s strongest privacy law.  We were possibilists.

3.Never Give Up:

Every effort at solving a big problem dies at least five times before it yields a positive result. Everybody takes their positions and goes to their corners. If you think it's dead, never give up – keep pushing. Find new way to keep the dialog going if you have the drive and determination.  Last year we passed Ben Allen’s Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act. The bill had been on the table for four years. The plastics industry had $30 million behind a qualified initiative. With incredible staff, Ben Allen and his team, Luz Rivas, Chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, and I got it done.  I was in the middle of a campaign for Supervisor and instead of focusing on my campaign during the month of June, I worked around the clock – 7 days a week – pushing and pushing with the team to pass this important environmental policy – it would not have happened had we not taken a “never give up” approach.

4. Do Not Delegate the Important Stuff:

So often, as elected officials we rely on staff for so much of our work. And in most instances—that works well. But for the big stuff, the most critical lesson is that everything is personal.  You have to negotiate yourself—you have to meet with all the parties yourself; you can’t delegate. Zev, Supervisor Burke, Mayor Riordan and I traveled to Brazil to look at ideas for a transportation system in the Valley. We went ourselves. When we returned, Zev came by my house in his Jeep, alone with no staff, and together we drove the entire route to personally witness the obstacles and how the system could be installed. We did not look at staff generated maps or read reports; we engaged personally. So, when we were able to secure the funding, as Zev mentions in his book, we both were hands-on to actually get the Orange Line built in the Valley – a system that had nearly three times the ridership that was predicted.

5. Solving the Problem People Don’t Know They Have:

 Zev says in his book when he wrote and advocated for  Measure U, people didn't have zoning on top of mind. What Zev understood was the frustration neighborhoods were experiencing and thought about how to provide a vision for the city.  In my own experience, I believe in an activist government – but to do that, voters need confidence in government.  I worked for nearly 20 years on initiative reform – the ability for proponents to pull flawed initiatives of the ballot. Voters get so upset when they have to wrestle with a long ballot –“Why don’t the politicians handle this issue?”  Long ballots undermine confidence in government.  So now we have the ability to remove measures from the ballot – we have more manageable ballots.  I worked with Common Cause, California Calls, the Think Long Committee, and Senator Steinberg to fix the Law. We convened a nearly 18-month process to bring people together and draft legislation that would make the initiative process better.  So far, we have been able to remove a number of flawed measures from the ballot to both make better public policy and make an easier ballot for voters to digest.

 Another area of public policy which has deeply undermined confidence in government is legislative redistricting.  Voters are often frustrated with politicians because they think their self-dealing in drawing legislative districts that make sure they are re-elected – voters be damned!  Governor Schwarzenegger and I strongly supported a citizen redistricting commission.  When I was running for the Assembly, Republicans were in the majority. Now my party has  supermajorities in both legislative chambers and there is no political blowback because the legislative districts have been drawn by independent commissioners. Indeed, there are other challenges—that is for certain—but a corrupt gerrymandered system is not the reason.

The result is that we have been able to pass groundbreaking environmental legislation, expand funding for education, and many new consumer and criminal justice laws that never would have passed if an independent redistricting commission was not in place. We would be like the US Congress where the impact of gerrymandering is horrible.

As I conclude, I do understand that things change from generation to generation, and all of us need to find our own path. But I think there is value in Zev’s experience and the ideas I have shared in this interview.  I have a framed quote on my wall that states:

 “One cannot live beyond the grave. Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on. It must pass on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the race does not inflict its errors too richly on its youth.” Here's the important point: "…but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.” We think that our age means that we're wise, but you need to have that context and respect to understand that it's not always wisdom.

That was beautiful. Thank you.

Share your thoughts on the transformation of journalism and its impact on democracy:

This  quote is from the Bully Pulpit, which is this great book on Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft at the Golden Age of journalism. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about certain journalists who went to Europe, on page 329: “In response to this stunning increase in nervous disorders diagnosed around the turn of the century, commentators and clinicians cited the number of factors relating to the stress of modern civilization, the increased speed of communication facility, the telegraph, and the railroad. The unmelodious clamor of city life replacing the rhythmic sound of nature and the rise of the tabloid press that has exploited ‘local horrors’. These nervous diseases became an epidemic among the ultra-competitive businessman and the socially active women.”

Here we are in a very different time in history with extraordinary stressors and pressures to make instantaneous decisions. When I was initially elected, there was no such thing as an iPhone, no social media, no texting. This new dynamic informed by technology and social media and soon to be AI has fundamentally changed journalism. There is extraordinary economic pressure on every type of media outlet to focus less on the homework of investigative journalism and checking sources, staffing in newsrooms in thinning out (the foundation of real journalism) and more pressure to move fast – fact checking be damned— and to generate fantastic headlines that will generate “clicks”. Some real reporters have told me that their salary is based on how many clicks their story receives.  So, it impacts democracy because it is completely counter to the kind of deliberation and working together that we need to get things done – collaboration, as Zev mentions.  All of this creates an extraordinary force for fragmentation  not democracy–at its core.

Government is trying to solve problems. We that are problem solvers are always trying to fix something. It goes to the point of what Zev said, “change, change, change.” You don't have change when you stand on the soapbox and scream from the top of your lungs. You get change when you bring people in the room, you show respect. Don't compromise your values, but come up with something that serves, as Zev talked about, the common good and that serves the people that don't have a voice.

Bob, we do this interview a day after the LA Times noted that its ownership sold the San Diego Union-Tribune three weeks after the managing editor noted that they were headed towards full digitalization. What are the changes that are taking place with respect to print media and the newspapers that are common in every jurisdiction in California and the country? What does that change mean for how you do your work as a legislator or as somebody who pulls people together to forge a consensus around issues?

It makes it 100 times harder because journalism was about doing the homework and telling the truth. Today, they get paid by the clicks. Clicks are done by sensational headlines. Sensational headlines are not about getting to the core of it and being true journalists. People can come up immediately and put together these web pages and these Twitter threads together.

I remember when I was working on bots and other bills on technology, we looked at what happened with these shootings in Florida. Some of the various folks that work in the internet would go out and talk on one site talk about gun control, and on the other site talk about gun rights in order to create activity. They got paid for the activity.

It becomes much more difficult when you're a politician and you get 50,000 emails or texts for something; you're intimidated. Interest groups are able to act much more powerfully, and they use these tools to raise money.

I have spent my life working on the issue of climate change and the environment. I took one vote that certain advocates didn't like (and ultimately pulled together the votes with the Governor to solve the problem long term) and certain advocates went crazy online – the necessary process and truth was irrelevant. It is nearly impossible to have an honest conversation. The more the issue is faced with red meat, the more money can be raised online. Social media has a chilling effect on the ability to get things done. Fragmentation is not something that is incentivizing people to stick their neck out and do the work.

Richard Gottlieb, who was Robert Caro’s editor just passed away. There’s a new film called Turn Every Page, about their relationship and process of doing the homework as a journalist and turning every page. What did you learn from the Robert Caro books that informed the way you went about making power?

Joe Edmiston and I are big followers of Robert Moses. We’ve both read the 128-page microfiche of his memo to Governor Smith in 1928. What I learned from Moses and the work that Caro did is two things. I'll start with Moses.

There's a great quote in the Caro book on Moses, where Moses would say, “If I want to solve a problem, I've got to go write the constitutional provision. I've got to write the statute. I’ve got write the regulations. I’ve got to write the press release. I have then got to pull together the votes, and then throw a parade for those that need the credit and tell everyone what great leaders they are.”

If I've seen one thing that concerns me in current times, and again, I have the wisdom to be wrong, but it's just the whole idea about homework. So many people are willing to get the headlines because you can get them online versus the hundreds of hours it takes sitting down round the clock to bring people together to get something done. I don't think I've ever done any of these big things that were important: redistricting, initiative reform, plastics recycling , all these things, if it hasn't been in the middle of the night. It requires extraordinary levels of dedication and energy.  I don’t mean decisions need to be made in the middle of the night – they need sunlight and transparency – but to get to agreement takes that kind of effort.  

If you look at Johnson and his stories in the Caro books, it’s the same kind of thing. Look at what Lyndon Johnson did with the South. It was against his every interest because he thought it was the right thing to do. Look at all the people that he leveraged to fix civil rights and the Voting Rights Act. Caro captures that for all the students of the next generation.

We're living in unbelievable times with unbelievable successes. There are also horrible challenges with respect to the poor and homeless, criminal justice and many other heartbreaking issues. On the flip side, one of the great things about the internet is that access for so many people to engage with and have opportunities to learn in ways they've never learned before.

Drawing from a comment that Connie Rice made in endorsing Zev’s book. She said, “Politicians often avoid risk until they are forced to do the right thing, not Zev.” Talk about when you were challenged to do the right thing and the obvious advantages, politically, of not.

Well, there's advantages of doing the right thing. And there's disadvantages to the right thing. The right thing is doing your job right, which is exactly what Connie Rice says.

With the example on the issue of plastics recycling, I did the right thing to get that agreement done to get the best plastics law with Senator Allen and Chairwoman Rivas. I did it at my own cost. I paid a big price  during the energy crisis as well. People came and protested at my office saying Bailout Bob when I was trying to solve the problem.

I can give you so many examples of these things where you get in trouble, but the flip side of that, to be very frank with you, is that the people that know me know who I am. They know what I'm about. When I ran for Mayor of Los Angeles, I didn’t take a lot of credit on a lot of the education stuff. I had worked on it tremendously and the people that knew that ended up supporting me. I just wasn't running for the headlines all the time. Yes, I lost those races because the public didn't know, but the supporters really knew who got stuff done.

The message to the next generation is the same message in my book, Workin Clothes: don't chase the headlines. It comes back to bite you, the serious person. Do the work and I promise you'll get reelected and you'll have an ability to get things done.

This final question represents both you and Zev in the sense that you have lives after politics. What's the opportunity to exercise that kind of leadership and convening power to forge good public policy out of office?

Well, I think part of it is this interview. I think it's important to send the message because I think your readership are people that are decision makers and people that are in the political realm.

Part of it is I have a lot of conversations with a lot of members. I showed respect and, with the other speakers, went up for the swearing in of the new speaker Robert Rivas. Members call me all the time and I give precisely the same advice that I give you. I put together a book when I left the speakership called Passing the Torch offering my experience to each new Assembly Speaker, if they choose it, to take an institutionalized look at some of the things that I learned to pass on.  I help put together the Capitol Institute in the Assembly to train new members and before I left the Senate, I worked hard on establishing the Senate Academy to help train new members. I see it as my responsibility.

Every time I interview a candidate who is seeking office, I ask two tough questions: 1. If we could pass a magic wand and achieve everything you want to achieve in office, would you still run? I want to test their motivation – is it to get things done or is it just to hold office and receive the perks?  2. I ask, imagine you are in your last week in office, please write an exit memo and tell me what you have accomplished.  I want to see if they really understand what they want to accomplish.  The responses to these two questions have been eye opening. With candidates I talk to, I don't care if they like me, I want them to be excellent at what they do. You’ve got to do the homework and you've got to know what you're about and you’ve got to search your soul. Otherwise, you're just going to be another one of these people that every time the wind blows, you're going to blow in that direction, because your only interest is one thing: just being in public office.

I would suggest that, like Zev, you can take unpopular positions. You can get out there and do the tough stuff and still win. It's a successful model, and  those successful models are built upon the foundations that I just shared with you.

"Never give up...every effort at solving a big problem dies at least five times before it yields a positive result."—Bob Hertzberg