Q&A with Robert Hertzberg

After a long and successful political career, including years as the speaker of the California Assembly, Robert Hertzberg reflects on having settled into his law practice.

Published in 2009 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Kaplan on January 21, 2009


Super Lawyers: Do you miss the energy of running for political office?

Robert Hertzberg: I continue to have as intense a life as I did when I was running for office, and although it can be exhausting, it is also exhilarating. I fundamentally enjoy meeting and learning from people every day, so in that regard I do not miss it at all.


Do you miss the power you had when you were speaker?

Yes, absolutely. If I had an idea, I could get it done—no questions. It was nothing less than an incredible experience. I read the details of thousands of bills and quietly amended them to reflect values and ideas that I thought were important to California. I affected the budgets of countless programs across the state. No press conferences, just the basic meat and potatoes of good public policy making. It was as good as it gets!


What do you consider your political legacy? The bill you passed that made you the proudest?

Bipartisanship. At every level, bipartisanship. On a substantive level, and with better than a two-thirds vote, breaking the 16-year deadlock that crafted the way to build over $60 billion of new schools and desperately needed school repairs in California, the largest school construction project in our nation’s history. In addition, creating a new funding formula for community colleges, what I call the “classrooms of the new economy” because most folks go back to school to get the necessary education for new and better jobs. And lastly, the creation of the Capitol Institute (now renamed the Robert M. Hertzberg Capitol Institute), which trains all new members in a rigorous course as well as all staff of the legislature. This is not just a necessity in times of term limits but is critical as government becomes more complex and continuing education is required, just as in all important professions. It was also nice to have budgets on time, and to be unanimously elected by a bipartisan voice vote, the first in many years.


Have you ever wanted to run again for mayor of Los Angeles, an office you almost won? Or, for that matter, any political office?

Yes. I really don’t know if I will run for office again, but I won’t rule it out. After more than 35 years of being deeply involved in Los Angeles and California public policy, I still have an extraordinary passion for working on solving big problems in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner. Public policy and problem solving is part of my DNA, but with my years of experience and deep relationships, I have found that I don’t need to hold elected office to have an important impact on the direction of public policy.


You were a community activist, so what do you think of the Palin/Republican initiative to degrade the work of community activists?

Well, I don’t think it was an initiative—it was a quip by a “too cute by half” speechwriter looking to support a maverick image for their candidate. I don’t read much into it—you can’t sweat the small stuff. Community activists are a special breed of people who are critical links between folks without resources on the one hand, and government and NGOs on the other hand, without whom underserved communities would be even more underserved. They do God’s work and are heroes.


Long before the interest in the environment, you were both writing and working to protect the environment. How do you think we’re doing on that front? What important environmental step remains for California?

Not good. I always like to ask environmentalists, “How many pounds of carbon have been reduced from the atmosphere TODAY because of your efforts?” I am just so tired of the self-righteous folks who are more interested in being right than fixing a problem. Sure, there are lots of bad actors in the business community—just look at the current world economic crisis—but we need their money to fund the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy/conservation/energy-efficient economy. I would move away from the consumer-based subsidies that require companies to hire lobbyists every year to maintain them, and move toward extreme incentives to investors to put up billions and billions of dollars to commercialize the thousands of wonderful renewable energy ideas that are just sitting there waiting for commercialization. That way, we are spending money on engineers and folks to build companies and really jump-starting the transition.


How is your solar business going?

Pure and simple, it is the most difficult challenge I have ever faced. Our firm is manufacturing a brand-new type of solar cell in Cardiff, Wales, then taking the rolls of flexible cells to Asia to develop it into various products. We then sell into Africa, India and China to help those countries leapfrog the extensive “built environment” by using renewable energy as their first energy source after fire. In this chaotic world where so many are racing to be green, we are working toward defining what a new green company looks like: we don’t have subsidies, are building a wind turbine to power our solar plant, thus making renewable from renewable, feed our employees from vegetables grown on-site and are planning a renewable learning center for community folks to learn about this important need. It is exhausting.


How does your legal work differ from the political work you did in your last life? What joys does your law work bring you that political work could never match? And what do you most enjoy about being a lawyer?

Mayer Brown has an incredible government practice group, which allows me to do the kind of sophisticated and interdisciplinary law work that was, in many ways, similar to the policy work I did as speaker of California. And I don’t bill by the hour—no timesheets! So I don’t have to perform the ceremonial stuff, don’t rush in on many of the day-to-day crises that dominate an elected official’s life, but I am often called in by policy makers to advise on large issues facing us, and I am particularly interested in the issues around climate change. After I left government, I was blessed with many options, but I chose to base myself in a law firm because it is the only place where one has the opportunity to work on so many different issues. I love learning about a variety of issues and I love the law.


You worked for President Jimmy Carter. Can you tell us something about him, or an interesting story, that we might not know?

Every day when President Carter is at his office at the Carter Center in Atlanta, he goes out to the curb to meet his wife as her car pulls up, opens her car door and escorts her to her office. He is the most incredible husband and gentleman one could ever meet.


What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

On the wall in my law office, and on the wall when I was speaker of the Assembly there hangs a plaque: “Problems are Nothing More than Opportunities in Working Clothes” (quote by Alexander Graham Bell).

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