Assembly Member Parra a pariah in struggle over state budget

Hanford Democrat is cast out of her Capitol office for withholding vote.

August 18, 2008 

SACRAMENTO -- Hanford Democrat Nicole Parra was booted from her Assembly office Monday, a punishment for bucking her party on Sunday night's budget vote.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass sent Parra packing not to smaller Capitol digs -- the usual reprimand for rebellious members -- but out of the building entirely. Parra landed across the street in a legislative office building where no other lawmakers are quartered.

Parra has vowed to not vote for the state budget unless lawmakers also agree to put a water bond on the November ballot -- a priority of the farmers in her district who have long pushed for new dams.

On Sunday she kept her pledge and was the only Democrat present who abstained on a Democratic budget proposal that was never expected to pass. The budget bill requires a super majority and failed because no Republicans voted yes.

Hours later, on Monday morning, Parra's staff was already packing up.

"I knew that I would be punished some way, somehow," Parra said. But she said Valley residents should be "disgusted" at the way she was punished.

"I represent the same amount of people the speaker represents," she said. "Why should my constituents, because I'm fighting for them, not have access to me in my office in the Capitol building?"

Parra also said leaders have refused to put her bills up for a vote.

Bass, D-Los Angeles, declined to comment, calling Parra's move an "internal caucus matter." Other Democrats said Parra was taking the state "hostage" with her water demand.

"It's outrageous that any member, Democrat or Republican, of this Legislature, would force the children and the elderly and the disabled people of California to continue to suffer without a budget because of the narrow interests of their own district," said Assembly Member Paul Krekorian, D-Burbank.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has been pushing a $9.3 billion bond for water supply and conservation. But water talks have taken a back seat to the budget, now 50 days late. Without Parra's vote, it will take seven, not six, Assembly GOP votes to pass a budget, assuming all other Democrats vote yes.

Parra's water demand is her latest run-in with the Democratic establishment.

She has angered many in her party by openly praising Republican Danny Gilmore, a candidate to fill Parra's Assembly seat when she terms out at the end of the year. She conveyed her water demand to Bass in a letter in late July and reasserted it publicly at a recent Capitol water rally.

Parra won three Assembly elections by appealing to Republicans in the South Valley district, one of the few districts in the state where one party does not dominate.

But Parra has also relied on campaign contributions from the California Democratic Party and other Democratic lawmakers -- a fact that her colleagues aren't letting her forget.

"We have spent millions of dollars ensuring that Nicole comes back three times in a row," said Assembly Member Patty Berg, D-Eureka.

"The way it's done here is that if you are in the majority party, and you are a Democrat, you vote on the budget."

It's not unprecedented for leaders to move members to smaller offices to assert their will. But the last time a lawmaker ended up across the street was nearly 30 years ago when then-Democratic Assembly Member Walter Ingalls of Riverside left the Capitol building, according to Assembly Chief Administrative Officer Jon Waldie.

Two years ago Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, got into trouble with leaders when he did not vote on a public works bond package because it did not include money for dams. Then-speaker Fabian Núñez sent Arambula packing into the smallest office in the Capitol, known as the "doghouse."

Arambula declined to comment on Parra's situation but said water and budget talks should not be linked.

Indeed, it seemed the only lawmakers coming to Parra's defense were Republicans.

Assembly Member Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, who currently resides in the doghouse, said Bass is "beyond frustrated on the budget" and "is trying to exert her influence and power in a way that I think makes her look, actually, out of control."

The reporter can be reached at eschultz@fresnobee.com or (916) 326-5541.

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