Former Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson once referred to Sacramento as a "cowtown," but Gloria Romero, a pro-labor Democrat who served as California's Senate majority leader from 2001 to 2008, takes exception to the belittling description. The capitol building in Sacramento, she says, has "the eighth most powerful economy in the world under that dome," and it operates not unlike other wealthy kleptocracies. "There's no other way to say it politely. It's owned."
Topping the list of proprietors is the California Teachers Association, which she calls the most muscular union and political player in the state. Then there are the unions for nurses, prison guards, firefighters and police. Call them California's "deep state."
Ms. Romero now heads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a large tent of liberals who are as diverse as an Occupy encampment but united by a common desire to improve accountability in public schools. The group supports Democratic school reformers running for political office and promotes legislation that toughens standards.
But before taking up her current charge, Ms. Romero served a dozen years in the legislature, where she was known for trying to clean up the capital's cronyism and corruption.
It wasn't exactly glamorous work, but it was eye-opening. "I've sat in all of those backroom meetings," she says. "That thing, if walls could talk, well think of me as a wall, and I'm talking. I've had it."
And talk she does, reflecting on how public unions have run (and overrun) the statehouse and how disgruntled, reform-hungry citizens like herself can take it back. She has the tired but invigorated look of an activist who never sleeps more than a few hours at a time before leaping back into the fray. The deck is stacked against her, she knows, but she's got a record of beating the odds.
One of six children, Ms. Romero grew up "on the other side of the tracks, literally," in the Mojave desert town of Barstow. Her father worked in the railroad yards and thought "every politician was a crook." Her mother, who left school after sixth grade, stayed home and raised the kids.
Few students in her high school went on to college, but Ms. Romero enrolled at Barstow Community College and later transferred to California State University, Long Beach. She went on to earn a doctorate in psychology from the University of California, Riverside, and to become a professor at Cal State, Los Angeles. Her interest in civil rights and social justice motivated her in 1998 to run for assembly in East Los Angeles, where she developed a reputation as a labor and community advocate.
In 2001, she won a special election to replace state Sen. Hilda Solis, who had been elected to Congress in 2000. On Ms. Romero's first day in office, she was placed on the prison-reform committee, "which nobody wants," but "I take it seriously. I visit virtually every prison in California. You go there and then you start looking at the numbers. Seventy percent of inmates do not have a high school diploma." Education, she says, "is a civil-rights issue. If we don't educate, we incarcerate."
But more inmates means more jobs for prison guards. Hence, she says, Democrats opposed many sentencing and rehabilitation reforms because they would reduce the prison population. When she held oversight hearings on warden contracts, her brethren didn't blush at the state paying guards $1,500 extra for getting annual physicals, regardless of what shape they were in. Seriously, she asks, "should you get over-pay just because you breathe?"
Although elected by her Democratic colleagues as Senate majority leader soon after taking office, she wasn't in the best position to advance reforms. Most power in the legislature resides with committee heads. So in 2008 she stepped down as majority leader to spend her last two years in the Senate (she was term-limited in 2010) as chairman of the Education Committee, pushing reforms to increase teacher and school accountability.
That's when she discovered the real kings of Sacramento. California Teachers Association officials "walk around like they're God." She recalls knocking on Democratic doors trying to line up votes. "They always wanted to know where's CTA," because that's "their sugar daddy."
"I remember sitting in Democratic caucus" and hearing lawmakers call the unions "our allies, our friends and allies," she says. "And I thought, the NAACP is never included." Grass-roots school-reform groups were also "never included. Our 'allies' are SEIU, CTA, the California school employees."
As it happens, Ms. Romero's downtown Los Angeles office where we meet is located at the vertex of what she calls "the Bermuda Triangle." On the first floor of the building is a "rubber room" where tenured lemons await reassignment. Next to it is a Service Employees International Union office, and down the street is the L.A. Unified School District office.
Ms. Romero credits the CTA for its savvy and chutzpah. The union has killed or hijacked nearly every reform bill that has popped up in the legislature. In 2010 it even sank a bill to let high school teachers volunteer to be evaluated by students. "Nobody would see [the evaluation] except the teacher, and CTA fought it tooth and nail. They really were of the opinion that 'we run the place.' . . . Their basic argument was that it's the nose underneath the camel's tent. So you can't do anything, because once you do something," the lid on reform is "lifted. So they just kill it."
This year the unions torpedoed a bill (introduced by Democratic State Sen. Alex Padilla) that would have made it easier for districts to fire teachers who molest students. Same for legislation to strip pensions from teachers who have sexual relationships with students. The unions claimed the bills infringe on due process and First Amendment rights.
Ms. Romero did manage to get "one past them and it was a big one." In 2010, her last year in the Senate, she wrote the nation's first "parent trigger" law allowing parents to take over underperforming schools and transform them by gathering a majority of parent signatures.
Republican Minority Leader Bob Huff agreed to bring along GOP members, so she needed to round up only five Democrats. Ms. Romero enlisted Senate President Darrell Steinberg, whom she had mentored, to help her. They locked down the Senate in the dead of night to pass the bill.
The unions exacted revenge by bulldozing Ms. Romero's bid for state superintendent of schools later that year. They ran ads calling her a"dangerous" tool of "wealthy charter school advocates" and bankrolled her opponent, the reliably antireform Democrat Tom Torlakson. He won.
And the unions continue to fight furiously against the trigger law's implementation. Union members intimidated parents who attempted to take over McKinley Elementary in Compton two years ago, demanding that the parents bring photo IDs to the school; some of the parents were illegal immigrants.
Such blunt-force tactics are no worse than those Ms. Romero saw in the legislature. When she ran bills on law enforcement and prisons that dealt with officers' disciplinary records and falsification of evidence, the unions "would stack the rooms with officers in full uniform. It's all part of the intimidation. They're all looking at you."
As for the nurses union, well,"everybody loves nurses. But if you go to Sacramento, you see a whole different side." Ms. Romero recalls partnering with Mr. Huff on a bill to let non-nurses administer the drug Diastat to epileptic children experiencing seizures. The nurses tried to euthanize the bill, she says, because they "wanted to insist that every school have a nurse."
"They'd rather see a little kid go into a coma possibly, wriggle on the floor," she says. "Nobody can help. Just call 911. It's heartless." Fundamentally, "it was a jobs issue" to the nurses union. "Everything is a jobs issue, and more than that, it is a membership issue, and more than that it is a dues issue. Pure and simple. How do you grow dues?"
Unlike nonprofits, political parties, corporations and Super PACs, unions don't need to raise money since they can finance their political activities through automatic payroll deductions. Consider: There are more than 300,000 California Teachers Association members, and each pays about $170 annually in non-agency fees. That works out to about $50 million each year to throw around—and that's just the teachers.
Ms. Romero believes the only way to bring down the public unions—and "they will be brought down, they must be brought down"—is to go after "what feeds the beast." In other words: payroll deductions.
Ms. Romero has thrown her support behind a ballot initiative this fall (Prop. 32) that would bar unions from withholding money from worker paychecks to finance political activities. Unions could still deduct agency-shop fees, which go strictly toward collective bargaining and administrative expenses, but they'd have to ask their members to contribute to the unions' political action committees—just like any other political-advocacy group.
"If we don't deal with how the beast is fed, and what maintains that, and what gives it status and opportunity to run roughshod over the educational lives and futures of six million kids in California, then shame on us," she says. "It's do or die. And I've talked to a lot of Democrats," many of whom have been supportive in private. But "they are just afraid to come out" publicly for it.
Unions spent $90 million to defeat similar payroll-deduction measures in 1998 and 2005, and they have already put up more than $24 million to sink this year's initiative. They're now running radio ads speciously claiming that the proposition is stuffed with "special exemptions for oil companies and Wall Street and those secret campaign Super PACs" who want to silence "working Californians." But it's telling, as Ms. Romero notes, that the ads don't mention unions.
Supporters such as Stanford physicist Charles Munger Jr. and former Secretary of State George Shultz have raised a mere $4 million to back the initiative, but Ms. Romero is confident that it will pass simply because "it is a sensible measure." The initiative has dropped 10 points in a Pepperdine University poll since unions began blasting ads a few weeks ago, although it's still ahead by 24.
"If you keep putting more money into the same system, we're going to keep getting the same result. And that's the definition of insanity. Nothing ever changes," she laments. "I do think, honestly, out of crisis comes opportunity. And with education you almost have to reach bottom before you can pick up."
Perhaps the only way California voters can save their state is to cut up unions' and lawmakers' credit cards this fall. Ms. Romero is sharpening the scissors.