Governors, legislators and other political figures cycle through the state Capitol constantly, but behind that constant turnover lies a more or less permanent cadre of men and women who provide vital continuity.
Senior bureaucrats and legislative staffers and veteran lobbyists for thousands of interest groups are the custodians of institutional knowledge. While politicians preen and plot their next career moves, they do the real work of drafting legislation and administrative regulations, ironing out conflicts – if they can – and setting the stage for public unveilings by their bosses.
By happenstance, two of the longest-serving members of the cadre died last week within hours of each other. Their passing represents, in a sense, the end of an era when Capitol politics were less about ideological dog whistles and more about camaraderie and practicality.
Allan Zaremberg, who headed the California Chamber of Commerce for 23 years, and Rex Hime, who represented the California Business Properties Association for 37 years, both stepped down in 2021, but enjoyed only a few months of retirement before succumbing to ill health.
Both men began their political careers as Republican political aides in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the two political parties were virtually tied in terms of political clout.
Zaremberg was an attorney in the Department of Justice when his boss, George Deukmejian, was elected governor in 1982. He joined the new administration and became one of its legislative liaisons, and continued in that role for Deukmejian’s successor, Pete Wilson, before he moved to the Chamber of Commerce about 30 years ago. Zaremberg took over as president and CEO in 1998.
Hime, also a lawyer, worked in Ronald Reagan’s administration before becoming a top aide to Mike Curb after his election as lieutenant governor in 1978. He also had been a senior legislative staffer before joining the California Business Properties Association – the political arm of the commercial real estate industry – in the mid-1980s.
When the two shifted from being political staffers into lobbying for business interests, they could rely on their Republican connections, particularly in the governor’s suite, to help them protect their clients’ interests. During the last two decades of their careers, however, the GOP’s clout nosedived into irrelevance while Democrats became dominant, making their jobs infinitely more difficult.
They were forced into defensive mode, fending off efforts by their ideological rivals to enact laws and regulations that business considered to be burdensome or injurious. But both largely succeeded. They picked their fights carefully, cultivated pro-business Democrats and, most of all, maintained their own credibility as honest brokers for the interests they represented.
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One of Zaremberg’s most effective tools was the chamber’s annual list of “job killer” bills the business community considered onerous, a tactic initiated by his predecessor as CEO, Kirk West. In the quarter-century since it began, roughly 90% of the bills receiving the epithet either died in the Legislature, usually without formal votes, were amended enough to escape the list, or were vetoed by governors.
Both men also took leading rolls in bipartisan campaigns for statewide ballot measures.
Hime, who served a stint on the University of California’s Board of Regents, was a leading figure in promoting several bond issues for school and college construction.
Zaremberg and the chamber were major players in passing Senate Bill 1, a 2017 gas tax increase to fix deteriorating roads and highways – that most prominent Republicans opposed – and in gaining voter approval when the measure was challenged via a 2018 ballot measure.
Since their deaths, Zaremberg and Hime have been widely praised as nice guys who pursued their clients’ interests with good humor and credibility. The plaudits are richly deserved.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to Commentary.