Portantino Reflects on His First Year in the California Assembly

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Anthony Portantino with daughter Bella

In May 2006, the Northeast Democratic Club endorsed Anthony Portantino as its choice for the 44th Assembly District seat being vacated by Carol Liu, who had termed out. In the June 2006 primary, Portantino was selected as the Democratic Party candidate in the general election, and in the November 2006 general election, he captured 58.3% of the vote to win his seat.

It’s been 10 months since Assemblymember Portantino was sworn in. Anyone in the 44th A.D. who is politically active has seen Anthony Portantino at countless events. Known for his boundless energy and easy accessibility, Portantino seems to be everywhere, all the time. Ever the family man, his wife Ellen and daughters Sofia and Bella Rose often accompany him as he goes out into the community. We caught up with Anthony for a telephone interview on Friday, October 5.

Portantino is easy to talk to and almost makes us forget we are interviewing him. Yes, we like this man. But what is more important is that we know he will be honest with us and we can be honest with him. We began by asking Anthony what has been most rewarding during his first Assembly session. He told us that he had campaigned heavily on the importance of education, so when he was selected to chair the education committee, he was honored. In that role, he has authored several pieces of legislation. One measure, a bill co-authored by Assemblymember Karen Bass, has gotten a lot of attention in the press.

February 2007, after one month in office, Portantino introduced ACR21, which establishes academic partnerships between Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the University of California. Under this measure, the University of California would be strongly urged to participate in a student exchange program or other forms of academic partnership with one or more of the institutions classified as HBCUs, which include Howard, Spellman, Hampton, Tuskegee, Morehouse, and Grambling State. The partnerships would let students from the University of California benefit from a period of study at an HBCU and vice versa.

Anthony then recounted the story of his neighbor’s two-year-old son, who had leukemia and needed a treatment that required the use of stem cells, which could be harvested from umbilical cord blood. At the time, Anthony and his wife were expecting a child. When the Portantinos’ child was born, they sought to donate the umbilical cord to the blood bank. Anthony was dismayed to discover that donating umbilical cord blood was not an easy undertaking. Numerous obstacles made it difficult and costly to the donor. Although the Portantinos managed to jump through the requisite hoops and donate the blood, the experience stayed with Portantino.

So, when he won his seat in November 2006, the first two pieces of legislation he authored were AB34 and AB40. Introduced on December 4 last year, AB34, will require the State Department of Health to identify five hospitals, in ethnically diverse areas, as voluntary participants to collect umbilical cord blood, with the patient’s consent, for donation. “Today, 97% of umbilical cords are disposed of while the stem cells contained in those discarded umbilical cords could be used to treat at least 70 disorders affecting the blood and immune system, including leukemia, thalassemia, and sickle cell anemia,” according to Portantino, who proposes that this measure be funded through a combination of private, state, and federal sources. The collection program would “simplify and expand California’s opportunity to collect this important source of stem cells.”

In parallel, AB40 establishes an umbilical cord blood banking advisory council that would make recommendations to the Legislature on how to accomplish goals benefiting the public relative to umbilical cord blood supplies, such as increasing the amount of umbilical cord blood donated for public use.

Many of the constituents of the 44th A.D. who are members of the Northeast Democratic Club express their appreciation for the work Portantino does in Sacramento. Some have even commented that the Assemblyman never appears to experience frustration, but he admitted that he has encountered some blockades and frustrations. He pointed to the recent revelation of the California State University executive pay hikes. In an effort to thwart the kind of sweetheart deals reported in the past few weeks in the Los Angeles Times, Portantino wrote AB1413, designed to shine light on the decision-making process that is currently conducted behind closed doors. AB1413 would have required all meetings of the UC regents and CSU trustees be held in public. This piece of legislation only needed the Governor’s signature. When we interviewed Portantino, the governor had been out of the country and had not reviewed the bills awaiting his decision. Unfortunately, this past Friday, Schwarzenegger vetoed this bill.

In addition to chairing the Committee on Higher Education, Portantino is a member of the committees on Governmental Organization, Public Safety, and Transportation, and serves on the select committees on Community Colleges and on Foster Care. When asked about the Select Committee on Foster Care, he steered the conversation toward the tremendous impact 47th A.D. Assemblymember Karen Bass is having in this arena as committee chair. Selected by Speaker Fabian Nunez as the Majority Floor Leader, Bass is the first African-American and the first woman to hold this position, and has made foster care one of her top priorities. As a member of Bass’s committee, Portantino authored AB497, which would ensure that special education services are provided for seriously emotionally disturbed youth in the child welfare system and that nonpublic, nonsectarian schools providing educational services to these pupils obtain full reimbursement for the cost of these services.

Anthony talked with us more than an hour. We asked lots of questions and he answered them all. We learned that he has authored more than 25 pieces of legislation since being sworn in, covering a broad range of topics, from umbilical cord blood banking to postsecondary education, to fire protection. One of his pieces of legislation would make the Community College system more easily accessible to high school students and enable them to gain advanced placement (AP) credit, which would be especially advantageous to students attending high schools where there is a shortage of AP classes. But one thing rang true during the entire interview and that is that Anthony Portantino is a public servant—with the emphasis on service.

During one point in the interview, as we were probing Anthony on his position on single-payer healthcare, he warned us that we wouldn’t like his position. He said that he favors a “phased-in” approach, the approach reflected in AB8, the healthcare measure authored by Fabian Nunez. Portantino felt that a more aggressive approach would produce a veto from the governor and result in more than 800,000 children continuing to live without healthcare coverage. His decision to support what he felt had a better chance of being enacted is one of the reasons he was elected. We applaud Anthony Portantino for the work he has done during this first year.

We asked if he had any regrets and he told us that he does regret having to spend so much time away from his family. But the upside is that Sofia consults him more now when she needs help with social studies homework.

It was a pleasure interviewing Anthony. We look forward to doing it again next year.

Dick and Sharon–

Dick Price and Sharon Kyle are the editor and publisher of the LA Progressive. Together, as a husband and wife team, they publish several print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. Dick and Sharon have a blended family of four children– Wade, Deva, Raheem, and Linnea — and three children-in-law — Dan, Kelli and Yoko

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