Monday, January 9, 2023
By Sherri Okamoto
He’s Had Three Major Pursuits: Lawyer, Politician, Businessman
Former Senate majority leader and former speaker of the Assembly Robert Hertzberg calls himself a “risk-taker”—and he’s never been one to take the easy path, or paths—in life. “I kind of always divided my life into three separate things,” he says: the law, the community, and business.
After narrowly losing his bid in November for a spot on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Hertzberg says he plans to turn his focus to his business endeavors for a while, but if his history is any indication of his future, California may yet see his candidacy for another role if he sees work that needs to be done.
Hertzberg was born Nov. 19, 1954, the third of five sons of Harrison Hertzberg, a constitutional lawyer, and Antoinette “Bunny” Hertzberg.
The Hertzbergs had moved to Southern California in 1949 to be closer to Harrison Hertzberg’s father, who was receiving treatment for tuberculosis at what is now City of Hope.
Robert Hertzberg spent his childhood in Los Angeles. The family home was in Benedict Canyon.
He took his first steps down the path of his future legal career, and his political career, at Palm Springs High School after the clan moved to the desert. He served as both junior and senior class president.
His First Case
Young Robert filed a small claims suit against a donut shop across the street from the high school when he was 15. Hertzberg asserted a claim for discrimination because the shop wouldn’t let the students inside.
He sought $250 in damages for the aggrieved pupils, who he had sign petitions and called as witnesses. Hertzberg didn’t win because, the judge held, the small claims court didn’t have jurisdiction, but, the future lawyer recalls, “it was a lot of fun.”
Hertzberg enrolled at the University of Redlands, bobbed to Harvard University for summer school, studied for a year at UCLA, forayed to USC, then circled back to Redlands where he graduated magna cum laude in 1976.
His major was in history which he attributes to the influence of his father. As a child, Hertzberg says, all his father “talked about was the Constitution, linking it to history and why it’s so important to the principles of this country.”
Hertzberg’s minor was in English and he wrote a 400-page handbook titled, “A Commonsense Approach to English” while he was still working toward his degree.
Enters Law School
After graduation, Hertzberg enrolled in UC Hasting’s College of Law in San Francisco. He says he chose the school because he already had a job in San Francisco, and the tuition was cheap—something like $500 a semester—and he was paying it himself.
Hertzberg was the only one of his brothers to follow in their father’s footsteps, and that, he says, was the career path he always wanted to take.
He remembers his father repeatedly asking him, “Do you want to be a trial lawyer or a scrivener?” and he would respond: “A trial lawyer.” Hertzberg admits he didn’t know what a scrivener was back then, “but it didn’t sound good.”
During law school, Hertzberg worked on the staff of then-President Jimmy Carter—serving as an advance man and in other capacities—so, he recounts, “I took off a lot and traveled around, and I missed a lot of classes.” Still, he had time to coauthor a manual on real estate law, “California Lis Pendens Practice,” published by the University of California, and helped form an agricultural technology company in Cairo, Egypt.
As a Jewish-American navigating business channels in the Arabic nation, Hertzberg jokes, “I learned more about politics there than I ever learned in California.”
State Bar Membership
He passed the California bar exam the summer after law school, but his swearing-in was delayed because he was travelling with Carter when the president was informed militants in Iran had seized a group of American citizens at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The hostage situation would drag on until 1981, but Hertzberg was able to become a member of the bar in December 1979.
He went into private practice for a few years, briefly partnering with his father (though suing him after the association ended, seeking an accounting, with a settlement being reached with his progenitor’s estate.)
Hertzberg also tried his hand as a restauranter and hotelier, among other business ventures, while working on various campaign efforts in and around Los Angeles.
Hertzberg says he was “the conciliary, the guy behind the scenes helping everybody,” in the political arena, and that was how he liked it. But he saw so many people “turn into mush” and become “owned by the system” after being elected to public office. For these people, all that mattered was “staying in power, and getting reelected,” which frustrated Hertzberg, who wanted to help them form plans to set goals to help their constituents.
Finally, he recalls, “I said forget it, I’m going to go do it myself.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, and then-state Sen. Robert Hertzberg arrive for a news conference held on the campus of Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, on July 22, 2022.
Elected to Assembly
In 1996, he succeeded Assemblywoman Barbara Friedman of the 40th Assembly District. He was reelected in 1998, and in 2000, he was unanimously elected by a voice vote as the 64th speaker of the California Assembly, then unanimously reelected for a second stint.
During his time in the Assembly, Hertzberg noticed that there was a large influx of new members with every new session. That led him to co-found the California Assembly Program for Innovative Training and Orientation for the Legislature, which helped familiarize new lawmakers and their staff members on “how to do a budget, how committees work, all the basic things you need to know.” (He was later to lead a similar effort in the state Senate.)
Hertzberg also helped craft a resolution of a dispute over water rights from the Colorado River, and negotiate a bond deal to be able to improve public schools around the state.
But even when “tackling the toughest and meanest problems that took hundreds of hours,” individual contact remained important to Hertzberg. “Politics, to me, is personal,” he says. “You’ve got to talk to people, to go door-to-door and you’ll really see the human side of politics.”
To be an effective representative for constituents, Hertzberg remarks, “you need to know what’s on their mind, what they worry about, what’s important to them, what makes them tick, so you can provide the appropriate support.”
He says his focus was on “solving the problems people didn’t know they had” as well as what they were focused on—preventative politics—addressing potential issues he perceived.
This practice was something he brought over from his legal career, Hertzberg notes. He recounts:
“I would kill myself trying to win a case for a client and the very next day, the client would come back with the same problem.”
Resumes Law Practice
Hertzberg termed out of office in 2002 and he returned to private practice with Mayer Brown. He also became chair of a group called California Forward that dealt with fiscal policy and participated in the Think Long Committee, a think-tank funded by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, to draft a set of proposals to improve the state’s system of governance.
Hertzberg credits the committee with reigniting his desire to enter politics again. In 2005, he ran for the post of mayor of Los Angeles, coming in third in the primary. In 2014, Hertzberg was elected to the California State Senate.
During his first term, Hertzberg helped pass SB 10, a bail reform measure to benefit unmonied defendants, while retaining in judges discretion to determine if a defendant could, consistent with public safety, be released before a trial.
Money for the courts themselves was also a major issue, as Hertzberg came into the Senate after the judicial branch had suffered years of budget cuts, leading to court closures and layoffs.
“Not a month that went by that I didn’t have a group of judges come by, who wanted to make sure the judicial branch was properly funded,” Hertzberg recalls.
“Judges have no political power, and the judicial branch doesn’t raise money, but democracy only works if the judicial branch is robust and properly funded,” he declares.
As a senator, Hertzberg worked to promote the building of new courthouses and implement pay raises for court reporters. He also helped create a “rainy-day fund” to provide the government budget with less volatility.
“It’s not something that gets you on the front page of the papers,” he notes, “but it helps avoid things like court furloughs because you have the funds to keep things operating.”
Senate Majority Leader
Hertzberg served as Senate majority leader from 2019-22, and he says he was proud of his work in trying to reform the tax system “to have an income side that matched the expense side,” and forming an independent commission to perform redistricting.
He also says he was proud to “work across party lines,” and that he made Democrats and Republicans sit together to “change the culture” and encouraged them to all work together.
Last year, Hertzberg ran for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in light, he says, of his concerns with how the county was spending its budget.
“I wasn’t running because it was a step in my political career,” he maintains. “It was a service move, a duty move.”
It was also a tight race, taking a week after election day for it to be clear that his run-off opponent, Lindsey Horvath had won. She declared, once her victory was clear:
“I want to thank Senator Bob Hertzberg for his incredibly generous and kind phone call, for his commitment to public service, and for engaging in this hard-fought campaign to make Los Angeles a better place.”
Hertzberg says of his bid for county office:
“I’m happy I did it. I’m not a regretful person and I would have been saying ‘I should have, I should have’ if I didn’t run.”
As for what’s next, Hertzberg says he will turn his attention to “the green energy business” and to his law office where, he says, he “will work on complex problems in the intersection of law and public policy.”
He’s also leaving behind words of wisdom for the next generation of lawmakers, having compiled some advice and 30 years of his op-ed pieces into a book he’s calling “Workin Clothes.”
Hertzberg calls on lawmakers to “engage in thinking, in solving problems and don’t worry about winning all the time.”
In politics, “you can’t think you’re going to be a hero overnight,” he says, “and you’re not ever going to do anything big if you think it’s going to be easy.”
Hertzberg acknowledges that “there are incentives that are aligned in such a way you don’t want to take a risk, but the only way to succeed in life is to take a risk, think through ideas, and be bold.”
He references the founding fathers of America and Martin Luther King Jr. as exemplars of those who risked their lives and freedom for causes they believed in.
“There’s risks to heroism, there’s character to stepping up,” Hertzberg comments. “You’re never going to win at everything, and you’re never going to win at anything unless you go and try.”
In this 2018 file photo, Hertzberg, as a state senator, attends a hearing in Sacramento.
Son Loses Election
Hertzberg says he has that message for his younger son, Daniel Hertzberg, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the elder Hertzberg’s Senate seat, losing in the Nov. 8 run-off to Caroline Menjivar.
“He won in the primary and lost in the general,” the proud father says. “But he got in the arena, and that’s the most important thing. You can’t win or lose if you don’t get in the game.”
Hertzberg’s other son, David Hertzberg, is an accomplished musician. Their mother, Hertzberg’s first wife, is Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Karen Moskowitz.
He was wed from 1995–2010 to clinical psychologist CynthiaAnn Telles (now President Joseph Biden’s ambassador to Costa Rica (where her father served as President John Kennedy’s ambassador in the 1960s.)
Hertzberg has a two-year old daughter, Athena Grace, with his current partner, Katharine Tellis, who is the director of the California State University Los Angeles School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Hertzberg should have a building named after him, since he says, “I’m not transactional, I’m structural.”
For his entire career, in law, public service, and business, Hertzberg reflects, he is always questioning what he is doing to make things better, and making the structural changes necessary for improvements.
“It’s not always the best thing in terms of what gets you elected but it’s the right thing to do,” Hertzberg says. “You’ve got to make a contribution, do good stuff in life. That’s all I can tell you.”
In this 2018 file photo, then-state Senator Hertzberg receives congratulations from then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, D-Carmel, after Hertzberg's bail reform bill was approved.
Former State Bar President and past Person of the Year Patrick Kelly comments that he has known Hertzberg, “the bear-hug man,” for “a long, long time.” Kelly says Hertzberg is “a successful lawyer and a successful government servant” and his career has been dedicated to helping others in those roles.
Former Los Angeles District Attorney and past Person of the Year Steve Cooley opines that Hertzberg “has a reputation for being a very, very effective legislator over many years.” As a former resident of the San Fernando Valley area, Cooley says, “I can say he served the community very well.”
Retired California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, also a past “person of the year,” remarks that “Senator Hertzberg understood the importance of the judicial branch and was a strong and important ally during his tenure in Sacramento.”
“Californians should be thankful for his tireless efforts to improve the bail and pretrial system, as well as to limit the harsh effects of criminal fines, fees, and penalties on those who can least afford them.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Huey Cotton—who, prior to this year, was supervising judge in the San Fernando Valley (Northwest District), says Hertzberg “is a champion for justice,” and a person who can “connect the dots between human need and social policy to address the need better than anyone I know in local politics.”
Cotton adds that it has been “amazing to see how he can extrapolate from a problem to a legislative solution,” and “the benefits of a Hertzberg involvement in public life will be long-lasting, for sure.”
When the courts were “in our darkest hours” with the judicial branch budget being slashed year after year, Cotton says Hertzberg “was there to fight on a legislative level, to ensure access to justice.”
They were “real desperate times,” the judge recalls, and “a lot of people just gave lip-service, but Bob turned what he heard into legislative action and helped stem the tide of cuts in a way the folks in his district, and certainly in our county, will appreciate for years and years.”
Cotton predicts Hertzberg “will find a way to inject himself into public life in a meaningful way” in the future, “and then smoke a nice cigar to salute himself.”
Copyright 2023, Metropolitan News Company