Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) speaks on the Assembly floor. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Looking to reclaim influence in debates over taxes, regulation and environmental policies, a key bloc of Democrats who typically align with business interests are revamping their leadership, with Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) at the helm.
The informal caucus — commonly known in the state Capitol as the “mods," for moderate Democrats — have been led over the last year and a half by two Assembly Democrats: Jim Cooper of Elk Grove and Rudy Salas of Bakersfield.
Gray described his role as "convener" of the caucus, which, unlike other legislative caucuses, does not publicize its membership. He secured support from 14 legislators, representing ample support within the loosely affiliated group for the top post, according to a letter viewed by The Times.
Salas confirmed the shakeup, describing it as restructuring to include an executive committee, with whom Gray must consult.
“This is just the way we’re operating now,” said Salas, describing the structure as “the best way moving forward.”
Cooper declined to comment.
The group, also known as the "New Democrats," backs a "centrist, middle-of-the-road, fiscally conservative agenda," Gray said.
"It’s more important than ever to have a voice for the middle. Our country is increasingly polarized," he said. "I’d argue the silent majority is still in the middle."
The business-aligned bloc has flexed its muscle in major Capitol battles in recent years, including stopping a controversial provision to slash oil consumption in a 2015 climate bill. Gray was central to a 2014 effort to craft compromise regulations around the controversial oil extraction technique known as fracking, staving off liberal attempts to ban the practice.
But the group was less of a force in last year’s debates around raising the minimum wage and setting ambitious new targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, both of which passed over objections from business interests.
Gray said he anticipated the caucus being active in "all parts of public policy," and in particular, the brewing debate over the future of the state’s cap-and-trade system for climate change. He said he wanted to champion the economic interests of Californians in the climate debate, making sure they can share in the revenue generated from the cap-and-trade auctions.
"If it’s all stick and no carrot and you’re just eroding the middle class and opportunity, people are going to not appreciate that," Gray said.
First elected in 2012, Gray had a long tenure as a legislative staffer before taking office. He first worked for former Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, who, during his tenure, led his era’s moderate caucus before serving in Congress. Among his other bosses was former state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), who was ensnared in a federal corruption investigation in 2013.
Gray, who was not accused of wrongdoing, was subpoenaed to testify in that case, and Calderon ultimately pleaded guilty to mail fraud, avoiding a trial. His Central Valley political connections grew when he married the daughter of former Rep. Gary Condit, who earlier served in the Legislature and left Congress in 2002.
Known as a wily legislative operator, Gray helped secure $100 million for a parkway project at the UC Merced campus as part of the negotiations around the $52-billion transportation plan. He chairs the powerful Assembly Governmental Organization committee, which oversees alcohol, tobacco and gambling issues and is seen as a prime fundraising post.
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