Editor’s Note: Longtime newsman Frank Saldaña passed away Friday following a long battle with congestive heart failure, leaving a legacy of great love, wonderful stories, and unusual adventures. Here’s one of those stories, penned by daughter Lori Saldaña:
Dad Meets the Speaker: March 2004
On the Thursday after the March 2004 primary election, my father and I flew to Sacramento to attend the customary luncheon arranged by the Speaker’s Office of Member Services, for the Democratic Assembly nominees. Those of us considered likely to win in the general election were expected to stay for candidate training for a few more days following the luncheon. (More experienced candidates were already scheduling fundraisers and meetings with lobbyists during those days.)
My primary victory had been a completely unanticipated upset. And, since I had been considered unlikely to prevail, I had been ignored by the Speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Nuñez, throughout the campaign.
Finally, on Election Night, when it became clear I would win by 10 percentage points (after being outspent by 2 opponents by nearly $1 million), the Speaker’s staff called to invite me to attend the Thursday luncheon.
I hesitated, and explained I would need to see about getting a substitute teacher for my class before being able to commit to attend.
I think the scheduler was a bit taken aback by this reply. But the previous weeks had been a blur: I had used up most of my sick leave from the college where I was teaching, and was struggling to manage matters at home.
In addition to teaching and campaigning, I was caring for my mother and grandmother. Mom (in her 70s) was normally the caregiver for her mother, age 94. But mom had been hospitalized for nearly 2 months before the primary election, following emergency surgery. So I had been splitting my time between fundraising calls and precinct walks to arrange care for my grandmother, and manage mom’s pets and her household, and visit her at the hospital, while also teaching at the Community College.
Meanwhile, my father (who had separated from my mother many years before) had watched me put in long hours of precinct walking, and become stressed over needing to borrow money from personal savings to survive the reduced teaching schedule. He knew I was working harder than at any time in my life during that time, trying to overcome the odds, the endorsements and the money against me- some of which came from friends of the Speaker.
Dad had been one of my greatest supporters during that time. So, when I was told I could invite anyone to attend the Sacramento luncheon with me, I chose him. He was struggling with a chronic back condition that made travel painful. The condition had worsened in recent years, and he relied on walking with a cane for support.
In retrospect, I didn’t realize how disappointed he was with the Speaker, for snubbing my candidacy. But it soon became obvious, once we got to the Capitol. We were met at the airport by staff from the Speaker’s Office of Member Services, and transported by shuttle van into the building. We were escorted up to the 2nd floor in the historic side of the dome, and waited in comfortable leather seats outside the Speaker’s personal office.
After a brief delay, we were escorted in. I had been in this office several years before, as a Clinton Appointee in 2000, when Antonio Villaraigosa had been Speaker. But this was the first time I entered the office as an elected nominee for my party, hoping to be an Assemblywoman.
My father had never seen the historical and formal Speaker’s private office, but he had served in various security details for high level officers during his 20 years in the Marine Corps. He had also interviewed many elected officials during his 25 years as a reporter in San Diego.
I suspected he had been in his share of formal offices during both those careers.
Dad was not visibly impressed by these surroundings. Nor was he impressed that we were the only luncheon guests meeting Speaker Nuñez before going to the restaurant. (Apparently, I was the only winning candidate Nuñez had declined to meet with during the primary campaign.)
We took our seats in chairs near the doorway, as the Speaker finished a call at his large, hardwood desk, conversing with State Treasurer Phil Angelides. Before concluding, he put Angelides on speaker phone, and called me over. They both made a point to say hello.
I knew the Treasurer from my time as a delegate to State Democratic Party conventions. Now that I was the nominee from the 76th Assembly district, he gave me a warm greeting to Sacramento.
Once the call ended, the Speaker joined us in the plush leather chairs near the door, and attempted to ingratiate himself with my father. Dad remained seated as he walked over, due to his sore back (or so I thought). He was holding the top of his cane in both hands, and looking impassively at the Speaker as he walked up, and leaned toward him.
“Mr. Saldaña, sir- it’s a pleasure to meet you,” the Speaker said, extending his hand.
Then he said- “You must be very proud of your daughter!”
My father paused a moment, still grasping his cane in both hands. I could tell he was choosing his words very carefully.
He looked Fabian Nuñez in the eye and said: “I have 4 daughters, Mr. Speaker, and I’m proud of all of them.”
The Speaker smiled awkwardly, his hand still reaching towards my father.
Only then- after making it clear that winning a contested primary for an Assembly seat had little to do with a father’s pride in his daughters- did my father extend his hand, and allow it to be shaken by the Speaker of the California Assembly.
I was relieved- I was worried he was going to hit Fabian with his cane…
Later, after I was elected, I was not given a Committee Chair assignment. I told the speaker during a Caucus meeting: “I’m the daughter of a career Marine. Give me something to do, or I’ll find something to do myself- and you may not like it.”
A few hours later, the Speaker announced I was Assistant Majority Whip, serving alongside Majority Whip Karen Bass, from Los Angeles. And a few years later she would go on to make history, by replacing Speaker Nunez, and becoming the first African American woman speaker in a state legislature in the United States.
I supported her Speakership, and became her Speaker Pro Tempore from 2009-2010.