Photographs by Felipe Buitrago
The lawmaker behind the whirlwind: Sally Lieber isn't afraid of controversy—or bipartisanship.
Spanks for The Memories
Silicon Valley's most controversial legislator has announced she plans to run for county supervisor. You've heard about her controversial spanking legislation, but you don't know the real Sally Lieber.
By Vrinda Normand
SALLY LIEBER walks briskly through the tree-lined walkway at the state capitol to what she says is her 80th interview in the past three days. On this sunny January afternoon in Sacramento, the California assemblymember is headed to a television studio across the street to face the national fuss about her infamous spanking bill.
The 45-year-old Lieber clutches a cafe latte in one hand as she runs through a quick appearance check with her chief of staff, Cory Jasperson. "Do I have enough lipstick on to get away with it?" she asks him. He glances at her briefly and responds with a shrug, "Sure."
Her pink lip color is actually quite faded from lunch, but it's too late to do anything about it now. The folks at ABC are waiting.
She makes it to the studio with a few seconds to spare before she's aired on the network's Guilt or Innocence? show. She stares calmly at the camera as the host's voice crackles through the microphone, introducing her as the legislator behind a proposal to outlaw the physical punishment of kids under 4 years old.
In a steady voice, Lieber fields an incredulous "Let me get this straight" question from the host: "We're not trying to ensnare the responsible parent who uses discipline," she explains. "What we're talking about is the abuse of the privilege, when things get out of control but due to the blind spots of the law are not considered child abuse."
Despite support from judges and prosecutors who see corporal punishment as a serious legal issue, Lieber hit a sensitive social button. Offended parents nationwide lashed out at her for supposedly being a childless left-wing radical who doesn't know the first thing about raising kids. Mainstream media across the country began tossing her name around as the wacky liberal from California.
"I'm not interested in someone's pop psychology on how people should raise their kids. It's none of their business," says Assemblymember Chuck DeVore, a Republican from Orange County and one of Lieber's most vocal critics.
But DeVore, ironically, has offered to co-author Lieber's bill if she focuses on the law enforcement aspect of the issue, like clearing up the gray areas around child abuse. Despite the fact that he and the assemblywoman stand on opposite ends of the political spectrum, this wouldn't be the first time that they've worked together. He co-authored her bill on human trafficking that the governor signed in 2005 and helped grease the skids in the legislature for a funding increase that she requested for the Northern California Innocence Project based at Santa Clara University.
That Lieber can tout the support of a conservative like DeVore is no small matter, especially when most of her initiatives are so extreme even liberal Democrats wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole. "Everything we do sinks us politically," she jokes.
But the truth is, she has a pretty impressive batting average that you'd never guess if you only knew her as the "spanking lady."
Last year, California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed 10 of her 12 bills that made it to his desk. The year before, he signed 7 of 10. That means 22 of her bills made it through a majority Republican legislature in one session.
Her most recent victory is California's minimum wage increase that took effect in January. Lieber had been trying to get it passed for three years, even when everyone told her it would be impossible. When Gov. Schwarzenegger finally warmed up to the idea during his 2006 State of the State address, three other legislators proposed nearly identical bills. But Lieber "fought tooth and nail" (as she describes it), and it was her bill that ultimately got signed.
"She's very approachable and friendly," DeVore says of Lieber. "She's more prone to getting a few things done because of her willingness to work with people."
Lieber announced in December that she'll be running for the Board of Supervisors in 2008, and if her track record holds, she could be one of the county's youngest, most progressive leaders. Her current staff of 14 includes three members of the LGBT community, and she was one of few heterosexual legislators to joint-author Mark Leno's marriage equality bill.
Secret of her success: Lieber's close colleague Mark Leno says she's far more complex than the 'far left' labels put on her suggest.
Leno, her close colleague from San Francisco, sheds some light on her unusual success rate—and why it might be a mistake to write off her spanking bill, no matter how crazy it sounds. Lieber recently toned down the proposal, but it still aims to ban nearly everything but an open-handed slap on the bum.
"She has prevailed on some very difficult fronts because of her unwavering commitment to the issues that matter to her," he says. "She's certainly on the far left, but those who just want to label her and leave it at that are lazy. They don't realize that she is so much more dimensional."
'People think I'm going to be embarrassed by some kind of critique'
Lieber exhales a sigh of relief as she pushes open the doors at the TV studio. "It's hard to keep it fresh after answering the same questions so many times," she admits, but reminds herself out loud that she needs to stay convincing.
She crowds into the elevator with a mom and a stroller-bound baby. "That one couldn't be hit under our bill," she points out, cooing at the little girl under the blankets.
"People think I'm going to be embarrassed by some kind of critique," Lieber continues, "But I welcome it. Bring it on. Maybe there will be some little kids who don't get beat because of this bill.
Naturally, she's become the lady that has everyone chatting about their childhood spanking memories, even the governor. As she approaches her office back in the capitol, a woman in the elevator comments, "You're getting an awful lot of publicity these days!"
"Yeah," Lieber grumbles with a half-smile. "Maybe too much."
The assemblywoman strides through the political world with a certain modesty, as if she's not entirely comfortable in the limelight yet still confident in her own convictions.
Today she wears a turtleneck under a pants suit with low-heeled loafers and minimal makeup. It's not so much her appearance or charisma that grabs the public's attention but the unfaltering way that she pushes for the toughest bills and advocates for the most disadvantaged people. And even she is surprised sometimes when her efforts bear fruit.
She remembers listening to National Public Radio one morning in her car when it was announced, "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has just signed a bill by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber."
"It was just like, all of the pieces of that sentence are weird," Lieber says with a laugh, but adds, "He's always been very fair to me, so I can't complain."
Less than 10 years ago, she didn't know she would be holding public office, let alone find herself wrestling with lawmakers in the state capitol. Lieber's background is anything but conventional and is one of the reasons why she's anything but your typical politician.
'Everyone thought I would be total roadkill'
In case you're wondering: no, Lieber didn't get spanked as a kid.
She grew up in the '60s and '70s, smitten with the antiwar and civil rights movements. In junior high school, she used to wear her glasses over her hair so she would look like Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon and revolutionary journalist.
"I remember I used to come home from doing my paper route and lie on the carpeting in my mom's living room," Lieber says. "I'd read the newspaper and look at the "Help Wanted Men" and "Help Wanted Women" ads. All the interesting jobs were under "Help Wanted Men."
When it came time to graduate from high school, though, Lieber didn't think she could make it through college. "I was always a horrible student, just rotten," she admits. So I chose a profession in the building trades hanging wallpaper in old Victorian homes. For nearly 10 years, she listened to NPR 10 hours a day while she worked.
Becoming a true "political news junkie" exposed Lieber to the turmoil in Eastern Europe during the '80s, a "compelling time" that got her thinking, "Maybe I should go back to school. Maybe I should do something with my mind."
In her late 20s, she started taking night classes at San Francisco City College. It was difficult having to show up in her dirty work clothes, but she almost cried with happiness when she completed her first college course with a B+.
During this time, she met her husband David Phillips, a product management director in Mountain View. The two ran into each other at Burning Man, a radical art festival held every year in the Nevada desert.
After they married in 1992, Lieber moved to the peninsula and transferred to Foothill College, where she started going to school full-time and got involved in student government.
It was there that she got a taste of leadership and fighting for the issues she cared about. Her concerns then were similar to the ones she has now: child care for single moms, access for the disabled and health care, to name a few.
She once made an impassioned speech in an effort to convince college administrators to keep women's studies as part of the general education requirement.
"You're hanging by a thread, and you've got to use all your powers of persuasion to make it happen against all odds," she remembers. That day, she converted two professors to her side. And although she eventually lost the struggle for women's studies at Foothill, she proved to have a knack for negotiating and convincing other people to follow her.
In the mid-1990s, Lieber transferred to Stanford University with a political science major. She sailed through, impressing her mentor and professor, Luis Fraga. When she took his urban politics class, she began to think seriously about running for the Mountain View City Council.
"That was one of the biggest compliments I could hear from a student," Fraga says about the pupil-turned-politician. "For me it was a dream come true to see her show such a commitment to the community."
The 37-year-old Lieber, still a senior at Stanford, launched her campaign for city government in 1998. "Everyone thought I would be total roadkill," she remembers with a laugh. Turns out they were wrong. She snagged more votes than all six council candidates, incumbents included.
The day after her election victory, Lieber showed up 20 minutes late to class, but Fraga let her slide.
She later told the Stanford Magazine that they could expect to see her in Sacramento soon.
'Total panic set in'
In 1998, Lieber had never even visited the state capitol—a detail that her husband matter-of-factly pointed out when she started talking about her statewide ambitions. They both decided it would be a good idea for her to at least see the place.
"I remember coming up here, and I was walking down L Street looking for the capitol building," Lieber says. "There are all these trees that sort of obscure it, and I was thinking, 'It's supposed to be around here somewhere."
"All of a sudden," she continues, "I came through the trees, and there was this huge gleaming white capitol. I thought, 'Oh my God, what did I say that I was going to do?"
"Total panic set in. It was just so huge and so white. I call it the 'Edifice Complex."
Lieber's intimidation didn't stop her from running for the 22nd Assembly district seat in 2002. She weathered a fierce campaign against Rod Diridon Jr. (who was endorsed by most of the party heavyweights), startling political spectators when she won the democratic primary with 44 percent of the vote.
Her eyes light up as she reminisces about the "dogfight" that assembly race was. With her volunteers, she walked to 58,000 households during the campaign, an arduous task that she says she loves. "I like to see the way that people live, what bumper stickers are on their cars, are their kids toys in the driveway, do they like cats, what do they think about all this stuff," she says. "Some people who run for office hate it, but to me it's like a little novel behind every door."
Since she's been in office, Lieber's dedication to her citizen constituents far outweighs her allegiance to big corporate players, which is unusual considering her district includes the business hub of the Silicon Valley. Most of her bills sprout from the ground up, rooted in social inequalities that her community members face.
"To me that's where the inspiration is," she explains. "I find it hard to get excited about a dispute between two corporations. There's no real juice in that."
In fact, Lieber tends to only push bills that she believes no one else will touch. The more "out there," the better, she says.
So it was serendipity that brought her in contact with the family of James Campbell, a man held hostage in Mountain View's El Camino Hospital with no hope of returning home—but for one gutsy assemblymember willing to cut through the bureaucracy.
'I won't take no for an answer when it comes to Jimmy Campbell'
When James Campbell turned 29 in 1992, his mom and stepdad, Glenna and Jim Cecchini, noticed something was wrong. The 240-pound Campbell, generally an outdoor-loving guy who worked with his hands, started clinging to walls to keep his balance. When his speech began to slur, they took him to the doctor and discovered that he had a rare neurological disease.
As his symptoms gradually worsened, Campbell began to rely on a walker and then a wheelchair. "That was the only time he ever cried or complained," Jim Cecchini remembers, his voice choking up. "He would tell us, 'At least I'm not in pain."
By the time Jimmy was 38, he had developed tremors in his head and arm so violent that his parents couldn't feed him. They had no choice but to bring him to El Camino Hospital in January of 2002.
Since then, the Cecchinis have been trying to bring their son home, but he needs 24-hour skilled nursing care to monitor his feeding tube and breathing. Campbell's disease has impaired his swallowing reflexes, so his throat needs to be suctioned periodically to prevent him from choking.
His neurologist refuses to discharge him from the hospital until he has the proper home care, but figuring out how to pay for such care has been the Cecchinis biggest obstacle. They've approached a handful of charitable medical assistance programs that rejected Campbell either because he was over 18 years old or his rare disease wasn't on their coverage list.
At first, the government funded Medi-Cal program only offered the Cecchinis $30,000 a year to care for their son at home—not nearly enough to cover 24-hour nursing, which could cost over $250,000 a year. Campbell's family kept trying; they got help from legal advocates for disabled people and appealed the low Medi-Cal offer in Superior Court.
The problem was satisfying one criterion in the Home and Community-Based Services Waiver, a thick document that regulates the state-funded health care that Campbell needs. In his case, Department of Health Services officials debated whether or not his daily throat suctioning qualified as a "medical treatment."
"We were at a brick wall," says Glenna Cecchini. With nowhere else to turn in the summer of 2006, they approached their Assemblymember Joe Coto (they live in south San Jose). The staff at Coto's office said they were too busy but referred the Cecchinis to Lieber.
At a family diner on Capitol Expressway—appropriately named "Jimmy's"—Jim and Glenna Cecchini both get teary-eyed when they start talking about Lieber. "I could tell she knew what she was doing," Glenna says. "She was really listening to what we said."
The assemblywoman met with the Cecchinis shortly after they contacted her office, heard their entire story and told them, "I won't take no for an answer when it comes to Jimmy Campbell."
It didn't matter that they were not technically her constituents; their son had effectively become a Mountain View resident by staying in El Camino Hospital for so long. Jim remembers Lieber wearing blue jeans when he first met her. "This person's down-to-earth," he thought, "She's not a politician. She's here because she really wants to be of service to the people."
Things started moving very quickly for the Cecchini's. Lieber wrote a strongly worded letter to the secretary of health services, saying, "I want action on this. Mr. Campbell may die at any time, and his family wants to take him home."
After receiving no response, Lieber arranged a meeting with state health officials and Schwarzenegger's former top aid Richard Costigan in the governor's office. Costigan says the discussion was very frank: while it was clear that Campbell needed help, state officials said they were hesitant to make an exception for him because there were several hundred other people in a similar situation.
Somehow, though, the message got through to the right people. Lieber's voice cracks as she remembers the call she got on her cell phone two days before Christmas. The state's DHS had just amended the waiver to include people like Campbell for full home-care funding.
"There isn't time to wait," Lieber says, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "When someone has a disease with a short life span and they live 10 years longer than they're supposed to, it's just like, we have to break all the rules. It just doesn't matter at that point."
'I don't care where I am in the process, I can get things done'
Since clashing with convention comes easily to Lieber, it'll be interesting to see how she slides into a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. The assemblywoman, who terms out in 2008, will run against Liz Kniss, the District 5 representative who has another term left and will have to fend off Lieber if she wants to max out her 12 years on the board.
The 68-year-old supervisor initially told the news media that she was surprised another Democratic woman would challenge her. She must have changed her approach since then because she recently told Metro, "Bring it on. We like competition. We like a challenge."
Whichever it is, Lieber's sure to step on toes by going for the incumbent's seat instead of politely opting for the seats soon to be left open by termed-out Blanca Alvarado and Pete McHugh. She says she put a down payment on a Sunnyvale apartment in McHugh's district and packed half of her belongings into cardboard boxes but pulled out at the last minute.
"It just didn't feel right," Lieber says. "I couldn't really justify uprooting my family because someone else doesn't want to have someone run against her."
The assemblywoman has made a name for herself in the state capitol by pressing for a death penalty moratorium, advocating for the rights of pregnant inmates in state prison, fighting for victims of human trafficking and battling toxic-dumping corporations. Most recently, she had thousands of people talking about female anatomy by pushing for a mandatory vaccine against the virus that causes cervical cancer.
She quickly pulled her name from the bill, however, when she realized a possible financial conflict of interest in her husband's family trust, which she discovered includes about $27,000 of stock in a company that manufactures the cervical cancer vaccine. Lieber continues to make headlines, now with a proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations on rape.
A job with the county would certainly be less glamorous but Lieber says that doesn't bother her. She's eager to get experience on a different level, implementing policies created by the state. "I could go back to city council or student government and I'd be totally happy," she says. "I don't care where I am in the process, I can get things done."
She's already become familiar with local issues, immersing herself in the community in some very unusual ways.
Friend or foe? Orange County Republican Chuck DeVore is one of Lieber's biggest critics, but says she gets things down because of her 'willingness to work with people.'
'I just went ballistic and went flying down to the governor's office'
One morning last April, Lieber left her house with a sleeping bag, a bedroll and a sandwich bag full of change and "just kept walking."
She spent two days as a homeless person, drifting from downtown Mountain View to downtown San Jose. She got rained on for 14 hours, collected bottles and cans, and begged for spare change. She scraped together enough money for bus fares, a bagel and a quesadilla throughout two afternoons, and scored some free leftovers from a buffet at San Jose State University.
Lieber almost had to spend the night on light rail to stay dry when she ran into Pastor Scott Wagers from Community Homeless Alliance Ministry (CHAM) downtown San Jose. "I thought she was another sister looking for shelter," he says, "And my mouth dropped open when I realized who she was. I was like, 'Sally, what are you doing?"
Wagers invited her to spend the night at the church shelter, and Lieber gratefully accepted. "I've met a lot of politicians in my life," the pastor says, "but I've never known anyone to do something like this. I'm amazed that she could humble herself like that."
Lieber slept on the hard wooden floor and awoke at 6am to start a new day of surviving on the streets. She spent the morning begging for change to buy a hand towel so she could shower at SJSU and then tried to rest in a gallery at the San Jose Art Museum.
During this time, she found unexpected support from other homeless people, and a lack of support from county social services, and realized how hard it is to keep a good attitude.
"I learn by observation and a gut level understanding of things that comes from listening and talking to the people who are affected," Lieber explains. "For me, there's an ethical imperative in being out in the community."
Her firsthand experience paid off when she returned to work the following Monday and received notice that the cold weather shelters (run at national armory facilities throughout the state) would be closed on schedule, despite the current cold snap and rainy spell.
"I just went ballistic and went flying down to the governor's office," Lieber remembers. She demanded that they keep the shelters open until the weather cleared up.
"They thought I was just rabid," she says with a laugh. "But I think I had a note of authenticity in my voice given what I had just been through."
Costigan, the governor's former aide, said he asked one of the cabinet members to contact the National Guard, who reopened the shelters that evening.
"I have a lot of respect for [Lieber]," says Costigan, a self-described conservative Republican, "because she's a very passionate individual."
Lieber has a few more ideas up her sleeve for hands-on learning, but she's not ready to reveal the specifics just yet. She's likely to keep shaking things up, whatever she decides to do and wherever she decides to go after the Assembly.
"I'd like to stay in public service," she says with a grin, "and I think I'm a little bit of a troublemaker."
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