By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
State Sen. Noreen Evans is back in a high-profile leadership role and taking on some of California’s most powerful interests with her legislative agenda, only a month after the Santa Rosa Democrat appeared to be losing political steam in Sacramento.
In a surprise move, Senate President Darrell Steinberg appointed Evans chairwoman of the Senate’s Banking and Financial Institutions Committee, giving the 58-year-old senator a platform to push a consumer advocacy agenda as she prepares to leave office in January.
Evans is pitching controversial legislation to create a severance tax on oil and to require labeling of foods containing genetically-modified organisms. As a whole, she’s positioned herself as a force to be reckoned with in what otherwise could have been a lame-duck year.
“I don’t know if I’m going to win them all,” Evans said Tuesday from her capitol office. “I fight the fight because it moves the agenda forward.”
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a political ally and close friend of the senator’s, said Evans has been given the opportunity to shine in her final year because Democratic Party leadership recognizes she still has clout, and because Evans is freed from having to worry about winning re-election.
Evans has said she is not seeking another four-year term because she wants to return to a private law practice. “She has nothing to fear and nothing to lose. She’s going for it,” Zane said Tuesday from the nation’s capital.
Still, Evans expressed some wonderment Tuesday over her situation, saying her appointment to the Senate finance committee came “out of the blue.”
Steinberg last month stripped Evans of her beloved post as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a move Evans’ advisors suggested was in retaliation for the senator asking her colleagues to hold off endorsing Chris Lehman for her seat.
Lehman, an Arcata resident who has since dropped out of the race, is a Democratic Party consultant who helps raise money for state senators, including Steinberg.
Evans said she doesn’t know why Steinberg awarded her oversight of the finance committee. She said she’d “like to think it was because of my qualifications,” citing as an example her tenure as chairwoman of the Assembly’s Budget Committee in 2009-2010.
Evans was also the beneficiary of the fallout from Sen. Rod Wright, D-Baldwin, taking a leave of absence after a Los Angeles County jury found him guilty of eight counts of voter fraud and perjury stemming from charges that he lied about where he lived when he ran for the state Senate in 2008.
Steinberg moved Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, from the finance committee to the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, creating the opening for Evans.
Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Steinberg, said Tuesday that Evans is “eminently qualified” to lead the finance committee as a “strong champion for consumers and with her leadership in crafting the important California Homeowner Bill of Rights legislation of 2012.”
He said committee assignments “are based on qualifications and merit. Period.”
But David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University, said Steinberg likely had little choice but to put any personal feelings he may have about Evans aside as he confronts the sudden departures of Wright and Sen. Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello), who is under investigation for allegedly taking bribes last year.
The loss of the two lawmakers has cost Senate Democrats their supermajority.
“The impression last month was that she (Evans) might have been the last person he (Steinberg) would have turned to. But there’s a short-term memory when people take leaves of absence or have received a guilty verdict,” McCuan said.
With the appointment, McCuan said Evans “went from political Siberia to being in the thick of many important policy battles this legislative year.”
Evans listed a number of issues she hopes to bring to the table as chairwoman of the finance committee. They included student-loan practices; credit-card privacy and consumer protection from data breaches; and the practice of payday lending.
Consumer groups on Tuesday cheered Evans’ expanded role, viewing it as an opportunity to be heard and possibly to get legislation through.
“Her voting record is as good anyone else’s in the Legislature when it comes to standing up for consumer rights. We’re very excited to see her assume that role,” said Joe Ridout, a spokesman for Consumer Action, which is backing Evans’ GMO bill and the senator’s calls to change payday lending practices.
Consumer Attorneys of California is hoping Evans can help mediate a proposal to raise caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, said Lea-Ann Tratten, the agency’s political director.
“She’s the type of person who can help be the voice of reason on an issue like this,” Tratten said.
Business interests, however, are not doing cartwheels, nor are the petroleum or food industries looking to Evans as an ally in the looming battles over taxation and labeling.
A coalition calling itself Californians Against Higher Oil Taxes on Tuesday denounced the senator’s efforts to impose a 9.5 percent tax on the extraction of oil in California, which Evans estimates will generate about $2 billion annually.
“We just raised taxes by $7 billion a year in California, and we now have a budget surplus. Now is not the time to add another new tax that will be passed on to California consumers in higher prices for gas and for goods and services we use every day,” said Teresa Casazza, President of the California Taxpayers Association.
Beth Mills, a spokeswoman for the California Bankers Association, struck a conciliatory tone, however, saying Tuesday the group “looks forward” to working with Evans.
The senator on Tuesday described her political strategy going forward as pushing for public interests.
“Whether you want to call that a progressive agenda or a people agenda I don’t care. I think that serves the people of California,” she said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)