California’s Top Business Leader Retires on High Note

This article was written by Dan Walters for CalMatters.

Allan Zaremberg

Over the last four decades, hundreds of politicians have come and gone from the Capitol and its political ambience has undergone a dramatic transformation. Allan Zaremberg has not only seen it all, but has hugely influenced what did or didn’t happen.

This week, Zaremberg announced that he will soon retire after more than two decades as CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce and previous stints as a chamber lobbyist and high-ranking aide to two Republican governors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.

Donna Lucas, a public relations executive who chairs the chamber’s board and herself has been a prominent Capitol figure during those decades, wasn’t blowing smoke when she said, “CalChamber and Allan Zaremberg have been one and the same for more than two decades. His effectiveness in representing California’s business community is legendary and he created models for success that are now common practice.”

When Zaremberg, then a young attorney in the Department of Justice, followed his boss, Deukmejian, into the governor’s office in 1983, California and its Capitol were bastions of pro-business conservatism. However, by the time he assumed leadership of the chamber in 1998, California was turning blue and the Legislature was drifting leftward.

Zaremberg’s job was to maintain relevance for business in a Capitol increasingly dominated by liberal Democrats and allied interests such as labor unions, environmental and consumer advocacy groups, and personal injury lawyers. He succeeded brilliantly, as even his foes would acknowledge.

The circumstances dictated that Zaremberg and his staff would be mostly playing defense, staving off efforts by rival interests to impose new regulations and new taxes on business, or increasing opportunities for litigation.

A major tool was the chamber’s “job killer” list, an annual compilation of legislation deemed to be onerous, initiated by Zaremberg’s predecessor, Kirk West, in 1997. Over the ensuing two-plus decades, hundreds of bills have received the “job killer” epithet and roughly 90% have either died in the Legislature, mostly without votes, been amended enough to escape the list, or been vetoed by governors.

Zaremberg picked the chamber’s fights carefully, which is one reason why it has been so successful. Except on matters of taxation, for example, the chamber rarely quarreled with the Capitol’s dominant public employees unions, whose priorities of higher salaries and benefits did not affect business. The chamber, however, spars constantly with private sector unions, which have less political clout than their public sector cousins.

Outside of the Capitol, Zaremberg and the chamber have also played major roles in creating coalitions to both advocate and oppose major ballot measures — a process that also emerged as a powerful policy tool during the last four decades. They were, for example, instrumental in passing a ballot measure that changed how California nominates candidates for political offices to a “top-two” system over opposition from both major parties.

The two top primary election finishers, regardless of party, face each in the November general election every two years and business saw it as leading to fewer ideologues and more moderates winning legislative seats. While the precise impact of the top-two system is still debated, it clearly has helped make the “job killer” campaign a success as legislative leaders count noses and decide which bills fly and which die.

The Capitol is continuing to slide leftward, so Zaremberg’s successor will have no shortage of battles as longtime foes propose new measures that employers will see as excessive and expensive — especially since Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former businessman himself, is evidently more inclined than his predecessors to sign such measures.