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Capitol minister aims to deliver state leaders from temptation

Amid the crush of lobbyists, lawyers and lawmakers packing the hallways of the Capitol in the final days of each legislative session, one figure moves through the corridors with noticeable serenity.

Tall and lean, Frank Erb might be mistaken for a lobbyist: the dark business suit, the black leather shoulder bag. But he isn't interested in hotly contested bills and votes, and his bag contains a Bible, not checks made out to campaign committees.

Erb is the self-described "pastor to California's leaders," ministering to a small flock that includes some of the most powerful men and women in California.

He has been a fixture at the statehouse in Sacramento for years, holding weekly Bible study sessions that he hopes will deliver legislators from temptation.

That's not always an easy task. Last year, four state lawmakers were accused of criminal wrongdoing — including one who regularly attended the Bible sessions.

"Our government leaders are regular people who are in positions that are very difficult," the 50-year-old nondenominational Christian minister said. "They are faced with challenges and temptations that the average person doesn't typically encounter. So anything we can do to help them to be strong personally and ethically is a good thing for everybody."

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On one recent morning, nine legislators filed into the wood-paneled Assembly Rules Committee room at 8, settling into leather chairs ringing a glass-top table. The U.S. and California flags standing nearby offered reminders that this was a government building, not a church.

Some brought coffee or tea. A few carried well-worn Bibles. Others preferred using a Bible app on their iPad or smartphone. Most of the men and women wore the sedate business attire of the Capitol, though a few men had yet to don a necktie.

The group had been studying the Gospel of Mark, but this morning's lesson focused on why legislators should read and study the Bible. Erb passed around handouts.

In a resonant voice, he quoted 19 verses, including Timothy 3:15, which says, in part, "You have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom."

Wisdom is important for elected officials, Erb told the group, and so the Bible can be a special help to leaders.

The lawmakers then spun off into a freewheeling discussion about the Bible's accuracy and relevancy to government officials. After an hour, they rushed off to committee hearings and appointments.

The understanding at the bipartisan Bible sessions is that nothing any of the legislators says will leave the room.

"We've had legislators years ago who actually shared with the group things that could have been used in political hit pieces if it were known outside the room," said former state Sen. Bill Leonard, who still attends the sessions. "And even though it was a bipartisan group, their prayer request never left the room."

He recalled one former legislator who was trying to beat a drug addiction.

"We prayed with him about it. There were a half-dozen legislators of both parties. He was in a targeted seat actually, and nobody in the room ever said a word."

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Current and former lawmakers say they have found a peaceful harbor in the weekly sessions with Erb, who also counsels lawmakers one on one in their offices.

Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), a regular at Erb's weekly session, said the stress comes from what he calls the "splendid loneliness of leadership."

"Some people deal with it by drinking," Nielsen said. "Some deal with it by carousing. But some of us deal with it by turning to our faith."

Last year was a particularly tough one for Erb, with the scandals involving lawmakers. "That has been a weight on everybody," Erb said.

One frequent attendee at Erb's sessions was Roderick Wright, who resigned as a state senator in October after he was convicted of perjury and voter fraud for lying about living in his Senate district.

Wright, who maintains he is innocent and is appealing his conviction, said he found refuge in the Bible sessions.

"Just the spiritual discussion itself is good to have, to be able to talk about things other than AB [Assembly Bill] this and SB [Senate Bill] that," Wright said.

Despite his legal problems, Wright talks as a man immersed in religion who did not always like what he saw around him in the political world.

"There is always that perception of the Capitol being the den of iniquity," Wright said, adding the Bible sessions provide "the ability to cast out that demon."

Erb has been circumspect about those lawmakers who have gotten into trouble with the law. But his lessons are tailored to the challenges facing legislators.

A month before Wright was sentenced, Erb's lesson was titled "A Politician's Downfall." It relied on the Gospel of Mark to tell the story of the fall from power of the overly ambitious Herod Antipas.

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After earning a bachelor's degree in computer science from Cal State Fullerton and getting a job as a software specialist for McDonnell Douglas, Orb seemed destined for a career in the aerospace industry.

But something was missing. He wanted to help people with their problems, not spend his life designing software, he told his wife, Valerie, then a high school teacher. With her blessing, Erb earned a master of divinity degree before becoming a full-time minister.

He went on to become a pastor to congregations affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America and the North American Baptists. Finally, his fascination with government and politics landed him at the California Capitol, where he works on behalf of the Capitol Commission, a group that has helped place ministers in 24 capitols throughout the United States with the help of donations from local churches and individuals, including some of the legislators.

He started his Capitol ministry in 2009 after the departure of controversial clergyman Ralph Drollinger, who angered many in California's statehouse by saying that some legislators are "disgusting to our Lord" and asserting that tolerating those who don't believe in the Bible is "to neuter the message of Christ."

Erb said he has no connection to Drollinger and "I have no comment on anything he may have said."

Daisy Vieyra, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Northern California, said the group's officials don't have any concerns with the Bible sessions as long as the space would also be made available to other groups on an equal basis.

Legislators praise Erb, who has an easy smile and attentive eyes, for being nonjudgmental and a good listener.

"He is very mellow, very accommodating and a very loving man," said Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-Rialto), who has been attending the Bible sessions for two years.

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Unlike many states that have part-time legislatures, California's is a full-time job, expecting members to leave their homes and families, sometimes hundreds of miles away, and spend up to four days a week in Sacramento for eight months of the year.

Lawmakers are frequently invited to events where alcohol is flowing and lobbyists and others are pressuring them to compromise on some issue, Erb said.

"They lose touch a lot of times with their support system, and then they are surrounded by temptations here," Erb said. "I've had more than one legislator who said when our government leaders come to Sacramento that basically everything available to tempt them is being offered."

Leonard said the Bible sessions are an important counterpoint to the pressures faced by lawmakers.

"This system exploits any weakness that a person has," Leonard said. "It's not just lobbyists and special-interest groups who exploit someone's weakness to turn it into a gain for them, but it's just the whole culture of power and atmosphere that can get to your head."

Erb knows his share of lobbyists — in fact, some of them attend a separate weekly Bible study session he puts on for Capitol staffers.

Erb sees lessons for today's politicians in his biblical studies.

"The biggest pitfall is that politics is a profession that is all-consuming," he said. "It's easy to make that the center of their life and to lose touch with the things that matter most, which I believe are God first and their family second.

"Unfortunately, many people sacrifice their connection to God and their family on the altar of political success."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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