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Don't let the Sacramento sex scandal fool you

PoliticsLaws and LegislationGovernmentLobbyingNational GovernmentDemocratic Party

The Legislature had just wrapped up its annual session when a top aide invited me to a post-adjournment party across the street from the Capitol. I went.

Entering the hotel suite, I saw an open bedroom door. And sitting on the bed was an attractive female lobbyist wearing only black panties. Two or three male legislators stood around grinning, chortling.

A little embarrassed, I hurried past to the main party group. The bedroom door soon closed. And for the next 45 minutes or so, one legislator after another entered or left the room.

The lobbyist had just won passage of a major bill, and I assumed she was celebrating by entertaining helpful lawmakers.

No, this was not early Saturday after the tortured conclusion of this year's regular session. It was 46 years ago, not long after I had begun covering the Legislature for a wire service.

And the point is that lobbyist-provided sex -- supplied directly or indirectly by some glorified pimp -- is nothing new in the California Legislature or any democratic body, dating back centuries.

"I can tell whether a guy wants money, a girl or a baked potato," Artie Samish, legendary Sacramento lobbyist of the mid-20th century, used to boast.

Guys actually never had much problem getting girls on their own.

"Power is indeed an aphrodisiac," former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown wrote in his autobiography, "Basic Brown," under a chapter titled "Sex Scandals and the Socializing Politician."

So it wasn't a shocker last week to learn that a male legislator apparently had been having sex with two female lobbyists. The only shock was that he had crudely bragged about it to a colleague into an open mike during the recess of a committee meeting -- both the uncouth crowing and the live-mike recklessness being no-nos, not just for politicians in Sacramento but for civil and clued-in people everywhere.

To his credit, Assemblyman Michael Duvall (R-Yorba Linda), 54, the married father of two, resigned almost immediately, sparing his colleagues further "major distraction." Then he sort of spoiled it by claiming that his only sin had been "engaging in inappropriate storytelling." His resignation was in "no way an admission" of any affairs, he insisted.

Good luck selling that one at home.

Unfortunately, Duvall's doltishness reflects on the entire Legislature, and it shouldn't, no more than all the philandering and boozing -- and that end-of-session party -- reflected on the 1963 Legislature.

Any legislator's affair with a lobbyist does represent a potential conflict of interest. But these days, most lawmakers are so ideologically predictable -- certainly the conservative Duvall was -- that an amorous lobbyist would be buying a lot more trouble than votes.

Some say that the latest sex scandal is more evidence that the current Legislature should be demoted to part-time status. But Samish reigned as the self-proclaimed "Secret Boss of California" back in the era of a part-time Legislature. And, compared to now, there was more women-chasing back in 1963 when the Legislature still was ostensibly part-time -- it met until late June -- and virtually no legislators brought their wives to Sacramento.

Despite nightly carousing -- or maybe because of the camaraderie it created -- the '63 Legislature was one of the most productive of the last half-century, passing a major welfare expansion and a historic bill banning racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. Voters repealed the open housing act, but courts restored it.

The current Legislature, regardless of Duvall and despite ideological polarization, has had a better year than it's getting credit for.

Its main accomplishment was keeping the state afloat amid a flood of red ink, created primarily by the toughest economic times since the Great Depression. OK, so it did use some bailing wire and chewing gum! The bills got paid, even if briefly with IOUs.

With great difficulty and pain -- at least for Democrats -- the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed programs by roughly $30 billion. They also struck a major blow against "auto-pilot" spending by permanently eliminating all automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments, except for K-12 schools. And they summoned enough courage to temporarily increase taxes by $12.5 billion.

In the end, they found a way to restore health insurance for 660,000 low-income kids.

What's often left unstated in news reports and demagogic denouncements is that this is only the halfway point of a two-year session. No major bill is dead. Every measure is still breathing, some in reasonably good condition.

Water, for example. Democrats, Republicans and the governor -- and the various environmental, agriculture and urban interests they represent -- are closing in on a historic deal. It basically has been in the making for two years, and the odds are they'll settle within months because all sides sincerely want to.

Democrats need to agree to a large bond issue and ensure construction of a dam or two. Republicans must commit to conservation and ecological restoration, including salmon runs. There's little argument anymore about the necessity of a peripheral canal around the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That's an achievement in itself.

Prison reform fell short of what Schwarzenegger and Democrats wanted. But there was a complete overhaul of the parole system. In the future, there'll be increased focus on the riskiest parolees while little attention is paid to the rest. As a result, fewer ex-cons will be returned to overcrowded prisons for minor parole violations.

Final judgment on this Legislature will be rendered a year from now. And it won't -- or shouldn't -- be based on any single individual's human frailties.

One skill these term-limited legislators should learn, however, is how to finish their work on time. Then they could avoid pulling fruitless, ludicrous all-nighters, as the lawmakers did again Friday. No one feels like partying at 6 a.m.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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