Sister Lobbyist : Sheila Walsh Is the Only Nun Lobbying Full Time in Sacramento; She Sees It as No Less a Mercy Than Feeding the Hungry, Clothing the Poor

Times Staff Writer

When the legislature is in session, as it was through June, Sister Sheila Walsh is on the go early in the morning. She leaves the pretty Spanish-style house on the tree-lined street where she lives with three other members of the Sisters of Social Service, drives to her cramped, sunny office a short sprint from the Capitol, catches up on phone messages and sets the volunteers up for the day. Then it's off at a fast clip to the Capitol to lobby the legislators--often on into late-night sessions.

A simply dressed, middle-aged woman in thick, flat, the-better-to-move-fast-in sandals, she rush es through the corridors, taking the stairs ("My only exercise") on many a hurry-up-and-wait mission. Weighed down by a loaded brief case and heavy shoulder bag, the latter frequently dangling close to the floor, she moves about the building almost always with her small, well-thumbed directory of current legislators open and in hand.

The only professional lobbyist here who is a Catholic nun, and one of the few people to lobby for the poor, the elderly, children and the homeless, Sister Sheila works for a recently formed, interfaith organization called "Jericho: a lobby for justice."

This is Jericho's first year in Sacramento. But Sister Sheila, as she is invariably called, is a familiar figure to old-timers at the Capitol--bureaucrats, veteran legislators and staff--and she does not get far down a corridor without someone calling out to her.

Many know her from the old days, when she spent nine years as a lobbyist for the California Catholic Conference, the office of the Roman Catholic bishops of the state's 12 dioceses, or, as Walsh says it is often described, "the voice of the bishops."

It is another story with the newcomers, freshmen legislators and young staff. It sometimes borders on the comic. The Capitol is not a setting where one is on the lookout for nuns, nor does Walsh wear a habit. The only sign of her religious order is a metal medallion of a dove and the message "Come Holy Spirit" printed around it.

One young aide, a stranger to her, took a fleeting look at the pin one recent morning and said approvingly, "Save the whales. That's good."

"Actually, this is the Holy Spirit," she said, grinning softly down at it.

"Oh, that's good too."

Jericho, formed by the Sisters of Social Service in 1986 in order to provide "people of faith with a way to monitor California state legislation," using Judeo/Christian principles as a measure, consists of two corporations, a tax-exempt one for education and research, and the lobby for advocacy work. Walsh and Sister Deborah Lorentz serve as co-directors of both, with Walsh lobbying out of Sacramento and Lorentz doing education, outreach, membership development and administration out of Los Angeles.

The focus of the education, Lorentz said in Los Angeles, "is to make the connections for members of faith communities between their religious faith commitment and public policy." There are about 500 individual and 70 group members.

"If we had 4,000 members, 50 from each assembly district, 100 from each Senate district, we could really make an impact," Sister Sheila said, describing Jericho's eventual goal of an organized chapter in each district. "If Jericho is going to be a success, it's that the legislators will have heard about it from their constituents. It's exciting if I go in to an office and they've heard from them on a bill we support."

A native Angeleno, Sister Sheila has been with the Sisters of Social Service since 1956--and that is as close as she will come to telling her age--"It's just one of those things I have a thing about," she laughingly acknowledged.

She completed her education while in the convent, received a master of social work degree from Catholic University in Washington, and did both social and parish work throughout California, including working in Sacramento for the elderly.

Living Out the Gospels

Lobbying for her is a matter of social justice, and she sees it as no less a ministering to the poor and living out the Gospels than are such mercies as feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and clothing the naked.

In fact, the two are necessarily related to her, the Sisters of Social Service and Jericho, she said.

"Give food out, yes, but you always try to change the system so (the poor) can buy their own food."

Systemic change is one of Jericho's criteria for supporting legislation. With 5,000 bills under consideration each year, it has to be selective. Jericho sets its agenda, she said, by polling its membership for issues, and selecting bills its interfaith legislative committee judge to be acceptable to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. Only those bills are taken on that have a measureable impact on the poor, that can lead to systemic change rather than an alleviation of symptoms. They also, Sister Sheila added pragmatically, have to have a chance of making it.

For its first season, Jericho's issues were housing for low-income families, including the homeless, health care for the poor, prenatal and perinatal care for mothers and babies, and welfare programs for women and children.

When those bills were up for a vote or a hearing, her days were filled with scheduled, rescheduled and impromptu meetings in offices, in hallways, in the back of hearing rooms.

Such was the case in the days preceding the July recess. Her meeting with Assemblyman William Duplissea, a Republican from San Mateo, was derailed when the Assembly was locked up in chambers for a budget caucus. She was, however, undaunted. An aide took her to a corridor outside the chambers, where Duplissea was allowed to come to a small window. There they met, talking through the window.

Later that evening, when the committee met, Duplissea was one of two Republicans voting aye with seven Democrats on SB2405, a bill allowing taxation and low income housing credit, thus enabling it to pass out of committee. Sister Sheila did not take credit, but she said she was awfully glad she had paid that visit.

Uncomfortable Jolt

She is a plain-spoken woman and her manner is not that of the most worldly wise or politically savvy person at the Capitol. At times her straightforward words go directly to the point with an uncomfortable jolt.

She winces at today's attitude toward the poor. "In the Depression, everyone was poor together. But now, to be poor is sort of like to be bad," she said in disbelief.

But nowhere is she more plainspoken than when she is talking about legislation regarding babies and their welfare. She cannot say the word baby without raising her hands to shape an imaginary baby.

In a conversation with Stephen Blankenship in the governor's office, to discuss the prospects of her bills in the light of the much publicized $2-billion fiscal crisis, she made an all-out pitch for a group of prenatal and perinatal bills.

Blankenship shook his head sympathetically in concern and agreement with her, except for one thing, money.

It was an investment in the future, she pleaded--an up-front cost rather than later.

There was no "up front" for such things these days.

"Yes, but," she started, her voice cracking as she swallowed her pain, "a lot of these costs could be prevented."

Pile of Documents

Guilelessness is not the same as ignorance. It would be a mistake to dismiss her. Her office is piled with stultifying-looking piles of documents. She has plowed through them all, the bills, their revisions and analyses. She speaks of them with the interest and excitement others reserve for whodunits.

On top of that, there is her perseverance--a quality a few old friends kid her about.

She had pulled Assemblyman Richard Floyd of Hawthorne out of his office one night not once but twice when his vote was needed in Revenue and Taxation on the housing bill. The vote was slow in coming and he had disappeared.

Finally, returning for the second time, he walked by her saying, "All right, already, I got the message. How are you doing, Sister?"

Later, he laughed, "I have no choice but to follow her (directions). If I didn't she just be back in my office in the morning."

The name Jericho serves as an icebreaker countless times during the day as Sister Sheila proceeds to make her lobby known and plead her causes.

Sen. William Campbell, a Republican from Whittier, welcomed her to his office one busy morning, listened to her concerns and agreed to talk to the governor's office about the prenatal package.

Campbell then wanted to know more about Jericho and she invited him to become a member. Finally they were back in the Book of Joshua, remembering how Joshua had circled the city for six days, and then seven times on the seventh day. . . .

"We've got to do that here," Sister Sheila said, the two of them smiling in sync, Campbell seeming to know the Bible almost as well as she. "You've got to do it again and again."

Oh yes, he agreed, and wasn't there something about a prostitute.

Absolutely, Sister Sheila said. Rahab the harlot. Only she and her family were saved when the walls came tumbling down.

"Was she homeless?" Campbell asked, willingly her straight man.

Not homeless. Better yet, Walsh went on, smiling in triumph, "she gave shelter to the homeless. That's why she was saved."

"I knew there had to be a tie-in somewhere," Campbell said.

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