24 Years of Change, Not All for the Better

Herschel Rosenthal is a Democrat who has represented portions of the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles

As I prepare for other pursuits after 24 years as a state legislator, I have reflected upon the changes that have occurred in the state Capitol. Some have been good but others do not bode well as California's policy choices become more difficult and contentious.

On the positive side, the public is more involved in influencing state policy today than when I started. The Internet makes legislative documents available for free. Cable television broadcasts live floor and committee sessions.

Also, the Legislature better reflects the diversity of California. When I first came to Sacramento, there were only two women and six Hispanic members among the 120 legislators; now 26 women and 20 Hispanic members serve in the Capitol, and the numbers are growing.

One area that has not changed for the better is the personal relationships among legislators. This decline makes the job less enjoyable and makes it more difficult to agree on public policy.

When I first came to Sacramento, legislators worked together by day and socialized by night. Sometimes we argued, but it was always done respectfully. I was friends with rural, conservative Republicans and they were friends with me, a liberal Democrat from Los Angeles.

I would umpire softball games between the Senate and Assembly (I admit I threw a few calls to the more "mature" and "deliberative" Senate players.) Legislators would get together at the Derby Club, a lunch organization established in 1953. The club has a strict rule prohibiting discussion of legislative business so people can to know each other as human beings.

Frank Fat's, a 60-year-old Chinese restaurant three blocks from the Capitol building, often was filled with legislators sharing a meal or drink.

Today the atmosphere has changed. Years go by without a softball game. The Derby Club is ebbing because younger legislators have shown little interest in attending a weekly lunch. I see fewer legislators hanging out at Fat's.

Increasingly, members of the Legislature do not take the time to get to know one another on a personal level. Socializing with a member of the opposite party is almost considered an act of treason among some newer, more partisan members.

The respectful courtesy that opponents once extended during floor debates has given way to petty bickering, personal insults and simplistic bombast.

Several factors have contributed to the change. Public discourse generally has become more crass, corroded by television sound bites, shrill talk-radio hosts and candidates promising easy fixes to complex problems.

Term limits have short-circuited the ability of legislators to develop relationships that will last beyond the next election. An increased number of competitive legislative districts has raised the political stakes as each party vies for control of the two houses.

Whatever the reasons, the erosion of personal relationships hurts the Legislature's ability to deal with the difficult issues ahead.

In my view, the deterioration of relationships in the Legislature contributed to the disturbing racial undertones of recent ballot measures concerning affirmative action, bilingual education and illegal immigration. It was heartbreaking to see legislators from differing cultural or racial backgrounds debate these issues with an utter lack of sensitivity or understanding.

Politics has never been an avocation for the meek. It attracts people with healthy egos and strong opinions.

Under these conditions, it is essential for legislators to get to know one another personally, off hours, to discuss nonlegislative matters. Learn about families, hobbies and upbringing. Discover hopes and motivations.

As the most diverse society in human history and the most complicated state in the nation, California needs legislators who will work hard at developing harmony.

A good place to start is at lunch.

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