Painful All-Nighter for Legislators
Hannah-Beth Jackson, a 53-year-old assemblywoman from Santa Barbara, wanted to brush her teeth. It was late into a legislative “lockdown” imposed by the Assembly leadership, meaning lawmakers weren’t allowed to stray from their chambers.
So Jackson took a chance. She was sidling toward her office about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday when a guard stopped her. He followed the Democrat upstairs and posted himself outside the ladies’ room while she brushed, to foil any getaway.
For Assembly members with the power to raise taxes, set fees and spend billions of dollars, the marathon session closing the budget season was something of a humbling demotion, a reminder of all-nighters and pizza during finals week in college.
“We’re in a sweatshop right now,” said Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia).
The endurance test began about noon Monday and ended close to 30 hours later, following passage of the nearly $100-billion state budget. Members could flee the Capitol at their own peril, under authority of the speaker.
“Nobody really gets arrested,” said Patricia Soto, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City). “If they leave, they are collected.”
Most of the rank and file had little to do. The action was behind the scenes, as Wesson and other legislative leaders spent hours coaxing reluctant lawmakers to support the budget in hopes of building the 54-vote super-majority needed for passage.
That took time. Lots of time. In the end, Wesson labeled it the longest day in California legislative history.
An attempt to pass the budget at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday fell nine votes short. Some members sought to swap their vote for everything from more money for community colleges to a “Megan’s Law” list of registered sex offenders posted on the Internet.
At dawn, Wesson said, “I’m still standing, and I still have a little strength. We’ll keep talking.”
Sleep called for a fair amount of improvisation. Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) wandered into the members’ lounge, prowling for pizza. The room was dark; a few members were watching TV.
“I didn’t see anyone else in there until I almost stepped on three people. I didn’t see them sleeping on the floor.”
Levine himself grabbed 45 minutes of sleep atop a wooden conference table, his legs sticking over one end. For a pillow, he piled up a bunch of old Assembly bills.
“My leg still has a cramp in it,” he said hours later.
There were no separate quarters for women. Jackson ventured into the members’ lounge to see about sleeping on a couch. She found a bunch of her male colleagues snoring loudly. She turned and headed to her office, preferring to risk a confrontation with the guards.
At 3:30 a.m., one of the sergeants guarding the entrance to the Assembly floor said, “I wish I had a camera.”
Asked why, he said, “The members’ lounge.”
He described lawmakers sprawled on couches, hunched over a card game and crumpled in corners to snooze.
It looked, he said, “like Jonestown the morning after.”
As day turned to night and night to day, the Legislature was getting punchy. Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto) penned a brief poem titled, “A Short List.”
“Things that don’t exist:
“And 54 votes.”
With information scarce, legislators scanned the chamber for clues as to what might be guiding events. The Republicans at first produced just 4 votes in support of the budget. That led to speculation that GOP members might be preparing to dump caucus Chairman Dave Cox of Fair Oaks.
Jackson said she was intrigued by a gathering of Republicans at the front of the chamber. A constant presence was Cox’s heir apparent, Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).
“What you see more and more today is Mr. McCarthy standing right there, far more than I’ve seen him in the past,” Jackson said. “It looks like he’s making his move.”
McCarthy denied that was the case.
“Minority leader has nothing to do with this vote tonight,” said McCarthy. “When Dave Cox is termed out, I’ll look at running for leader, but that has nothing to do with today.”
Some saw a method in the lock-down -- a devilish means of breaking the resistance through enforced captivity. Months of meetings could not produce a budget, but maybe sleep deprivation would work.
Mountjoy said: “The speaker is working toward an end. If you put people under enough duress, they will do what the speaker deems to be the right thing. It may not be something they want to do, but they want out of this situation.”
As for Wesson, he conceded that imprisoning the members in their own chamber was a bit of a risk.
“I don’t think initially they felt I would keep them here,” he said. “It caught them off-guard. It forced them to be engaged.... This is a beautiful place, but it is not a comfortable place.”
Painful though it was, the tactic worked.
By mid-afternoon, the budget passed with 2 votes to spare. Afterward, Wesson made the rounds of Democrats, shaking hands and exchanging hugs.
He later complained that several of the guys had scratchy beard stubble.
Even the speaker was inconvenienced.
“I’m not used to wearing the same suit two days in a row,” said Wesson, a bit of a clotheshorse.
The spectacle was no surprise, experts said. The fact that the Senate passed the budget last week was no guarantee the Assembly would follow in lock-step.
“What goes on in one chamber doesn’t necessarily dictate what goes on in the other,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
“Nobody said representative government is pretty.”
Still, Pitney wonders about the final product.
“I’ve read many a paper after an all-nighter,” the professor said. “And they seldom turn out well.”
Contributing to these reports were Times staff writers Virginia Ellis, Evan Halper, Carl Ingram, Gregg Jones, Dan Morain, Peter Nicholas, Jeffrey L. Rabin, Nancy Vogel and Jenifer Warren.