Trying to Cut Capitol Clamor
Legally barred from the California Assembly floor, eager lobbyists have been forced for years to pass their business cards through a small sliding window so that Capitol sergeants-at-arms can summon lawmakers from the chamber to chat.
Even though it has long been against the rules, the most industrious have been known to lurk outside the private elevators on the Capitol’s fourth floor, where trapped lawmakers cannot easily escape without issuing a rude, “Get lost.”
But no more. Amid complaints from Assembly members about lobbyists’ aggressive behavior, including arm-grabbing and veiled threats of political retaliation if votes don’t go a certain way, the chief sergeant-at-arms has begun enforcing the ban against lobbyists standing near the elevators.
“That’s why they’re called lobbyists. They belong in the lobby,” said Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who once found himself approached by a lobbyist in a Capitol bathroom.
The Capitol is a vibrant and intense place where the vast majority of conversations are respectful, Simitian and other lawmakers say. But many legislators -- particularly newcomers elected in the era of term limits -- lately have complained about aggressive behavior, condescension and a lack of respect from a few of the people being paid to influence state policy.
Some lawmakers and lobbyists blame the flare-ups on term limits, which have stripped the Legislature of a vast amount of institutional knowledge. That has put more power in the hands of lobbyists, who may better understand complex state issues, and also left them frustrated.
“The life of a lobbyist is a never-ending series of first dates,” said Jack Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Before term limits, the danger was the relationship was too cozy. This time, the problem is legislators aren’t sure which lobbyist they can trust and lobbyists aren’t sure how to deal with the constant influx of new personalities.”
The Legislature is considering two bills that would put new controls on lobbyists and how they interact with lawmakers, although prospects for the legislation are shaky. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said he thinks the bills are “bull” and should be killed.
But an internal debate over the bills has exposed some harsh feelings among lawmakers who would like to reduce the power -- and perceived arrogance -- of certain Capitol players.
“Aggressive behavior is one thing, but there is this patronizing attitude,” said first-term Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Davis), the author of one of the bills. “It comes because many of them have been here for a long time -- I would say perhaps too long -- and a certain civility has gone.”
Under the proposed legislation, a lobbyist would be prohibited from trying to influence an elected official if he or she had a financial relationship with the lawmaker. A campaign consultant who played a dual role as a special-interest lobbyist, for example, would have to pick one job over the other.
The bills do not address the personal behavior of lobbyists. But they were conceived after Richie Ross -- a well-known political operative -- yelled at two Assembly staff members whose bosses had voted against a bill important to his client, the United Farm Workers of America.
In a widely reported hallway confrontation last year, Ross told one staffer that his boss was “dead in my eyes,” according to eyewitnesses. Ross, who has worked in politics for 35 years, characterized the incident as a disagreement with someone he had known for a decade -- and it occurred after the Assembly voted on the matter, not before.
Ross has a unique and powerful position in Sacramento because he has served as a paid lobbyist for the UFW, trial attorneys and Indian tribes that own casinos, as well as a campaign consultant to Democratic lawmakers and high-profile officials.
Supporters of the two measures contend that when campaign consultants have a financial relationship with a lawmaker, they should be prohibited from advising them on public policy. Lawmakers, in other words, are more likely to listen to someone who is responsible for getting them elected and to whom they owe money.
“When you owe someone a lot of money, it seems to me that is an invitation for people to abuse the process and put undue influence on them,” said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Angeles), author of the other bill targeting lobbyists.
Ross has apologized for yelling at the staff members last June. But he said in an interview this week that lawmakers and their aides “have created for themselves up here a world that is dangerously insular” and have “avoided the rough and tumble of vigorous debate.
“Whether they like it or not, they are our societal referees and, as Americans, we have a right to yell at the ref,” Ross said. “They may not like it, so get another job.”
Ross bitterly noted that Frommer is engaged to a lobbyist for Pacific Gas & Electric, and wondered why that relationship is not subject to legislation while he gets punished for yelling at a staff member. “I am their straw man. This is just another example of their insular narcissism,” he added.
Frommer said there is a firewall between himself and his fiancee. He said she does not lobby him and he will exempt himself from any votes affecting the utility.
All 1,187 registered lobbyists in Sacramento are prohibited from promising campaign contributions in exchange for support on legislation. Among other things, they are banned from giving any gift worth more than $10 to any lawmaker or Capitol staff member in any given month.
The new bills, AB 1784 and 1785, target both the Legislature and elected statewide officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor’s office is working with Wolk to craft her legislation, which aides say Schwarzenegger generally supports.
Lobbyists say the Wolk-Frommer bills would trample their 1st Amendment rights to influence public policy. Parke Terry, a lobbyist with the Institute of Governmental Advocates, which represents lobbyists, said the state already has tough requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists to disclose their financial relationships.
Senate leader Burton said he believes the legislation is disrespectful to lawmakers because it assumes they cannot control themselves when talking to lobbyists or their political consultants.
“I think it’s demeaning to the process,” Burton said. “All [lawmakers] got to say is, ‘I ain’t talking to you,’ and that is the end of it. They don’t need something to protect themselves from themselves.”
Burton said he may steer the legislation toward the Senate Rules Committee, which he controls. That could effectively kill the bills if Burton declined to hear them.
Lately, some lawmakers have been startled by especially aggressive tactics of lobbyists, particularly those who represent single interests and are passionate about their cause, rather than lobbyists with professional firms that have a variety of clients.
Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael), elected to the Legislature in 2000, said that occasionally lobbyists have told him something like: “Look, we were your friend and we thought you would help us out on this.”
“That crosses the line,” Nation said. “The clear message from somebody who says that is, ‘We funded your campaign and you ought to vote the way we want you to.’ ”
Last year, a prominent union lobbyist was seen shouting at freshman Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). “It’s a dumb bill!” the lobbyist yelled as Yee stood against a wall. Yee fired back, shouting, “It’s not a dumb bill!”
In an interview, Yee said the conversation was simply two men talking passionately and it didn’t really bother him, particularly since he came to Sacramento from the brutal world of San Francisco politics. “I can handle it,” he said.
Ronald Pane, the Assembly’s chief sergeant-at-arms, said he began enforcing the ban against congregating near the elevators when he realized the situation had “gotten out of hand.”
Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg) said the vast majority of lobbyists treat him well, but he suspected some of the newer members got the heavy hand. “I think there is a bit of a game that goes on with new members to see how far they can be pushed, and some of the lobbyists push harder than others,” he said.
But Terry, the lobbyists’ lobbyist, said lawmakers have to realize that people have to advocate forcefully for their clients, and some lawmakers may need to learn to say “no” when they feel pressured.
“We’re never going to be loved,” Terry said. “But I would hope people recognize we perform a valuable function and we’re not all evil.”