New sergeants-at-arms chief started at California Senate in ‘70s
When Debbie Manning makes a request, California’s most powerful politicians usually obey.
As a sergeant-at-arms for the California Senate for three decades, Manning has often been sent to round up tardy lawmakers from their Capitol offices and escort them to the floor so a quorum could be achieved.
On days when the Senate leader orders members not to leave the floor, Manning has served as the enforcer barring the exits.
And, when people talk too loudly at the back of the chambers during a floor session, even a senator, one “shhhh” from Manning and they likely fall silent.
Manning, 59, has been a firm but respectful presence at the Capitol for generations of politicians, and now her performance has been rewarded. She was appointed this month as the chief sergeant-at-arms for the Senate.
She is the first woman and first minority to hold that position since the convening of the first California Legislative Session in San Jose on Dec. 15, 1849.
In appointing her to the position, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) said the new chief “approaches her role with strength, integrity and experience.”
Manning said she would not have guessed, as an African American child raised in Sacramento by a single mother, that she would reach such a lofty perch.
“That wouldn’t have been a part of what I thought would have been possible for me,” Manning said.
She oversees 13 sergeants-at-arms who stand guard in Senate meetings to protect lawmakers and maintain order and decorum, and 45 security officers who guard the Capitol entrances, operating metal detectors.
Manning’s story is marked by struggle and reflects the broader cause of women’s rights in California.
In 1976, Rose Ann Vuich was the first woman elected to the state Senate. “So in 1977 they were looking for a woman to be a sergeant-at-arms, and they reached out to the various colleges, and I was lucky enough to be the one to make it,” Manning said.
Nothing could have prepared her for the rough times ahead. At 22, she was much younger than the other sergeants, who were all white men in their late 50s and older, many retired from law enforcement. They shunned her at first, assigning her to sit alone in a room all day without any work or direction.
“During my first several months, all they would say to me was ‘good morning’ when I came in and ‘good night’ when I left,” Manning recalled. “I would just sit at my desk all day and not do anything. I didn’t get any direction or training, and I would go home at the end of the day very frustrated and sometimes cry.”
She eventually learned how to do her job by talking to secretaries working for the various legislative committees.
“I knew I wasn’t going to let the team run me out,” Manning said. “So I came into work every day with a smile on my face, and once they realized I wasn’t going anywhere after several months, I suddenly had a whole bunch of uncles who brought me under their wings and taught me everything I know.”
Diane Watson, who in 1978 became the first African American woman elected to the state Senate, recalled Manning as someone who was serious and worked hard to prove herself, something that women lawmakers also had to do.
Watson said she was once told by a male senator that “I wasn’t wanted there. You were really tested then,” she said. “They had to feel that you were worthy to be among the white men.”
Manning’s plan had been to become an analyst for the state upon graduation.
“I only came for the job because I was a poor college student and they were paying $800 a month,” Manning said. She planned to keep the job just long enough to save up for graduate school.
“Once I got here, that changed,” Manning said. “There is something seductive about working in a building like this and being at the center of power.”
As she walked the halls of the Capitol one recent day, she was stopped often and congratulated by other female staffers. At 5 foot 10, Manning is an imposing figure. Her favorite after-hours activity is working out at the gym. Yet some women at the Capitol initially didn’t think she could protect them walking them to their car at night.
The sergeants-at-arms are sworn peace officers certified to carry guns, although they don’t carry them in the Senate, unlike their colleagues in the Assembly. In addition to attending Senate meetings, they assist the public viewing from the gallery, distribute bills and analyses to lawmakers’ desks, and make sure reporters and lobbyists do not go into restricted areas on the floor.
A command center next to her third-floor office allows her staff to monitor 160 cameras placed throughout the Capitol and around its perimeter.
The sergeants also drive lawmakers to and from the airport and meetings. When Sen. Ben Hueso (D-Logan Heights) was arrested in August on suspicion of drunk driving, it was a sergeant-at-arms who picked him up from jail the next morning.
The sergeants also have authority to enforce orders of the Senate leadership, including serving subpoenas.
Gov. Jerry Brown testified to their power when he visited the Senate in August. Brown recalled when he was governor in the 1980s and he was in the back of the Senate chamber talking to someone about a bill.
“I was in the back lobbying … and the pro tem, David Roberti, actually kicked me out,” Brown recounted. “And your marshals or whatever you call these deputies, actually approached me, and I had to turn tail and run to avoid the indignity” of being escorted out.
The sergeants faced possibly their greatest test in 1967 when the Legislature was in session debating a gun-control bill. More than two dozen gun-carrying members of the Black Panthers marched into the Assembly chamber in protest.
As legislators hid behind their desks, the Assembly chief sergeant-at-arms ordered the protesters to leave, and they eventually complied.
Manning, who returned after retiring in 2008, takes over an office that has gone through turmoil. Her predecessor, Tony Beard Jr., abruptly retired in May after acknowledging that he had delayed telling then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg that one of the sergeants-at-arms, Gerardo Lopez, had tested positive months earlier for cocaine. The test was conducted after Lopez was involved in an off-duty gunfight that left three people injured and one man dead.
Lopez was later fired by Steinberg for the drug use, but other employees complained that Lopez had long enjoyed favorable treatment by Beard in part because Lopez’s mother, Dina Hidalgo, was the Senate’s director of human resources. Hidalgo retired with a financial settlement.
Manning, who came out of retirement to become acting chief in August, declined to discuss the controversy but said she looked forward to improving the office through better training and education.
“I came back to sort of reinvigorate the office and move it forward,” she said. “I am, at heart, a teacher, so training the staff so progression can happen I think would be great.”
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