SACRAMENTO — This city without the Legislature is like Mission San Juan Capistrano without the swallows: It's slow, it's quiet, and you don't have to watch where you step.
December in an odd-numbered year is about as quiet as Sacramento gets. Next year at this time, freshly elected and reelected legislators will be pouring into town for swearing-in ceremonies, jostling among themselves for leadership posts and committee chairmanships.
But now is the time when the sun of Southern California, the chilly, trout-filled rivers of the foothills and the snowy peaks of the Sierra pull people from the Capitol with no less force than the stiff north wind that whips the last golden leaves from the huge elms and maples that line the city's streets.
Central Valley lawmakers wander into their Capitol offices in blue jeans and cowboy boots. Legislative staffers abandon their button-down shirts for pullover sweaters. And the press has time to lean back and reflect on the meaning of the hundreds of new laws that will confront Californians on Jan. 1.
It's not so isolated that Thoreau would mistake Sacramento for Walden Pond. Life goes on. The bureaucracies keep churning out regulations and programs without regard to whether the Legislature is in or out of session. The huge bulk of governance happens in the agencies--health, transportation, corrections--not in the halls of the Capitol.
Besides, state government doesn't dominate Sacramento the way it once did. There is enough real work being done in this city now that the rest of the town hardly seems to notice when the big-name players head home.
But there is something missing. Downtown Sacramento, no Manhattan even during hectic times, is downright sleepy when the Legislature leaves. The restaurants are quieter at lunch time; the bars are less crowded at night. The shuttle bus to the airport from the Capitol leaves empty more often than not. The outstretched palms of fund-raising lawmakers give way to the searching eyes of persistent panhandlers on L Street.
And the solitude breeds speculation.
People start wondering whether Gov. George Deukmejian will run for a third term, even though he is only a quarter of the way through his second term. If Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach) is confirmed as the new state treasurer, who will run for his seat in Congress? And if an assemblyman wins that race for Congress, who will take his seat in the Legislature? Ad infinitum.
December is also a time to plan for the new year.
"It is the time for plotting and strategizing (sic) before the wars begin in January," says Sen. John Seymour, an Anaheim Republican. "You find the political staffs closeted behind their doors laying plans for their leaders. It's really a quiet-down time, when you clean last year's slate and put together next year's agenda."
Seymour was one of several legislators who took privately sponsored political trips during the break, an annual ritual. He went on a 10-day, expense-paid excursion to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles. Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) was on the same trip.
Other legislators were forced by the press of business to attend informational committee hearings in places like the resort communities of Palm Springs, San Diego and Monterey, prompting Orange County lobbyist Dennis Carpenter, a former state senator, to note that there weren't nearly so many junkets in the "old days," when he was in the Legislature.
"There are a lot more legislators traveling these days," Carpenter said. "It's getting to be almost as good as Congress."