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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Tenacity, Triumph and Torpor in the Halls of Power

September 03, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — This is what it's like hanging around the Legislature when it's about to knock off for the year:

An odor of stale pizza and greasy Chinese wafts through the Capitol. Soiled napkins and paper plates clutter the marble floors. Hundreds of good people in rumpled clothes are thinking four-letter words.

High-priced lobbyists jam corridors behind the Assembly and Senate chambers, trying to maintain a semblance of dignity. They have one eye out for wandering legislators and another out for scarce space on a bench.

Lobbyists are the most prosperous and arguably the most knowledgeable people in the Capitol. But in this building--where it's illegal to write campaign checks--they're at the bottom of the pecking order in terms of treatment. They can stalk stray legislators or watch from the galleries but are barred from the massive doors that guard the chambers. To communicate with a lawmaker, they must grovel by sending in a plea on a business card. Please, we need to talk.

Reporters are allowed to penetrate the big doors. But unlike a generation ago, they are banned from the chamber floors. In one respect, reporters and lobbyists operate similarly: They all chase rumors and glean scraps of information from each other and legislators. There's one standard query: How long are we gonna be here tonight?

On the legislative floors, there's a montage of emotions. Some faces are tense, even panicky. These are lawmakers with bills on life support. They're scurrying about, begging colleagues for resuscitation. Other faces have glazed eyes. That's the look of the defeated, usually members of the minority party. But a few faces are beaming and relaxed. These are the winners who have just jockeyed a big bill through the Legislature and have been told the governor will sign it.

Three floors down in the governor's complex--the "horseshoe"--senior aides congregate in the chief of staff's office. They're phoning legislative allies or huddling with them out on a patio in the warm night, maybe smoking a cigar.

The governor is in the Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room, seated behind piles of paper neatly organized by issue. He's being the Marine general, monitoring the floor combat on TV, gathering intelligence from aides, directing their actions--and thinking four-letter words. Well, not just thinking them.

*

Like everybody else, I'm trying to find out what's really going on. But I'll admit it, I'm also a sucker for rhetoric. I enjoy watching legislators stand up and give it their best shot. Often, they make sense.

The Assembly debate over the tribal-state gambling compacts was one of the year's best.

There was irony, because the most pro-Indian legislators opposed the compacts, feeling they were too restrictive. These lawmakers asserted that Indians should be allowed more autonomy on their reservations. However, the pro-compact side opposes unregulated casino gambling in California.

"The facts are quite simple," said Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), a compact opponent. "The Indians have developed a way to make their flinty, forsaken, isolated land--where they were banished--provide a livelihood. That's possible because of the one thing we left them--their liberty. We are now acting to take away that liberty."

But from the other side, Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) referred to the 11 tribes that had negotiated and signed the compacts, and he asked simply: "Who are we to second-guess 11 tribal councils?"

Torlakson's side won--not because of any rhetoric, of course, but because it was led by the major legislative leaders and the Marine general downstairs.

My nomination for the most forthright, non-hypocritical speech went to Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa) on a proposal to lengthen term limits.

Many Republicans privately agree that lawmakers should be allowed to stay in office longer so the Legislature--and public--can benefit from their experience. But Granlund was the only Assembly Republican with the courage to vote the way he thinks. The measure was quashed.

"The facts are," Granlund said during the debate, "we've changed nothing with term limits except to degrade this house. Have we served the people of California better? I dare say not."

*

Thanks to one old pro, Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), the Legislature knocked off relatively early Monday night--the Senate at 9:30 p.m., the Assembly at 12:30 a.m. Burton refused to stay up all night playing games.

In past years, to hang around the Legislature until the final gavel meant watching the sunrise through the eastern windows of the Capitol. Now that is very depressing--more so even than stale pizza.

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