SACRAMENTO — Uh, Senator? There's an adult film star here and she would really like to speak with you.
Words to that effect echoed throughout offices Tuesday in the state Capitol as nearly two dozen adult entertainment professionals--actors, strip club operators, sex toy distributors and 1st Amendment attorneys--conducted a daylong lobbying blitz.
Under the banner of the Free Speech Coalition, a 900-member San Fernando Valley-based trade group for adult sex businesses, the lobbyists sidestepped throngs of visiting schoolchildren to visit legislative offices and buttonhole lawmakers with one message: Porn isn't necessarily a four-letter word.
As public acceptance of pornography has grown, the industry has tried to shed its back-alley image and be seen as an integral part of the state economy. The lobbying mission was less driven by a detailed legislative agenda or concerns about regulation than the industry's desire to be seen as a legitimate business.
With adult Web sites proliferating, the industry is concerned about maintaining Internet privacy and avoiding more taxes. There are worries about preserving "intellectual property" rights of actors, one of whom once found her likeness appropriated by an escort service ad. And there are the perpetual battles with religious groups about protecting the industry's 1st Amendment rights.
At each stop Tuesday, the porn lobbyists distributed a white paper portraying the industry as an economic force: more than 20,000 Californians, including 12,500 dancers, employed by 175 exotic clubs in the state; an estimated $31 million in state sales tax from the rentals of 130 million adult videos, and nearly $1.8 billion in Internet sales and traffic nationwide.
In all, the trade group visited the offices of more than 70 lawmakers--more than half of the 120-member Legislature.
'Like Ordinary Businesspeople'
"We understand what we do is always going to be a problem for a lot of people, but it is legal and we are a revenue generator, and we'd like a little respect," said Nina Hartley, 40, a nurse, self-proclaimed feminist--and actress with 560 film credits over 17 years. She is known for her mid-1980s porn comedy, "Debbie Duz Dishes," and had a part in the mainstream movie "Boogie Nights."
Kat Sunlove, the coalition's legislative affairs director, said Tuesday's reception was the warmest the group has received in the four years since it began the annual lobbying trek to Sacramento. Previously, Sunlove said, the trade association spent most of the time trying to distance itself from child pornography.
"We're past that now," said the 56-year-old grandmother and retired dominatrix. "This year, we're . . . talking like ordinary businesspeople facing ordinary business issues. . . . Taxation issues. Regulation issues."
Though the industry was met with cordial responses, there were few promises. An exchange with Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett was typical. The San Leandro Democrat greeted the porn visitors for a few minutes before rushing to a hearing.
"My job is to represent the people of California, and I'm glad to hear what anybody has to say," said Corbett. Yet, she said, "there's no doubt . . . that what they're here to talk about is controversial. They have their work cut out for them."
The actors and sex entrepreneurs did it cheerfully. They reminisced with Assemblyman Dick Dickerson (R-Redding) about his days as a Riverside vice cop three decades ago. They fielded questions from an aide to Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) about the theft of Internet pictures, the economic concentration of the adult video industry and AIDS testing for actors.
Lauren Montgomery, 32, who has 150 mostly hard-core films to her credit, said, "When I go up into a legislator's office, I want them to look into my eyes and make a human connection. I'm not a horrible person. I'm a great person. This is just what I do for a living."
Perhaps the most encouraging moment for the entertainers came with a visit to a conservative Republican lawmaker who agreed to a meeting, but was "about as dour as you imagine," said Sunlove.
"He was obviously unenthusiastic," she said, refusing to name him. "We spent 20, 25 minutes with him. And then he invited the president of the Free Speech Coalition to play golf with him."
Small victories like that mean a lot, added Sunlove, who cut her political teeth running grass-roots campaigns for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and others.
"The greeting I got in Sacramento today is far different than the greeting that I got in 1986," she said. "Politically, we're no longer a pariah."
Nursing that evolution is the foundation, which Executive Director Bill Lyon said has a $600,000 budget, much of which is funded by large video production houses in the Valley. Part of the money is spent on legal defense in obscenity and free-speech cases and to pay $10,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of child pornographers.
Sunlove also said the lobbying push Tuesday was as much about educating adult entertainers about the importance of government as it was about wooing lawmakers.
To that end, Sunlove ran a training seminar Monday. She gave each participant a 78-page lobbying manual, arranged for a top Assembly aide to make a speech on effective public testimony and put her charges through role playing.
Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), an outspoken civil libertarian stopped by Monday night's. So did Sen. Maurice Johannessen (R-Redding).
"I'm sure there are people who would say, 'What . . . are you doing there?' " he said. "I'd say, 'Why . . . not?' . . . They are legitimate. Nothing they do is against the law. . . . I may not owe them my support, but I do owe them consideration," he said.