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A Ghost Town's Lesson in Political Reality

September 12, 2002|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Every now and then a piece of legislation illuminates the good, the bad and the ugly of politics. So it was with Assembly Bill 1757.

It started as a thing of simple beauty, a bill dreamed up by some kids competing in a contest sponsored by their assemblyman. Their winning idea? Designate Bodie, a dusty old mining camp near their junior high in Mono County, as the official ghost town of California.

The kids' teacher figured that the experience--from the germ of an idea through the labyrinthine legislative process to a gubernatorial signature making the bill law--would give her students an insider's peek at state government.

The assemblyman, Republican Tim Leslie, agreed. Here, he figured, was a slam-dunk bill, sure to deliver a no-sweat, satisfying victory for him and the kids.

It didn't turn out quite that way. And what happened made even Leslie, a 16-year Sacramento veteran, chuckle in disbelief.

* There are 12 students at Lee Vining Junior High School. For them, winning Leslie's bill-writing contest was a very big deal.

The kids chose the Bodie idea because they think it's a special place--an Old West relic painstakingly preserved in its original state--and because it lures tourists through Lee Vining, giving hometown businesses a boost.

After diligently researching Bodie's history, gathering facts to support their plea, the students shipped their bill off to Sacramento. Then the fun began--a trip to the Capitol, a meeting with Leslie, even the chance to testify before an Assembly committee. Politicians gave them the VIP treatment and, best of all, AB 1757 looked to be whizzing through the Legislature with nary a no vote.

Then this happy tale of a civics lesson brought to life took an unexpected turn: Opposition surfaced. Votes vanished. The bill that looked like a sure thing suddenly appeared doomed.

The trouble arose after merchants in Calico, a commercialized ghost town near Barstow, raised a stink: Why Bodie? It's not fair. We're special too!

Soon, Calico backers had the attention of Southern California legislators, especially Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who grew up in Barstow and recalled visiting Calico as a child.

When the bill came up in the Senate for a fateful test in June, Romero voted no, and most of her fellow Democrats did the same or abstained.

Down went the Bodie bill. Or so everyone thought.

*

There's a saying around Sacramento: Never fall in love with your bills, because if you do, you'll wind up doing goofy things to get a vote.

Leslie, a veteran lawmaker, lives by that mantra. But the Bodie measure, he said, "put me in a competitive mode." After all the kids' hard work, he said, "I did not want to lose this bill."

There's another saying around Sacramento: No bill is ever really dead. And despite its initial fate in the Senate, AB 1757 came back to life.

Resurrection was made possible by state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), who felt bad that "the kids had a great idea and then walked right into other people's pride."

Bowen, who visited Bodie over the summer, offered a compromise. Why not, she wondered, tweak the bill's language and make Bodie California's official Gold Rush ghost town? Then next year, Romero could carry legislation making Calico the state's official Silver Rush ghost town.

Romero said the deal suited her fine, but Leslie balked. He views Bodie as the state's "real deal" ghost town, and said Calico is a distant second, offering the "shooting gallery and snow cone ghost town experience." It pained him to dilute Bodie's designation, even slightly.

In the end, however, Leslie read the tea leaves and signed on. And thus the Great Ghost Town Compromise of 2002 was approved by the Senate, and later by the Assembly, on unanimous votes.

Last Thursday, Gov. Gray Davis sealed the deal, signing the measure into law. News of the action reached Lee Vining Junior High by lunch hour, delighting the creators of AB 1757.

Their teacher, Janine Barbato, said the controversy may, in fact, have enhanced the kids' learning experience. Politics, she noted, is the art of compromise: "It's not bad for them to see that you don't always get what you want and that working things out with other people is part of life."

For Leslie, the fate of AB 1757 brought a sense of deja vu. Years ago, as a freshman legislator, he carried a bill to make "I Love You California" the official state song. A furor ensued, with lawmakers and other Golden Staters offering up their favorite songs.

"I remember Ross Johnson brought a boombox into the committee hearing and played 'California Girls' by the Beach Boys," Leslie recalled. "That was his pick."

In the end, Leslie had to agree to an amendment remarkably similar to the ghost town compromise. Instead of a designation naming the tune the official state song, the statute calls "I Love You California" an official state song.

That's politics.

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