Each January, as lawmakers return to Sacramento from three months in their hometowns, hundreds of lobbyists and staff members join them at The Park nightclub near the Capitol to sip Moscow Mules, puff on cigars and catch up with old friends and frenemies.
For more than a decade the extravagant Back to Session Bash—with cocktails flowing from ice sculptures and hip-hop beats pulsating across the dance floor—was a place to let loose. Debauchery at the bash, insiders joked, ended at least one career annually.
But with the Capitol reeling from accusations of sexual harassment and assault that have caused two legislators to resign and a third to take a leave of absence, the mood at the party this month was more subdued. Several women said—happily—that they weren’t getting as many drunken hugs as usual. Many wore black, a statement inspired by Hollywood actresses at this month’s Golden Globes to highlight efforts to stop sexual misconduct.
And party organizers decided to scrap the rapper they had planned to bring as the headline performer—Too Short, known for songs like “Blowjob Betty”, “I’m a Player” and “Call her a Bitch”—after learning he was accused last year of rape, an allegation he denies.
Instead, the evening opened with a gospel choir singing “Oh Happy Day.”
“We want it to be a safe and fun event,” said Paula Treat, a longtime lobbyist who, as part of the #MeToo movement, has spoken out about a legislator (now dead) who threatened her career when she refused to perform sexual favors.
Welcoming the crowd from the stage, Treat emphasized that security guards were stationed around the club: “If you have any issues throughout the night, please let them know.”
The party’s tab is picked up by interest groups that lobby in the Capitol—several Indian tribes that run casinos, a cigarette company, a slot machine manufacturer and a council of trade unions. Providing a memorable evening of free booze and entertainment is one way the groups try to wield influence—not only on the Capitol’s power brokers but on the junior staff who are frequently gatekeepers.
David Quintana, the lobbyist who first organized the bash 13 years ago, said he originally conceived of it as a way to do something fun for young staff members. It has since grown to become one of the Capitol’s main social events of the year—timed to the beginning of the legislative session to foster professional camaraderie before the inevitable showdowns that come with politics.
“Very soon the whole environment we’re involved in devolves into one of partisanship and fighting over bills,” said Quintana, a lobbyist whose clients have included Indian tribes and electronic cigarette companies. “Why not give people one opportunity to have fun?”
In past years, the party kicked off with welcoming remarks from the Legislature’s elected leaders. This year, legislative leaders were hundreds of miles away— Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon on a trade mission in Mexico, Senate leader Kevin de León attending meetings in his Los Angeles district.
Many legislators still attended—but most of them huddled in the private VIP room or mingled discreetly in public areas. None of them climbed on stage, as happened in 2014 when a handful of legislators danced with rapper Coolio—a moment that devolved into a political nightmare when video of the partying lawmakers showed up in an election attack ad. Its target, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva, lost re-election that year, then won her seat back again in 2016.
Not that there was any shortage of revelry at this year’s bash. Dance music started pumping after the gospel choir finished. The open bar was packed, and the smell of cigar smoke wafted across the outdoor patio. Assemblyman Travis Allen, a Republican candidate for governor, posed for selfies with party guests. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher made the rounds with her adult daughter, chatting with colleagues and taking a quick spin on the dance floor.
“It’s fun, and that’s all it is to me,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee. “The idea that something like that would ever affect how I vote on something is just atrocious and offensive. I can’t imagine it would influence anyone.”
Also chatting with friends on the patio was lobbyist Pamela Lopez, who last month accused Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh of sexually assaulting her in a hotel bathroom. He denies the charge but resigned after Lopez went public with her story.
Lopez said she was pleased that everyone she talked to at the bash wanted to know how they could support her in combating sexual harassment in the Capitol—a new topic for the party crowd.
“The room was buzzing with conversations about how we can work together and make our community safe,” Lopez said. “We didn’t have those conversations last year.”