Room 1190 is a place where elected leaders were answerable to the public and where so much of California’s political history was written.
By Kevin Riggs, Special to CalMatters
Kevin Riggs was KCRA-TV’s Capitol Reporter from 1994-2011.
It was November 2003. California voters had just elevated action movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship, following an improbable script during a wild political roller coaster year. I, along with the rest of the large and often restless Capitol press corps, had settled into my perch in Room 1190 for Schwarzenegger’s first news conference in the Capitol.
After the media frenzy that characterized the recall, it seemed like a welcome return to what passed for normal in the Capitol building. But as the event’s start time neared, I was startled to hear a loud roar coming from the hallway, and soon realized it was a crowd of schoolchildren, tourists and stargazers cheering the new political celebrity as he made his way down the corridor to Room 1190. It was, in effect, our 30-second warning that Schwarzenegger was on his way. Normalcy had yet to return.
That story came to mind this week as lawmakers returned to Sacramento in a completely different landscape, occupying temporary offices outside the Capitol, and as 1190, scene of so much history, home of decades’ worth of skirmishes between journalists and California’s elected leaders, faces its demise. Room 1190 is scheduled for demolition, along with the rest of the 1950’s-era Capitol annex, as part of a $1.3 billion makeover project approved by the Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
“There has been, frankly, a remarkable degree of bipartisan support for it,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a Democrat from Rancho Cordova, who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee. “People don’t like being in the building.”
Cooley says the demolition and construction of a new annex was made necessary by problems with asbestos, lead, leaky plumbing and lack of access for visitors with disabilities.
Opponents have sued in an effort to stop the project, citing concerns about cost and the loss of trees in Capitol Park.
“It doesn’t have to be demolished,” tweeted a group called Save Our Capitol. “The historic annex can be rehabilitated and brought up to modern health and safety codes.”
Room 1190 is just a part of the annex, but a significant part. It was once the home of the Capitol’s old switchboard operator system until Gov. Pat Brown inaugurated it as a press conference room in 1965, not long before he was ousted by another Hollywood newcomer named Ronald Reagan. The new governor and future president honed his skills there with weekly news conferences.
I recently returned to 1190 for a farewell visit, courtesy of Erin Mellon, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s communications director, and was reminded that in many ways, the place hadn’t changed since the Reagan era. There were the same long narrow desktops, the same uncomfortable yellow plastic chairs, the same carpeted camera risers.
No one will miss 1190 because it had great aesthetics. When photographer John Breedlove and I were teamed up covering politics there, juggling deadlines, it was just a drab and utilitarian workspace. There is no great nostalgia for the room itself, but I will miss what it represents; a place where elected leaders were answerable to the public and where so much of California’s political history was written.
“It was kind of the nerve center of Capitol news coverage,” longtime colleague John Myers, the Los Angeles Times Sacramento bureau chief, told me. “That room was sort of a personification of the power of the press. It was the place where you held powerful people to account.”
The large and robust press corps that existed when I began regular Capitol coverage nearly 30 years ago is just a memory. And soon, depending on court challenges, so will be 1190. But sometimes a room is more than just a room. Accountability journalism should never go out of fashion. That’s what really mattered about 1190, and what matters about whatever takes its place in the years ahead.