The culture of California’s Capitol has changed much over the last few decades, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
A few weeks ago, the Legislature posted its operational rules for the 2022 session, including Rule 10.6: “A bill cannot add a short title that names a current or former legislator.”
It probably would be meaningless to anyone not familiar with the Legislature’s history but it is a clue to how much the Capitol’s culture has evolved in recent decades.
Let’s go back nearly a half-century to 1975, when Jerry Brown began his first stint as governor. The Legislature was composed almost entirely of middle-aged or older white men. One state senator, Ralph Dills, was first elected in 1938, the same year Brown was born.
It was, in effect, a demographic monoculture — very few Black, Asian or Latino members, and almost no women. In fact, the Senate’s first woman, Dinuba’s Rose Vuich, was elected a year later. For years, she kept a little bell on her Senate desk that she would ring each time one of her male colleagues would begin a speech addressed to “gentlemen.”
Legislators were accustomed to long tenures in office; sometimes, like Dills, decades-long. Even though Democrats had nominal majorities in both houses, overt partisanship rarely raised its head. The Senate operated on a bipartisan, almost nonpartisan, basis with minority Republicans often chairing major committees. Both parties adhered to an unwritten rule that there would be no efforts to unseat senators of the opposing party.
The masculine, clubby atmosphere was enhanced by the existence of two luncheon clubs, the Derby Club and Moose Milk, where senators would drink, eat and schmooze with lobbyists (also overwhelmingly male). Several nearby bars and restaurants, such as Frank Fat’s, David’s Brass Rail, Posey’s, Capitol Tamale and Ellis, were virtual extensions of the Capitol, sites where political deals were made, later to be written into law.
One of the Capitol’s rituals at the time was the naming of major legislation for their authors, dubbed “tombstoning.”
Thus, for example, the overhaul of mental health care in the 1960s was — and still is — known as the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act for Republican Assemblyman Frank Lanterman and Democratic Sens. Nick Petris and Alan Short. This is the law that Gov. Gavin Newsom now wants to modify, once again changing how the mentally ill are treated.
Another example is the Ellis Act, named for Jim Ellis, a Republican senator from San Diego, that makes it easier for landlords to exempt their property from local rent control laws. There are current efforts to change that law as well.
The Capitol’s culture began to evolve in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to demographic change, a massive corruption scandal dubbed “Shrimpgate,” the adoption of term limits in 1990 and court-ordered redistricting after the 1990 census.
The Legislature is now much more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation — much more reflective of the state’s complex social and cultural matrix — but conversely, it’s also reverted to somewhat of a political monoculture thanks to Democrats’ total control. Its members come and go, seemingly interchangeably, and only rarely does one rise above the herd. Former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and Sen. Scott Wiener are two of the few exceptions.
Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story
State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)
State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)
Time in office
Member, Board of Supervisors
Sen. Scott Wiener has taken at least $904,000 from the Finance, Insurance & Real Estate sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 13% of his total campaign contributions.
Former State Assembly, District 80 (Chula Vista)
Tombstoning was, to be certain, an egotistical exercise, but it also was a point of pride, telling the world that someone had the gumption to see an important legislative endeavor to the end, overcoming hurdles the legislative process erects.
The rule banning “a short title that names a current or former legislator” was first adopted about two decades ago, doing away with tombstoning. It also did away with legislative individuality, and that’s not necessarily progress.