June 7, 2014

Advocates flock to California Capitol with cookies, causes

Wearing a bright green United Domestic Workers T-shirt, Janet MacLean stood out against legislative aides walking to work in business suits outside the Capitol one day last week.

Wearing a bright green United Domestic Workers T-shirt, Janet MacLean stood out against legislative aides walking to work in business suits outside the Capitol one day last week.

Using an electric scooter, MacLean watched from three feet below most of the crowd, a mix of about 4,000 caretakers and clients, many of them bused in from San Diego, Del Norte County and parts in between.

MacLean, who was a caretaker until a progressive joint disease and a bad fall left her in need of her own care, joined the coalition of labor groups slamming the governor for changes in home care funding.

“In the Capitol, they go by numbers,” said the Placer County resident who traveled to the Thursday rally, spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, hoping that the Brown administration would be more responsive to seeing how many people the policy affects. “Any time they see numbers, you make sense to them.”

As budget season heats up each year, an influx of advocates like MacLean descend on the Capitol, staging rallies and marches to present a case for an issue, seeking to catch the attention of the media and government leaders. The Capitol grounds are home to about 900 events each year, with an uptick from March to July, the result of good weather and a busy legislative calendar, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Ed Bertola.

“We get days when we will have 10 different events going on,” said Bertola, who oversees event permits. “During this time of year, a lot of things are budget-related.”

Even seemingly promotional events often have agendas. On another side of the Capitol on Thursday, the organizations Trout Unlimited and California Trout sought to raise awareness for salmon and trout, which have had their numbers thinned by the drought this year. Signs and tables lined the north walkway, piled with literature on trout conservation and “Chinook-y” cookies, named for and shaped like the salmon species.

Curtis Knight, California Trout’s conservation director, said the groups are particularly interested in water bond proposals and effective groundwater management.

Now in its fifth year, the event featured a fly-casting competition that drew three lawmakers after the legislature’s morning session adjourned. After getting his line caught twice in a Redwood tree, Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, scored a point by landing the end of his line inside the makeshift target – a hula hoop. With three points, Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, was ultimately crowned victor, though only after organizers gave him more time because, they said, he had the most trout streams in his district.

The competition was over by 11 a.m. and as the legislators trickled away, organizers talked to passers-by and handed out ice cream, a complimentary snack that drew long lines on the sweltering day. At the other side of the Capitol, lawmakers continued to rally caretakers and their patients, who were planning to storm the hallway in front of the governor’s office.

Inside the Capitol building, the frequency of events on a diverse range of subjects added to an already busy environment, especially near a legislative deadline.

“I think that sometimes it can be very hectic,” said Peter DeMarco, communications director for the Senate Republican Caucus. “You’re not always sure what their objective is.”

But he described constituents’ desire to visit Sacramento and communicate a position as a “good thing,” a gesture meaningful to legislators. “The Capitol is the people’s house,” he said.

Events such as the SEIU rally are effective, lawmakers said, because they provide information not only about a position but also the degree to which constituents care about it.

“On one hand, the same words could be conveyed by a lobbyist,” Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said in an interview after speaking to the SEIU crowd. “But hearing from people who are actually doing the work on the front lines is so very important.”

From the perspective of planners, success might be measured in other ways.

“Oftentimes, it’s not just the members that they are targeting but press, which reinforces whatever message they are trying to get across,” said Robin Swanson, a Democratic consultant who worked for former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez.

Events that attract the media require “compelling visuals,” Swanson said, recalling a gathering she planned to protect wildlife from the effects of lead ammunition. It featured a giant golden eagle.

The CHP denies only a sliver of requests to meet outside the Capitol. But permits are issued even for low-profile affairs. On Thursday for instance, the CHP granted a permit allowing a photo of about 50 Caltrans workers from the Division of Local Assistance. The event lasted only a few minutes.

In an effort to streamline the process, CHP revamped its procedures in February by going paperless, a move that Bertola, who supervises the procedure, said will expedite permit approval and likely increase the number that the agency issues.

“I’ve had it take two minutes before,” he said. “Probably less.”

The timing of an event can also be important to its success. After an early morning Thursday session, lawmakers are eager to leave the Capitol for the weekend by the afternoon.

By 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, most SEIU workers had cleared the Capitol, leaving behind a flurry of large neon-colored Post-it notes on the walls around the governor’s office with personal appeals to increase funding for in-home health care workers. There was no immediate indication, however, that the demonstration convinced the governor to change his position.

“We recognize that people want to spend more money,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance. “But the governor has made it abundantly clear that we need to live within our means and maintain fiscal discipline.”

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