Politics & Government

Shoeshiner gets the boot in California’s Capitol

Eddie Wright, who has run a shoeshine business inside the Capitol for many years, talks to a customer in this 2001 photo.
Eddie Wright, who has run a shoeshine business inside the Capitol for many years, talks to a customer in this 2001 photo. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

It stirred a variety of emotions at the state Capitol on Thursday when Eddie Wright, who has shined the shoes of lawmakers and lobbyists for 22 years, announced that he had been laid off.

Turns out the man who runs the Big City Shoe Shine bench near the N Street entrance to the state Capitol had been on the Senate’s payroll since 2000, while he also runs a private business charging customers to shine and repair shoes.

Wright’s taxpayer-funded salary amounted to a little more than $13,000 a year, not a huge sum for an institution that has about 160 staff members who make six-figure salaries.

Friends and customers are worried they will lose a fixture of life inside the Capitol. But government watchdogs wondered why taxpayers contributed to his income at all.

“He’s meant a lot to the Capitol community here. Everybody knows him,” said Gary Cooper, a lobbyist who said he’s grown close to Wright over many years of shoeshines. “People go out of their way to take their shoes to him. ... I’ll walk by there a couple times a week just to say hello.”

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he felt for Wright personally but questioned why a public institution employed a shoeshiner.

“It’s too bad if somebody of this modest means loses their job,” Coupal said. “There is nothing wrong with (the Legislature) making space available for him to run a business, but taxpayer funds for this service? I think most people would question that.”

State Senate officials, who have made layoffs to cope with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, said they could not comment on individual personnel matters.

Wright said the Senate paid him to provide information to visitors who routinely pepper him with questions as they stream past his stand near the Capitol’s south doors. He said he began operating the shoeshine business in 1992 and ran it for several years without drawing a public paycheck.

“The reason they hired me ... was that (former) Sen. Quentin Kopp was at my stand one day (getting his shoes shined) and about 10 people interrupted me for information,” Wright said.

“He said, ‘Man, how many people ask you questions every day?’ I said, ‘About 100.’ And he said, ‘You should get paid for that.’”

The way Wright tells it, he was quickly put on the payroll for a part-time minimum-wage job that provided benefits he’d never enjoyed.

“Before that I didn’t have no medical, no dental, no retirement. Just my little $50-a-day shoeshine stand,” Wright said.

He would have worked for the benefits alone, Wright said, but officials told him it wasn’t feasible to get them without also drawing a salary.

State Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, the Senate leader when Wright was hired, said the salary was minimal and that the shoeshiner needed health care.

“This helped him out,” Burton said.

Wright’s layoff follows months of controversy over the Senate’s personnel practices.

First came the revelation last spring that a Senate peace officer remained on the payroll for a year and a half after he tested positive for cocaine the night he was involved in a fatal off-duty gunfight. His mother was the Senate’s head of human resources and had faced complaints that she used her position to help family members get jobs in the Capitol. They both parted ways with the Legislature after The Sacramento Bee reported on the situation.

Last month came the announcement that the Senate was laying off 39 staff members – roughly a quarter of the employees who work for its administrative arm – including some longtime employees who do research, write bill analyses and perform secretarial duties.

Some change in staff was expected because political leadership of the Senate changed hands in October, with Sen. Darrell Steinberg leaving office due to term limits and Sen. Kevin de León taking his place as president pro tem. But the scope of cutbacks caught many people off guard.

Senate officials said they faced a $3 million to $4 million shortfall because the payroll had grown over the years to include more staff than the institution could afford to pay.

Wright said he performs a valuable service to the public.

“When you first come through the door, I’m the only one they can ask where should I go,” he said. “They might have a room number, but they don’t know how to get there. They might be going on a tour, but they don’t know it starts in the basement.”

Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez was one of Wright’s best customers, he said.

“He used to come down three times a week, wearing the nicest shoes you could have,” said Wright, who says he is unsure whether his business will remain in the Capitol.

He said a highlight of his 22 years came in the late 1990s, when R&B legend James Brown paid a visit to then-Gov. Pete Wilson. When Wright heard the so-called Godfather of Soul was in the governor’s office, he said, he walked over and told the receptionist: “I’m just trying to see the godfather.”

It worked. When Brown was done with his meeting, Wright said, he came by for a shoeshine.

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.