He first began attending fundraisers and other after-work events near the Capitol as an Assembly fellow in 1985. Older legislative staff members encouraged him to go for the networking opportunities, and more importantly, for the free food.
But for veteran lobbyist Bob Giroux, the constant presence and ready availability of alcohol eventually became a habit and then a way of life. By the time he stopped drinking in 2010, after five years of trying to get sober, Giroux’s alcoholism had destroyed his family life and nearly his career.
“I loved what I did and I didn’t want to lose that, so I had to change the way I lived,” Giroux said.
Mixing work with booze has been a fundamental part of the Capitol culture for decades. But the blurred lines between business hours and playtime have given way to bouts of excess, from drunken driving to sexual misconduct to addiction.
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Two altercations at Sacramento fundraisers this month put the spotlight back on the scene: Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, was kicked out of a restaurant in mid-August for allegedly threatening to “bitch slap” a lobbyist; he says his comments were misunderstood. Days earlier, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, reported to the Legislature that he was shoved by a health care union president, who denies any physical contact.
“The vast majority of people know how to behave themselves. Unfortunately, there are some people who don’t,” said Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat who was present at the fundraiser where Bloom said he was pushed. “There’s always a couple of people who push the envelope.”
Fundraisers are a daily occurrence at the downtown bars and restaurants around the Capitol; there were 19 evening functions over the course of three days last week, according to the Capitol Morning Report, including a “margarita mixer” and a “tequila tasting.” Others simply prefer to conduct their deal-making in a more casual setting, pouring drinks late into the night.
Lawmakers point out that they are largely stuck away from home for three or four nights a week with not much else to do. Many lobbyists believe that these receptions outside the Capitol are where the real work gets done.
As day turns to night, and the same close circle of legislators, lobbyists and staff members move their interactions across the street — people compared it to a school campus and a submarine docking at port — the tensions of the building sometimes travel with them. When the alcohol starts flowing, that friction can spark.
Anderson’s disagreement with California Nurses Association lobbyist Stephanie Roberson began with a discussion over an endorsement from her organization, according to sources who attended the event. SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West President Dave Regan, who allegedly pushed Bloom, said he was agitated by another attendee at the fundraiser who had disparaged unions to his face.
“You have a whole bunch of people who have strong feelings — or they wouldn’t be in this business,” Giroux said. “Some can’t leave their feelings on the playing field.”
The Legislature is occasionally forced to confront the consequences of those who don’t behave.
Between 2010 and 2014, four lawmakers were accused of driving under the influence, three of them on the downtown streets around the Capitol. It culminated with the August 2014 arrest of Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, following a California Latino Legislative Caucus dinner celebrating the end of the session. The incident reached another level of infamy because of a quickly-deleted tweet from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, that showed Hueso and his colleagues partying on the Assembly balcony after the meal.
The following spring, then-Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León established an overnight ride service for lawmakers too drunk to drive themselves home. Senate officials hired two part-time employees to provide late-night and early-morning rides for senators while they were in Sacramento but scrapped the program after it was reported by The Bee.
The emergence last fall of We Said Enough, a campaign that formed part of the broader #MeToo movement, demanded genuine self-reflection. Women who signed an open letter decrying a culture of “pervasive” abuse in California politics described being regularly harassed, and even assaulted, at functions within the Capitol community. Some blamed alcohol for muddying the personal and professional spheres, fueling harassment that carried over to the building.
Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra resigned last year after more than half a dozen women complained about his inappropriate behavior, including one who said the Los Angeles Democrat stalked her around a public event at a downtown Sacramento nightclub and groped her when he was a chief of staff.
A former staffer accused Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of cornering him and drunkenly grabbing his butt at a legislative softball game, while another alleged that the Bell Gardens Democrat fired him because he refused to play “spin the bottle” with her after a fundraiser at a whiskey bar. An Assembly investigation into the former charge did not uphold his claim, though Garcia’s accuser appealed that finding.
The outcry prompted the Senate and Assembly to hire outside lawyers to investigate claims and appoint a panel of experts to make factual determinations on cases.
Lawmakers and lobbyists said they have observed some changes on the social circuit as well. People are rethinking what conduct is inappropriate, they said, and are more willing now to step in when they see bad behavior.
“What used to be just basic gossip has now become reportable offenses,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, who assumed her post in the midst of the scandal, said she noticed that fewer people attended a recent annual karaoke fundraiser for Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma, and the atmosphere was more subdued. She’s waiting for the Legislature’s next internal culture survey to determine if things are really any different.
“Many of these relationships and after-hours situations happen because we work in this building and people need to blow off steam,” Atkins said. “But we need to redefine what that means, and that’s going to be incumbent on each and every one of us to take some personal responsibility. And when that doesn’t happen and incidents get reported, there will be fallout, there will be follow-up, there will be consequences and there will be actions.”
Adama Iwu, a leader of We Said Enough, said alcohol is often a convenient excuse. She pointed out that many people have complained about sexual harassment occurring during sober encounters inside the Capitol.
“These things can happen with or without alcohol,” Iwu said. “It’s about treating people with respect and having enough of a process in place so people know and understand exactly what the boundaries are and that they will be held accountable for aberrations of that behavior.”
But Iwu was encouraged by the response to the Anderson incident. Witnesses said individuals intervened quickly, and it was reported to the Senate within days.
“It’s something new that I don’t know if we would have seen this time in 2017,” she said. “What we typically see is people close ranks, they don’t say anything.”
Giroux said he would not have turned his life around without the support of his business partner and others in the Capitol community. He has since sponsored a handful of other lobbyists in sobriety programs.
Despite giving up booze, however, he has not given up the fundraisers and bar meetings entirely — like others, he believes they are too important to a business built on relationships. Giroux said he sets his own rules for handling events where alcohol is present, like leaving after 45 minutes, when he starts to feel uncomfortable.
“It wasn’t until I quit drinking,” he said, “that I noticed how many people were drinking less than me or not very much or not at all.”