Around the Capitol, reaction to last week’s disclosure that state senators have round-the-clock access to drivers while in Sacramento could be summed up as a collective “What’s the fuss?”
Among the general public, the reaction could be characterized more as “What the heck?”
The Senate’s 24-hour driver availability, launched in part to keep senators from driving drunk, marks the latest episode of a policy accepted as a logical move inside the Capitol but seen elsewhere as elitist behavior by politicians who are out of touch.
Those who follow the Capitol say there’s an explanation, if not an excuse. Legislative leaders must answer to voters at election time, but in Sacramento, their first constituency is the members who elect them to their powerful posts.
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They make gestures, big and small, to build loyalty. They offer a better office, grant approval to hire an extra staff member, or ensure financial backing at campaign time.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who took over the position from former Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento last fall, hopes to maintain his position as leader until he is termed out in 2018. Keeping his members safe and out of the headlines is one way to do it.
“Internally, this is about keeping his members out of harm’s way,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic political consultant. “And one of the jobs of the pro tem is to be helpful to their members and to protect the members – and to protect the institution, too.”
Distributing cards with 24-hour numbers for senators who need late-night transportation is only one of the ways de León has sought to cement his relationship with fellow lawmakers.
Earlier this year, he rededicated the Capitol’s Rose Ann Vuich Hearing Room, named for the Central Valley Democrat who in 1976 became the first woman elected to the California Senate.
He unveiled pictures of the 42 women who have served in the Senate, current members among them, and held a reception afterward in his office.
Leaders are also responsible for raising money to help members come election time. Last year, with three senators the focus of political scandals, Steinberg and de León suspended the Pro Tem Cup, a fundraiser for the Democratic Party held at the Torrey Pines Golf Course near San Diego. Special interests and their lobbyists pay as much as $65,000 to mingle with senators at the event.
A joint statement from the leaders at the time said Senate Democrats instead “intend to spend this weekend in our districts having an open and public conversation with our constituents about the work ahead for this Legislature and for this State.”
This year, the event was back on. Goody bags for guests included an order form for the Apple Watch. Jason Kinney, a lobbyist who works as a spokesman for Senate Democrats, declined to say how much was raised but said the event was “the most successful to date.”
The Legislature has long offered some type of ride service to members.
Among their duties, sergeants-at-arms are available to shuttle Southern California lawmakers between the Capitol and Sacramento International Airport. They also take lawmakers to meetings and other events near the Capitol.
“It was kind of a convenience thing,” recalled longtime former Sen. Robert Presley, who said he appreciated not having to find a parking spot when a sergeant-at-arms took him to an event on his schedule. Lawmakers had to find their own way home in the wee hours, Presley recalled.
The Assembly offered after-hours lifts to members under longtime Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, but that practice ended in the mid-1990s. Currently, sergeants-at-arms are available to escort Assembly members between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and until midnight on Sundays, 10 p.m. on Fridays and 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, the fourth legislator in the past five years to be arrested for driving under the influence, was stopped around 2:30 a.m. driving the wrong way on a one-way street. He pleaded guilty to a lesser “wet reckless” charge.
Sragow said he believes the driver policy reflects a sincere attempt by de León to prevent drunken driving. But Sragow said he understands the public’s reaction, too, with polls consistently showing people’s low opinion of the Legislature.
Rank-and-file members of Congress, as well as lawmakers in the next two largest states, Texas and New York, have no such service. Like their constituents, they have to call a cab if they’ve had one too many late-night drinks.
“For most voters, great idea (to reduce drunken driving), but you don’t have to give them special treatment,” Sragow said.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, suggested that another way around the problem would be for lawmakers to show “some restraint” in their alcohol consumption.
For his part, de León has said nothing to defend the program, which required the hiring of two part-time drivers in February. After initially declining comment, the office released a statement this week from Senate Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Debbie Manning emphasizing other duties of the late-night drivers.
“It’s the primary protective mission of the Senate Sergeants-at-Arms to ensure the security of our Senators and staff when they are working – which frequently entails long days and late hours,” she wrote. “It’s a 24-hour-a-day responsibility.”
Manning said the new employees were brought on “after thoroughly assessing our current response capacity.” They are responsible for “overnight emergency services in the Capitol, including in-building security, refueling of Senate vehicles, transporting Senate and staff and escorting Senate and staff to their vehicles after dark.”
Members that The Sacramento Bee spoke to on the Senate floor this week were divided over the necessity of the program.
Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, argued that transportation should be provided only when it “helps with the conduct of the business of the Senate.”
“I don’t think it’s needed,” he said of the nighttime rides. “I don’t think it’s justified.”
Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said the program could be a matter of protecting lawmakers’ safety.
“It’s important for any senator ... to have access to the sergeants,” she said.
Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said that “if it helps one person, then I think it’s worth it.”
“People get in trouble every year,” he said, “so it’s a little bit of backup in case anyone has any reason not to get behind the wheel.”