The enormous Mickey Mouse balloon had already descended from floating over the California state Capitol grounds when Jessie Mobley’s 4th-grade class walked by the governor’s office and spotted Mickey himself walking in.
Wearing white T-shirts decorated with images representing bills they had researched and decided to support, the children debated the meaning of a mascot-suited cameo that hadn’t been explained in their civics class. Their teacher offered a couple of theories.
“We decided either Disney wants a tax break or maybe they’re inviting the governor to the 60th anniversary (of Disneyland),” Mobley said. “I guess they’re bringing out the big guns, whatever they want.”
Disney representatives were, in fact, in Sacramento to celebrate 60 years of Disneyland, an occasion that meant a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown, laudatory resolutions on the Assembly and Senate floor and countless photos of lawmakers posing with a famous mouse.
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“We are celebrating 60 years of history in California, and marked this special milestone by bringing the magic of the Disneyland Resort to Sacramento and the state Capitol,” Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said in an email.
The anniversary offered an occasion for lawmakers to celebrate a world-famous California brand that is a significant source of jobs and revenue. It also represented the latest time a private company hosted an event on the Capitol grounds.
On other days, the Walt Disney Company might have more serious business in Sacramento. The company has retained the services of two different lobbying firms for the current legislative session. Last year, they joined other entertainment industry representatives in an ultimately successful push to triple California’s film tax credit to $330 million a year. Filings show that this year they have lobbied regulators over mandatory Proposition 65 warnings.
Critters under the watchful eye of SeaWorld employees visit the Capitol most years – most recently, the menagerie included a kangaroo, a kinkajou and penguins. Last year, SeaWorld flexed its muscle in working to defeat a nationally watched bill banning orca shows and captive breeding.
Yum! Brands, whose companies include Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, held an event on the Capitol steps giving free lunch to staff members, and intends to do so again this year. The fast-food industry has a direct interest in many of the bills that lawmakers debate, from legislation boosting the minimum wage or requiring better notice for shift work to a bill giving franchise owners more leverage over their parent company.
The guidelines for getting a permit bar commercial activity. That means no buying or selling goods on the Capitol grounds. As long as they abide by that, organizations that exist to conduct commercial activity can get a spot.
“We treat everybody the same, whether it’s a singular person, a private business or a public government entity,” said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Steven White. “If they want to come here to express whatever they want, they can, because it’s an open forum. They just can’t sell any goods.”
Advocacy outside the Capitol building is part of the daily rhythm of California politics. On any given day, interest groups organize rallies on the steps or lawn to promote or condemn bills, often with legislators urging participants on. Just last week, a major labor union and health care industry groups marshaled a major demonstration.
By contrast, corporate-sponsored events are often free of any explicit legislative focus. SeaWorld said it sought to educate people about wildlife conservation. Yum! Brands was promoting a food drive. Comcast holds an annual ceremony on the steps to distribute college scholarships.
“This is purely an effort to really highlight and value what our students in California are doing and achieving,” said Jenny Gendron, a spokeswoman for Comcast. “Regardless of anyone’s thoughts about past political affiliations or things we’ve done, this is purely about the students.”
Events do offer increased visibility and exposure to policymakers and their staff. Lawmakers join the Comcast ceremony to hand out scholarships to their constituents, and Gendron said the event has been so popular that Comcast has begun expanding it to other state capitols.
“To be recognized on such a big platform, it’s just so great for them and for us,” Gendron said.
Any such occasion serves a dual purpose, said Steven Maviglio, a political consultant who worked as an aide to former Gov. Gray Davis and to former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez.
“It’s always the carrot-and-stick approach: the lobbyists do the heavy lifting inside the building, and the soft and cuddly stuff is on the outside,” Maviglio said.
It could also represent a savvy business move. Permits are free, giving businesses a low-cost opportunity to represent their brand in a public space that sees steady streams of staffers, lobbyists, advocates and tourists.
“To hold an event on those grounds that the company sponsors towards some charitable or philanthropic mission, I think it helps the company get some of the brand equity that comes from that,” said Ashwin Aravindakshan, a professor of marketing at the University of California, Davis. “Doing it on the Capitol grounds by its very nature means they get exposure of some kind.”
Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, who regularly leads tours explaining the building’s history, said he saw no issue with the events. Cooley said that he errs on the side of free speech and said it’s unlikely that commercial groups sway lawmakers with promotional events.
“Every darn issue in the state shows up here, so people may wish to be seen in and around the state Capitol – to me, that’s understandable,” Cooley said, adding that for corporate-sponsored events, “I don’t think it’s going to create a material difference in how they’re perceived in the commercial marketplace.”
There’s no indication anything will change. Given the endless procession of groups and individuals who promote their causes or organizations, restricting access based on perceived attempts to influence votes could end up encompassing just about everyone, Maviglio said.
“That would be a difficult one to regulate,” he said. “Everybody has some kind of legislative interest – they wouldn’t be on the Capitol grounds if they didn’t.”
Jeremy B. White: (916) 326-5543, @CapitolAlert