On a Monday evening, a new homework assignment was up for grabs in a Sacramento State special projects class.
An instructor asked for a volunteer to look up the new California Assembly committee chairs before the next class. No hands.
A lobbyist in the room mentioned that she could e-mail the list to whoever took the assignment. Student Monica Aceves’s hand shot up first, prompting laughs about an easy “A.”
“Because we’re teaching you about lobbying in this class, cheating is OK,” the instructor quipped. “Shortcuts.”
This is lobbying 101 with instructor Richie Ross.
Ross is best known in Sacramento as a campaign consultant for many of California’s highest ranking Democrats and a longtime lobbyist and ally of the United Farm Workers. But he has a side gig that few have heard about: teaching undergrads how to develop and carry an actual bill through the state Legislature.
The idea is to give the students a behind the scenes look at how politics really work and eventually create a Capitol incubator of sorts at the university. In the course description, “Making a New Law” is defined as “hands-on and grounded in rough and tumble politics,” claiming to be the only one of its kind in California.
Ross and Rob Fong, a former Sacramento politician and now a consultant and lobbyist, teach the course alongside Greg Mark, a professor of ethnic studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at California State University, Sacramento.
“My sense is that unless your parents are in the business, no one knows what a lobbyist is,” Fong said. “Sac State is the perfect place to recognize that there’s a lot of interesting jobs in and around the government that don’t necessarily have you working for the government.”
While the lobbying industry is among the largest employers at the Capitol, with 2,260 registered as of Monday, few universities offer lobbying majors or programs specifically geared for students interested in the profession. Some lobbyists study political science or law in college and many matriculate into the industry after working for the Legislature.
Internships can provide valuable experience, but don’t necessarily give students an insider’s perspective, Ross said.
“If you think about what typical internships are, it’s some bright person, they go into the Capitol and they don’t get to do very bright things,” Ross explained. “They’re never in this meeting.”
Ross was referring to his weekly class, where the students sit in on strategy sessions with one of the state’s most shrewd and veteran political minds. There is no syllabus. Ross, his words animated and occasionally outrageous, dictates assignments on the fly.
Students won’t be graded on whether the governor signs their bill because the governor can be difficult, he says in less diplomatic terms.
He says personal stories and testimonies are more likely to sway lawmakers than facts. Big numbers suggest the problem is insurmountable, Ross advises, while smaller numbers mean the bill can make a difference.
“Every Monday I go home and just decompress … Like what (just happened)?” said student Ivan Urrutia.
One of Urrutia’s homework assignments is to read “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman. First published in 1971, it is an anarchistic survival guide to defying capitalism and the American status quo. Ross assigned the book to show that while the bill they’re working on may seem small today, it could grow into something bigger that other communities imitate, he said.
In one session at his 1700 L street offices, Ross focused on how understanding human psychology can help lobbyists make their case. Know yourself first, he says.
“If you understand your own frailty, then you can understand exactly how to move the other person,” Ross said. To make his point, he asks the students why they share on social media or give gifts to someone they love. The answer, he says is because they “want status” and to look good. Might lawmakers be the same?
Lobbying, he says, is “understanding what you’re doing all the time and how you can convert it.”
Their powers of persuasion this semester are focused on AB 2285, a bill to establish state job opportunities for former foster youths. Student Richard Gucciardo, 22, went into the foster system in high school and plans to testify about his experience at bill hearings. He described the course as “totally different” from any other class he’s taken.
“It’s not just all theories,” Gucciardo said. “We can apply it and we are applying it every Monday, every time we meet. It’s clicking.”
The students would be hard-pressed to find someone to explain the inner workings of the Capitol better than Ross, who has been walking the halls since 1975.
He has been described as “brilliant,” “a fiery, profane warrior” and a “Svengali-like figure” in countless news stories about his dealings over the years. Longtime California politician Bill Lockyer once described Ross to The Sacramento Bee as a social activist at heart, pointing to his loyalty to the UFW.
Then a seminarian, Ross met Cesar Chavez in Baltimore in the 1960s. Chavez asked Ross to become a UFW organizer in California, and he’s advocated for the organization for his entire political career.
His first job at the Capitol was as a low-level aide before eventually becoming chief of staff to Willie Brown, California’s legendary speaker who ruled the Assembly for 15 years. Now he’s known around town as a campaign consultant and lobbyist, as cutthroat as he is well-connected.
Ross’ roster of current and former clients runs the gamut, from current Democratic leaders like Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to the party’s more controversial figures.
He worked on a campaign for former state Sen. Ron Calderon, currently awaiting trial on various corruption charges, and advised former state Sen. Leland Yee, who last month was sentenced to up to eight years in prison for felony racketeering.
His unique dual role as a consultant and a lobbyist has gotten him into trouble with the state’s political watchdog.
The Fair Political Practices Commission fined Ross in 2014 after learning that he didn’t actively seek reimbursement for heavy debts legislators owed him from previous campaigns. The state Political Reform Act forbids lobbyists from placing public officials under personal obligation.
Ross’ connections in Sacramento run deep. He’s the godfather of Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and ran his Assembly campaign. McCarty, who also knows Fong from their days on the City Council, introduced the students’ foster training bill in February.
“It’s a relationship business,” Fong said. “Richie is just that guy who has done it all at a very high level and continues to. Now he’s at a point in his career where he really does want to give back.”
Ross said he’s teaching the class simply because it’s “a good thing to do.” He’s taught other informal classes for young staff members at the Capitol, he said, and feels like he should pass along the knowledge he’s gained from others.
“I’ve learned that somebody taught me,” Ross said. “To the extent that I can teach somebody else, I should.”
In addition to free expertise, every Monday Ross buys the students dinner – pizzas from Hot Italian one night, sub sandwiches on another. It’s not unusual for his lobbyist daughter Esperanza Ross and Joaquin Ross, his son who works as a political strategist and communications consultant, to join in.
The class spent an afternoon at the Capitol to put their skills to the test. Ross was in his element among legislators, who summoned him back into their offices for private conversations after the students trickled out.
He was borderline giddy about something Gucciardo casually mentioned at class the previous night: Annie Lam, the wife of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, is his cousin.
The class stopped coincidentally at Rendon’s office first to speak with Chris Woods, the budget director. Ross said he set up the meeting before Gucciardo revealed his family connection.
The class spoke with Woods about the possibility of tapping into federal money set aside for workforce training programs to fund the bill, Ross said. Ross intends to draft the bill without any money attached to it to avoid a two-thirds vote requirement. His plan is to then appropriate money through the state budget, which only requires a majority vote, thus avoiding any problems with Republican opposition.
Next, the students stopped by McCarty’s office, where Ross prodded Gucciardo, clad in a Sac State sweatshirt and jeans, to reiterate his Rendon family ties.
“Oh, really,” McCarty said, intrigued.
“I’m not usually a name dropper,” Gucciardo explained after the meeting. “I thought he was just another Assembly member.”
The last visit of the day is with Assemblywoman Gonzalez. Out of her earshot, Ross explains the meet-and-greet with the San Diego Democrat as an “antecedent.” They won’t lobby her now, but they’ll need her later on.
Gonzalez and the students take selfies in front of a mural in her office of the Virgin Mary with the black Aztec eagle from United Farm Workers symbol in the background. They talk for several minutes before Gonzalez calls Ross out.
“I’m an organizer, and I know I just got organized,” Gonzalez said. “He’s like, ‘she’ll never stop the bill now.’”
Ross laughed and remained seated on a couch. The students filed out. The assemblywoman closed the door.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated from previous versions at 8:47 a.m. March 26, 2016 to correct the first name of Joaquin Ross.