Dan Walters

Opinion: California Capitol sees throwback to old days

In this photo taken Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced talks with Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, at the Capitol in Sacramento.
In this photo taken Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced talks with Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, at the Capitol in Sacramento. AP

Gambling and liquor interests wielded a big stick in the state Capitol during the mid-20th century.

Lobbyists for horse racing and liquor companies – especially the legendary Artie Samish – practiced what he called “select and elect” to guarantee that their clients would continue to enjoy state-enforced monopolies.

Earl Warren, the state’s governor during the 1940s, said of Samish, “On matters that affect his clients, Artie unquestionably has more power than the governor.”

The syndrome continued even after Samish went to prison for income tax evasion in 1956.

Legislators would, figuratively at least, sell their mothers to obtain seats on the “Governmental Organization” committees that handled gambling and liquor interests, which showered members with campaign contributions.

James Garibaldi, a former legislator dubbed “The Judge” for another previous occupation, became the dominant lobbyist for horse tracks and liquor wholesalers, as an adjunct to the law firm headed by former Gov. Pat Brown.

When Garibaldi died in 1993, the longtime chairman of the Senate GO Committee, Ralph Dills, wept as he announced it on the Senate floor.

By and by, liquor and gambling faded as dominant Capitol issues. The courts invalidated misnamed “fair trade” liquor laws as illegal, state-enforced price-fixing. Indian tribes, operating outside the Capitol, gained control of legal gambling.

However, when Adam Gray, who now holds Garibaldi’s old Merced-area Assembly seat, presided over the Assembly Governmental Committee this week, the Capitol saw a blast from the political past.

A big issue was Gray’s bill that would – if backroom negotiations bear fruit – legalize Internet poker in California. Non-Indian gambling interests want it, but casino tribes are divided, and Gray’s bill moved only after it was reduced to little more than a declaration of intent.

Untold billions of dollars are potentially at stake, so it’s become a full employment bill for lobbyists on all sides of the issue.

But before the committee took up Gray’s bill, he performed a legislative trick that was very reminiscent of the old days.

As the hearing began, Gray put an indefinite hold on a bill to give small California distillers a limited right, similar to one wineries enjoy, to sell their libations directly to consumers, rather than through wholesalers and retailers.

Gray sent the bill into limbo even though its author, San Rafael Democrat Marc Levine, hadn’t yet walked into the hearing room. Levine later told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that it was a “petty, small thing” and “the weasel’s way out for the chair.”

Whatever Gray’s motives – he’s not talking – it was a victory for Garibaldi’s old clients, the liquor wholesalers, fiercely guarding their legally designated piece of the liquor trade.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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