Dan Walters

Opinion: California Capitol is isolated island with two tribes

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles talks to members of the Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau on Monday, March 2, 2015 in Sacramento.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles talks to members of the Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau on Monday, March 2, 2015 in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Anthropologists probe the evolution of primitive societies, which makes the Capitol a perfect laboratory.

It’s an isolated island occupied by two tribes with distinct cultural attributes. Sometimes they cooperate to pursue common goals but often are rivals.

You might think this description refers to Democrats and Republicans. But it’s really about the Assembly and the Senate.

An anthropological study would reveal that the two tribes’ cultural differences evolve constantly but are never reconciled.

One house is always dominant. For most of the 20th century, the Senate and its long-serving, even elderly, members called the shots, but professionalism and the one-man, one-vote decision shifted the balance of power in the mid-1960s.

The Assembly dominated during the lengthy, authoritarian speakerships of Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown, but Brown’s departure and the advent of term limits in the 1990s shifted power back to the Senate as the lower house raced through a series of weak, short-term speakers.

At the moment, the two tribes are in rough parity, each jostling for dominance. But that’s not the only point of friction.

Historically, the Senate has been the more conservative of the two, but in recent years, with the advent of a bloc of moderate Democrats in the Assembly, it may be a little less liberal.

Finally, there’s the behavioral gap.

The Assembly long had the image of freewheeling, somewhat raffish and even semi-corrupt demeanor while the Senate was a bastion of probity – a little boring, perhaps, but collegial and less overtly partisan.

No more. The past few years have seen a succession of scandals, bad behavior and lapses of good judgment in the once-staid Senate.

Three senators were charged with felonies, and two are still awaiting trial on federal corruption charges.

The Senate’s long-serving sergeant-at-arms was fired for not telling his bosses that one of his deputies, the son of a top Senate staffer, had been involved in a drug-fueled shootout at his home. It revealed a larger semi-scandal of Senate staff nepotism.

The current leader of the Senate, President Pro Tem Kevin de León, got some bad press when he staged an elaborate, expensive “inauguration” for himself. And he responded by claiming to be the victim of a media “double standard.”

In an interview in the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión, the Los Angeles Democrat said, “If a white politician hosts an event in the Disney Concert Hall, it’s fine; nobody says anything. But if a Latino politician holds an event there, then it’s very bad. You have to do it in the neighborhood.”

De León blamed the media again when The Sacramento Bee revealed that after the arrest of a senator last year he had created a special team of drivers to transport senators at odd hours, apparently to protect them from drunken driving charges.

De León quickly canceled it after receiving some editorial criticism, saying, “Given the confusion caused by recent media reports, I have asked the chief sergeant to discontinue the infrequent practice of providing late-night/early morning transportation for senators, effective immediately.”

An anthropologist who studied this island would learn that all of its tribal members share one innate trait – never admitting an error of judgment.