Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Senate aide’s firing opens window on seamier side of Capitol

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

As the Legislature recessed last month for an 11-day spring break, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg described the first months of the session as “a little rough.”

It was his oblique reference to the suspension of three fellow Democratic senators who were facing criminal charges.

But if Steinberg hoped that the Capitol’s extracurricular turmoil was over, he was dead wrong.

Last week, Steinberg fired one of the Senate’s sergeants-at-arms after a Bee reporter informed him that court records showed the man had used drugs before becoming involved in a shootout at his home 17 months earlier that left one man dead and three others wounded.

The circumstances surrounding Gerardo Lopez’s dismissal open, ever so slightly, a window on smarmier aspects of life in the Capitol – in many ways a small and cloistered town in the middle of a larger city.

The Legislature employs a couple of thousand people, but its personnel practices are as arbitrary and opaque as any third-world dictatorship, with no accountability for who gets hired and fired and why.

Many of those on legislative payrolls are purely political hires, and they are expected to work on political campaigns when needed, supposedly using vacations or leaves of absence – in effect taxpayer-financed campaign workers.

Over the years, many stories have circulated about specific positions being created for specific people who, for one reason or another, had patrons among influential legislators – sometimes extramarital paramours, sometimes those who had been designated as legislative candidates and needed income while campaigning, sometimes just friends or relatives of friends of the powerful.

Nepotism, or at least its appearance, abounds in the Capitol. Lopez is the son of Dina Hidalgo, who runs the Senate’s personnel office, and Lopez’s wife is another family member who holds a Senate staff job.

Tony Beard Jr., Lopez’s boss as the Senate’s chief sergeant-at-arms, is the son of a man who was the Assembly’s top sergeant-at-arms for many years. Speaking of which, what do sergeants-at-arms actually do?

Ostensibly, they are Capitol guards, but the Highway Patrol also polices the building and its grounds.

Sergeants stand at the doors of legislative chambers to check in members and keep out the riffraff, and attend committee hearings to maintain decorum. And they ease legislators’ lives by providing lifts to and from the airport and running whatever other errands their bosses may need done.

Lopez’s remaining on the payroll for months after the gunfight sparked a small rebellion among the Senate’s other employees, who anonymously complained to The Sacramento Bee and other legislators.

And now everyone is wondering whether this is just another of many revelations about the seamier side of Capitol life this year.