The arrest of Ben Hueso, a Democratic state senator from San Diego, on suspicion of drunken driving very early one morning was not a particularly unusual event.
Every year or two, one of the Legislature’s 120 members is nailed for tipsy driving, usually in the vicinity of the Capitol.
That’s roughly in line with California’s overall rate of about 172,000 drunken driving arrests among the state’s 24.6 million licensed drivers each year. And in a way, it’s surprising that the number isn’t higher.
The Legislature’s history has always been intertwined with liquor. Indeed, its very first session in San Jose 164 years ago was dubbed the “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks” because a state senator from Sacramento who hoped to become commandant of the state militia, Thomas Green, closed every session with an invitation: “Let’s have a drink! Let’s have a thousand drinks!”
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Infamous liquor lobbyist Artie Samish maintained a 24/7 open house with plenty of food and liquor in his Senator Hotel suite across L Street from the Capitol during the 1940s and 1950s.
Capitol lore is replete with deals lubricated with booze, and with drunken confrontations inside the Capitol.
In his memoir of the hard-partying Jesse Unruh era in the 1960s, “A Disorderly House,” former Sen. James Mills titles one chapter, “Wine, Women and Politicians.”
“In general,” Mills wrote, “the Senate was guilty of drunkenness, but unlike the Assembly, was innocent of philandering.”
During the 1970s, so many legislators were arrested for drunken driving that lawmakers criticized Sacramento police for allegedly lying in wait outside political watering holes.
Today’s legislators typically arrive in Sacramento on Monday and depart on Thursday, and on virtually all of the three nights they spend in the capital, there are receptions or fundraising events offering free drinks and expensive hors d’oeuvres – like giant shrimp in an ice sculpture.
If Hueso’s arrest – for which he later apologized – isn’t unusual, what has set his case apart is what another Democratic legislator from San Diego, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, did a few hours earlier.
She tweeted a picture of Hueso and four other members of the Latino Caucus holding drinks and partying on the balcony just outside the Assembly chambers, captioned, “Yes … loving my Latino Caucus boys … .”
After Hueso’s arrest, Gonzalez attempted to erase the tweet, but it had already been electronically captured and widely disseminated.
Gonzalez’s posting a picture of boozing legislators inside the Capitol would have given the Legislature another black eye even without Hueso’s arrest, since three state senators are under suspension after being charged with or convicted of felony offenses.
In response, legislative leaders say they are considering new rules to ban drinking in the Capitol.