Shawn Hubler: Bellying up to the bar, Chops-style

You come to Chops early in the week, say, a Tuesday. And early in the evening: When the cocktail hour passes, the crowd dissipates.

If you’re one of the regulars – and who isn’t a regular? – you don’t have far to walk from “The Building,” the Capitol that sits like a backdrop just across L Street, white as a wedding cake.

And what does that cake need? A reception. Tonight there’s a campaign fundraiser on the patio for some visiting mayor with high aspirations, and a police union lobbyist-sponsored mixer for lawmakers in the private room downstairs.

Here is Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, surrounded by beefy men gripping cocktails. Here is the Delta Democrat, Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, mingling. Here are Assemblymen Adam Gray and Tom Daly, the Central Valley and Orange County mods bellying up to the bar together.

This is election year government in action, though of course the campaigns are perpetual. That these Capitol players adjourn to this bar is mostly a matter of history and location – this is the closest watering hole to The Building.

Founded as Bedell’s (the original owner promised, among other things, stiff drinks and discreet bartenders; not much changes), it has been an unofficial capital clubhouse under one name or another for 75 years.

Like most of politics today, the scene involves more than a little glad-handing and panhandling. But people also come here for reasons that are less easy to pinpoint – motives that don’t come up in the ongoing debate over how cronyism and cash corrupt governance.

That debate has been big this political season, as the state Senate has been roiled by indictments and lobbyists have been nailed for hosting lavish at-home fundraisers. Not much of it has addressed the reality that governance can’t get done without a certain amount of backchannel information-gathering and connection.

If money is the mother’s milk of politics, as California’s own Jesse Unruh famously put it, its bread and butter is relationships.

Chops before dusk is one of a handful of true political hangouts remaining in this increasingly sophisticated and food-centric city. Here, for example, sits the veteran lobbyist Michael Rattigan, holding court with political reporters in the brocaded booth by the door.

And look! Here comes Gov. Jerry Brown, poking his head around the corner. Rattigan is the graying son of a former state senator and appellate court justice from Santa Rosa. The governor is, well, the governor, though from his lack of an entourage and his plain blue suit, you’d never know it.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, he didn’t cross the two blocks from the Hyatt to The Building without a convoy. Why would he? It has been a long time since California politics was anything but a big, impersonal business.

But it is and it isn’t, at least not here where the regulars gather. People here remember the old haunts – Posey’s, David’s Brass Rail, this joint a dozen or so years ago when it was a moldering dive called Brannan’s.

They miss them a little, too, though they know that the days are gone when lawmakers adroitly shuttled among booths at Frank Fat’s, struck deals with lobbyists and sealed them by placing their signatures on a linen napkin. They certainly cannot indulge in bipartisan all-nighters with lobbyists picking up the tab, and billing their clients.

Campaign finance laws require reporting down to the merest cheeseburger, and rich interests call the tune with tsunamis of independent campaign spending. People at Chops have opinions about that.

“Tell me what matters more,” says veteran environmental lobbyist V. John White. “Somebody picking up your dinner tab, or somebody dropping a half a million dollars on an independent expenditure campaign for you?”

Or as Trisha Flynn, the co-owner of Chops, puts it: “If I’m gonna go over to the dark side, is it gonna be over a stuffed mushroom?”

These limits, and others, were enacted to curb petty corruption. But, the regulars sigh, they’ve had their downsides. When two-thirds of your job is a year-round forced march from donor to donor, who has time to make actual work friends?

When term limits scarcely give you enough time to find your own office, who can dance away the evenings with anyone but those who got you there and, hopefully, will get you there next election cycle?

So the after-work circuit has dwindled to outings like this, the walk across the street from The Building.

“You can’t talk about political fundraising things inside the Capitol, and yet it’s an important part of the industry, so people use places like Chops,” explains one longtime lobbyist.

Of course, some use places like Chops more than others.

Sen. Ronald Calderon was here the day before he was indicted on charges of public corruption, and Sen. Leland Yee had fundraisers here before he was charged with offering to run guns in return for money to pay off his campaign debts.

The interest group meet-and-greets on the patio and downstairs have run the gamut from public employee unions to the cannabis lobby.

But for most, Chops is simply a place where politics can be infused with something like human contact.

“We all used to come over here from The Building at the end of session, and eat and watch the Senate and the Assembly on the TV,” recalls public policy consultant and former community college lobbyist Bonnie Slosson. As she speaks, a senator’s aide she hasn’t seen in some years runs up to say hello.

“We’ve had scandal. We’ve had conversations I can’t repeat,” allows co-owner Flynn, laughing. “But we also have people who meet here quietly and leave shaking hands – uno momento!”

Flynn interrupts herself as a regular a few feet away pushes away from his table.

“Be right back!” she says. “I’ve got a hug to give.”

So here is Rattigan, the lobbyist and son of a politician, and here are the reporters, and here is the governor, who is the son of a governor and, like Rattigan, a veteran of state politics.

Rattigan is here for the schmooze; the governor is here for the police mixer, though he also wants a word with the newspaper people about an endorsement. Asked if he and Rattigan know each other, Brown cocks his head merrily and squints for a second.

Then, Brown-like – and, as a regular, you’ll know what I mean here – he summons a sudden nugget of half-century-old history from both of the men’s fathers’ administrations.

“Rattigan, Regan and Cobey,” he proclaims. “All three senators who voted for the California Water Plan and became Court of Appeal judges.”

“Funny how that works,” the younger Rattigan chuckles.

There’s no need to say out loud that the water plan belonged to Brown’s father or that he handed out the plum judicial appointments. There is just the understanding that, in or out of The Building, the foundation of politics is and will always be connection.

“They don’t make Democrats like that anymore,” says Brown. “Practical. Didn’t need money. Didn’t need all the apparati.”

He smiles. Behind him, the door to the reception beckons.

“Well,” he says. “It’s a different world now.”