It was Roe vs. Wade Day when I hit Sacramento for a short vacation last winter, and the Sacramento Teens for Life had apparently taken the week off from school to stand outside the Capitol in disconsolate groups. They were trying to hand people horrifying brochures and photos of genocide. Nobody would take them—four-color posters of skinny, starving slaughtered children from Rwanda; an old black-and-white of a Southern lynching; Holocaust body piles; Wounded Knee. And, yes, there was the picture of dismembered fetus limbs, bathed in their red jelly.
Inside the Capitol, my destination was the office of state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove). When I arrived, dozens of little shoe-shaped tchotchkes—including a fruit-bedecked wedgie, la Carmen Miranda—dangled everywhere on the partition between me and the receptionist. She had hung them there. She was a brunette of middle age and wearing glasses. She would not actually wear such shoes.
I introduced myself, smiling politely. Was the senator available? No, most assuredly, he was not. I was from his hometown newspaper; perhaps he'd be available the next day? No.
"Is there some particular issue you wanted to see him on?" the receptionist asked.
I knew it was her job to guard the gate against people who would waste his time, but the disapproving look suggested I was there to try to have sex with state Senator Joe Dunn.
I have been to the home of Dunn and his lovely wife, Diane. I have written only laudatory things about Dunn. But in his Capitol office, well, there I was clearly just a youngish and really too-attractive woman from whom he must be protected. I blame Gary Condit.
"No, no issue in particular," I replied finally, and I knew it was the wrong answer even as it fell out of my pretty mouth. "I just kind of wanted to hang out."
Sacramento is an unexpectedly pretty town for hanging out. Aside from the elegance of the Capitol dome rising grandly from the downtown (inside, it looks like a big Faberg egg), it's a city of neighborhoods—Land Park, Curtis Park, the Fabulous 40s, Lavender Hill (the rainbow-flag corner of town, but you guessed that already)—whose graceful one-story houses, dating back decades, are surrounded with trees and camellias. Sacramento's nickname is "The City of Trees," said Mark Thompson, long ago of Newport Beach and still the type of guy you see at Jimmy Buffett concerts, who is giving me a tour. But then he ruins it by telling me Paris' nickname is also "The City of Trees," which I'm pretty sure is wrong.
No matter. The two of us had just lunched at the Esquire Grill, a wood-paneled power spot where people dine on pan-fried sole and the bloody Marys are strong and delicious. Thompson vaguely resembles Paul Sorvino, but with a bit less hair and more inner sadness under the fun. He came to Sacramento some years ago, works as a consultant and a lobbyist—mostly for developers, although he also represents the National Tax Limitation Committee—and lives in a condo that's surprisingly well-decorated for a 44-year-old bachelor.
Although Thompson has repped for Mickey "Spanky" Conroy, Jim Morrissey and Bill Campbell—right-wingers all—I'd met him through his roommate, Dan Wilcox, who is Ontario Democratic Assemblywoman Gloria McLeod's chief of staff. I'd met him the night before in Simon's, a Chinese restaurant where the politicos go to drink and cavort. (Note the snapshots of drinking legislators lining the walls, the scariest of which peers straight up the nostrils of former Republican minority leader, now lobbyist, Scott Baugh. He grins hugely.) While I was chatting with Wilcox at a table full of staffers sitting on one another's laps, it came up that his roommate was Thompson—whose rental car my old boyfriend had once stolen, driven to Tahoe, and crashed. Sacramento is a small town!
Eventually, still frustrated about hitting the wall at state Senator Joe Dunn's office, I excused myself from Thompson and hiked back to the Capitol to find East LA Assemblyman Gil Cedillo. Cedillo is my very favorite legislator: hell, he was a Jesse Jackson delegate to the Democratic National Convention in '88. We happily run into each other at Democratic functions—at the 2000 Democratic National Convention at Staples Center, for instance, where seeing him actually saved my sanity because I'd had to ride a bus to the convention alongside dozens of young New York staffers who were unbelievably snotty, even when I told a really funny story about going to Washington Square Park to buy weed that turned out to be a baggie of dirt and twigs.
But there was the same frost at Cedillo's reception desk as at Joe Dunn's, though no shoe tchotchkes. Demoralized, I went to get my nails done.
Then it was off to Brannan's, a plush bar paneled in rich wood, directly across the street from the Capitol. Framed posters proclaim "Viva Pat Brown" and the sad, defeatist "George McGovern: It's Time We Won." Though most of the art leans left, there are posters for Nixon and one reading, "Reagan/Kemp '80." Suddenly, people were shouting, "Mark!" like they were shouting, "Norm!" and to my delight, in walked Mark Thompson. He ordered a gin and tonic and pointed out a tobacco lobbyist sitting across the bar (smoking); identified Assemblyman Dave Kelley, a San Diego citrus farmer; and motioned to a corner table where ancient Senate Speaker John Burtonsat with the secretary of education and the head political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. It's always work here.
The tobacco lobbyist sent me a drink, but I rudely don't acknowledge it—because Cedillo has just arrived! His receptionist passed along my message! Cedillo orders a near-beer and tells me he is running unopposed for a state Senate seat that includes San Marino, an area so wealthy one isn't permitted to park on the streets. We laugh. The potstickers at Simon's are outstanding. If you run into the tobacco lobbyist, tell him I'm sorry.
The next day, as I sit with my coffee on an ugly promenade, a hip-looking young blonde approaches and hands me a pamphlet. It says "Pro-Choice; The Right to Privacy; Choice," etc. She seems to be the lone counterprotester to the Teens for Life. I open the pamphlet, and—aaaaaaiiieeeee!—another flattened, red-coated, smushed-face fetus in full bloody color!
I stride into the Capitol to meet with state Senator Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), who has promised to cure me of socialism. But a door opens off the hall, and a crowd of 20 or 30 people pours out like clowns from a Volkswagen. They are in jeans, leather and sunglasses. A small woman with curly blond hair is talking into a television camera, and I recognize her as groovy, loudmouth defense attorney Leslie Abramson. Then I spot apple-cheeked Beck. And Carole King! Her eyes are huge pools of violet-blue. She looks terrific. The people in the hall are rock stars there to lobby for a bill against the current state of recording-industry contracts. A couple of middle-aged women staffers, trying to make it through the blocked corridor, sniff amongst themselves. "Great place to hold a press conference," they say acidly, refusing to be impressed even though Don Henleyis now talking to the cameras. He is tanned, and his hair is very expensive. Feh. Don Henley.
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I eventually make it through the crowd and to the bank of elevators, where there are scores of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members in purple T-shirts, there to lobby their legislators for something or other. There are no cameras on the SEIU folk.
Sadly, Senator Haynes is unable to cure me of socialism, even though he claims to have been a socialist once himself, in his wild college CalPIRGdays. He is a mild-mannered, bespectacled man who says things like, "We are close to a Democratic Socialist state here in California," while the Gipsy Kings play quietly from a CD he burned himself. I ask Haynes if he will be meeting with any of the rock stars in support of Senate Bill 1246. Yes, he says brightly. He and Senator Jim Brulte(R-Rancho Cucamonga) will be meeting with Christina Aguilera and Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks. First, though, he's going to Focus on the Family's lobby day.
On my last day in Sacramento, the Teens for Life are wrapping up their week, too. A cute rock-star-looking boy of perhaps 17 stands on the Capitol steps facing them, strumming a guitar and leading them in a song about abortion and God, with a stirring bit about "your majesty" that has nothing to do with purple mountains. It's a Bob Roberts moment, albeit a vaguely stirring one. Soon these kids will discover drugs and sex; the cute rock-star-boy undoubtedly already has. And the art of just hanging out.
As you read this, Rebecca Schoenkopf is visiting Mt. Rushmore where she is contemplating the glory of our warrior republic.