2004 AroundTheCapitol.com Awards (PDF version)

By Scott Lay and Paul Mitchell

When the California Journal distributed its Biennial Minnie Awards last month, many of us looked at the tradition of ranking and honoring legislators with a bit of curiosity. Did this listing of elected officials fully represent the sphere of influence around Sacramento? Does this collection of familiar faces fully capture who is driving the state's future? The answer, in short, was no. And the Around the Capitol Awards were born.

In this term-limited environment, legislators have predictably lost some influence. And there have been signs of a brewing fight between staff and lobbyists - even the press - to fill this void. This is not a unique development in our state's history, and the battle is not uniquely Californian. Yet, the reins of power are slowly changing hands, and who will share control in this new environment is being determined each day, with each controversial bill, each end-run to the initiative process, and each legislative retirement.

Early in the California experience, it was the railroads and their political operation that ran our state. The fact that we are in Sacramento and not Monterey during each scorching hot summer is thanks to the influence of the railroads. The initiative process was brought about to provide a counterbalance to their grip on state government.

Decades later, the legislature, led by Speaker Jess Unruh, sought to increase the institution's influence relative to the governor and the lobbying corps by creating a full-time body. After several years - some marked by legislative triumphs, and others marked by scandal - the balance of power had clearly tilted in favor of the elected class, with some legislators having influence over every nook-and-cranny of the state's business.

However, this nearly total power of the elected legislators was bucked by the electorate's distaste for the omnipotent and brash legislator as exemplified by Speaker Willie Brown, the self-described "Ayatollah of the Legislature." And thus, California led the nation with the first, and most draconian, term-limits law.

In 1996, term limits claimed its first victim: Senate Pro-Tempore David Roberti, a veteran legislator who struggled to obtain statewide office, but has largely disappeared from the scene. Willie Brown's fifteen-year speakership has been succeeded by seven speakers in nine years. "The Building," which used to house thousands of years of legislative experience and developed personal relationships has been reduced to a temporary home for legislators who come to office primarily concerned with their next election and political landing spot. It has degenerated to the point that every Assembly candidate must be prepared to cite the registration numbers of their local senate district if they want to be taken seriously.

Of course, this observation does not dismiss the outstanding contributions of term-limit era legislators like Dede Alpert, Jim Brulte, Fred Keeley and Darrell Steinberg. It is painful, however, to see them go, as we ponder what "a few more years" of their leadership would have done for our great stat. Yes, we may see them return to state leadership, but their policy influence will have been set back, and their staffs that helped build their success will have moved on.

Even the best newly elected legislators must spend their time learning the process and contents of the state budget, attempting to understand the nuances of the legislative process, developing new relationships with the third house, trying to figure out the Sacramento press corps, and finding the right staff. After a few years, most legislators can gain some footing and actually begin to act like veterans - and then they are shown the door.

With the retiring of four giants of the legislature this year, the final transformation is in full-swing. The battle to determine who will fill the power vacuum has begun.

In a now-infamous episode, a literal fight almost broke out last session when lobbyist and staffer came toe-to-toe in a yelling match over a vote on farmworkers' rights legislation. This argument was essentially over who could determine the vote of a certain legislator: the staff or the lobbyist.

While for most, this was characterized as a battle between two strong-willed veterans - it was really symbolic of the greater struggle for control over the legislative process; a so-called "super-staffer" vs. a lobbyist whose name has become synonymous with the growing importance and influence of the third house.

Even the press has taken off the gloves and begun to fight. The Sacramento Bee has attempted each of the past two legislative sessions to identify one issue and bully legislators into submission. This session it took the form of daily countdowns to try and eliminate increased pensions for milktesters (they lost), last session it was a series of editorials with pictures of legislators who had voted to give unions decision-making authority over textbooks (they won).

In light of this battle for power in a term-limited environment, we at Around the Capitol present those lobbyists, staffers, and press, who, while engaged in this struggle for control, still exemplify the best in their business. Having been selected by a panel of 125 of their peers, they are undeniably the most influential and respected this town has to offer.

The first is the late and great Steve Thompson. When the nominations went up, just two weeks ago, Steve was still arguing with agencies, testifying before committees, and vociferously standing up for the physicians he represented and the public healthcare system that he built. He scoffed a bit at the notion that he was nominated for an award - especially an award generated from e-mails that he would never send and on a website that he would never use. (If it couldn't be written on a yellow legal pad with the stub of a pencil dug out of his cluttered desk drawer, then it wasn't worth doing!) But nobody in this town can represent more about the positive power of the legislative staff and accomplishments of the lobbying corps.

His selection as Most Effective Lobbyist is a testament to both him and the Sacramento community that recognized his power, influence and unparalleled ability to produce results that are in the benefit of his client, and the people of California. In his untimely passing, Steve Thompson left behind a legacy that will never be forgotten by the people he helped, the several protégés he developed, and the staff and lobbyists who saw him as an example of why we come to work and what we should be doing when we get there.

Each of the winners of this year's awards fit the mold created by Steve Thompson. They are intelligent and hard working; they have developed a deep understanding of how the Capitol works and thrived within its culture. Yet, unlike the elected officials who take up temporary residency here, they will not be Marshall of the local Fourth of July parade or recipients of annual awards from the local Kiwanis club. They do their jobs based on personal reward and sense of responsibility. They are what makes Sacramento work - and for at least one day a year, we should recognize and thank them.

Most Effective Lobbyist : Steve Thompson, California Medical Association
Runners Up: Kevin Sloat, Sloat Higgins Jensen & Associates & Barry Broad, Law Offices of Barry Broad

Legislative Staff Member of the Year : Diane Cummins, Office of John Burton and Deborah Gonzalez, Office of Charles Poochigian (tie)
Runner Up: Don Moulds, Senate Office of Research

The Next Generation: Lobbyist Under 40 : Dustin Corcoran, California Medical Association
Runners Up: Kevin Gould, California Bankers Association & Angie Wei, California Labor Federation

The Next Generation: Legislative Staff Member Under 40 : Don Moulds, Senate Office of Research
Runners Up: Kevin Bassett, Office of Dave Cox & Juan Torres, Office of Cindy Montanez

Administration Staff Member of the Year : Kim Belshe, Secretary, Health and Human Services
Runners Up: Cassandra Pye, Deputy Chief of Staff & Cynthia Bryant, Chief Deputy Legislative Secretary

Best Reporter: News : Bob Salladay, Los Angeles Times
Runners Up: Dan Morain, Los Angeles Times & Anthony York, Political Pulse

Best Reporter: Opinion : Dan Weintraub, Sacramento Bee
Runners Up: George Skelton, Los Angeles Times & Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times

Best Grassroots Lobbying/PR Firm : Ross Communications
Runners Up: McNally/Temple Associates & Bicker Castillo & Fairbanks

We had many other nominations for above-and-beyond work--some fun, some serious:

Best Accompaniment to Morning Coffee - Traditional : Capitol Morning Report

Best Accompaniment to Morning Coffee - Electronic : Rough & Tumble (rtumble.com)

Special Recognition: Rookie Capitol Reporter: Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times

Special Recognition: Capitol Investigative Reporting : Kimberly Kindy, Orange County Register

Best Blog : CalRaces.com by Matt Rexroad, Tom Ross, Anthony York and Syrus Devers
Runners Up: Phoblographer.com by Christiana Dominguez & California Insider (sacbee.com/insider), by Dan Weintraub

Best Dressed: Gilbert Martinez, California Cable and Telecommunications Association & Mary Gonsalves, Kahl / Pownall Advocates Runners Up: Willie Armstrong, Office of Gene Mullin & Joaquin Ross, Office of the Lieutenant Governor

Next Generation Poet Laureate : Cory Salzillo, Senate Republican Caucus

Best Morning Coffee Shop : Weatherstone, 21st and I, Midtown Sacramento
Runners Up: Jump Start, 11th and L & Café Melange, 24th St and 2nd Ave, Curtis Park

Best Poker Game : Paul Mitchell's Midtown Thursday Night Poker
Runner Up: Chuck Halnan's semi-frequent $100 buy-in in Carmichael

SIDEBAR

Some notes about the Around the Capitol Awards.

We would like to present a nice trophy to each winner. Unfortunately, the $10 lobbyist gift limit continues to not be indexed to inflation. Since, Scott’s a registered lobbyist and plaques cost more than $10, winners will be rewarded with the pats on the back they will inevitably receive, unlimited lectures on community college finance from Scott Lay and an EdVoice mousepad from Paul Mitchell.

Nominations were solicited by invitation and then by additional Around the Capitol subscribers who volunteered nominations. Each of the 10 nominees within each category received multiple nominations, and several outstanding nominees had to be omitted from the ballot.

125 individuals from a variety of policy backgrounds and partisanship, including staff, lobbyists, press and legislators were given unique voter IDs so they could vote. Voting was open for one week at the Around the Capitol website. Each vote was tallied, but not linked to the original voter, so balloting remained anonymous. The database would only allow each login ID to vote once.

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