Photography lesson

Death of “Tombstoning” and a History Lesson at the California Legislature – GV Wire

A few weeks ago, the Legislature released its operating rules for the 2022 session, including Rule 10.6: “A bill may not add a short title that names a current or former legislator.

That probably wouldn’t make sense to anyone unfamiliar with the history of the Legislative Assembly, but it’s a clue to how Capitol culture has evolved over the past few decades.

Practice called ‘Tombstone’

Let’s go back nearly half a century to 1975, when Jerry Brown began his first term as governor. The legislature was made up almost entirely of middle-aged or older white men. A state senator, Ralph Dills, was first elected in 1938, the same year Brown was born.

Dan Walters

Cal Matters

Opinion

It was, in effect, a demographic monoculture—very few black, Asian, or Latino members, and almost no women. In fact, the first woman in the Senate, Rose Vuich of Dinuba, was elected a year later. For years, she kept a small bell on her Senate desk that she rang whenever one of her male colleagues began a speech addressed to “gentlemen.”

Legislators were used to long terms; sometimes, like Dills, for decades. Even though Democrats had nominal majorities in both houses, overt partisanship rarely reared its head. The Senate operated on a bipartisan, almost nonpartisan basis, with minority Republicans often chairing major committees. Both parties adhered to an unwritten rule that there would be no effort to unseat senators from the opposing party.

The masculine, clubby atmosphere was enhanced by the existence of two lunch clubs, the Derby Club and the Moose Milk, where senators drank, ate and chatted with (also mostly male) lobbyists. Several nearby bars and restaurants, such as Frank Fat’s, David’s Brass Rail, Posey’s, Capitol Tamale and Ellis, were virtual extensions of the Capitol, sites where political deals were made that would later be enshrined in law.

One of the Capitol’s rituals at the time was to name major laws for their authors, called “tombstoning.”

Evolution of Capitol Culture

So, for example, the overhaul of mental health care in the 1960s was – and still is – known as the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act to Republican Congressman Frank Lanterman and Democratic sensemakers Nick Petris and Alan Short. This is the law Governor Gavin Newsom now wants to change, once again changing the way the mentally ill are treated.

Another example is the Ellis Law, named after Jim Ellis, a Republican senator from San Diego, which makes it easier for landlords to exempt their property from local rent control laws. Efforts are also underway to amend this law.

Capitol culture began to change in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to demographic change, a huge corruption scandal dubbed “Shrimpgate”, the enactment of term limits in 1990, and court-ordered redistricting after the 1990 census.

Loss of legislative individuality

The legislature is now much more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation – much more representative of the complex social and cultural matrix of the state – but conversely it has also returned to a kind of political monoculture thanks full control of the Democrats. Its limbs come and go, seemingly interchangeably, and one rarely rises above the herd. Former Congresswoman Lorena Gonzalez and Senator Scott Wiener are two of the few exceptions.

Tombstone was, admittedly, a selfish exercise, but it was also a point of pride, to tell the world that someone had the courage to see a major legislative undertaking through to the end, overcoming the obstacles that the legislative process erects.

The rule prohibiting “a short title that names a current or former lawmaker” was first passed about two decades ago, removing the disabling. It also removed legislative individuality, and that is not necessarily progress.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending most of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more Walters chronicles, go to calmmatters.org/comment.