The Women At The Gate

Written by Robyn Black

Published Issue: Winter 2008

They have the stories that bring to life and provide interesting lessons about the California State Capitol. Everyone talks one day about writing a book. These women, all of them clever, accomplished and respected, all of them knowledgeable and good company, made time from their busy day to offer a glimpse of the years they’ve spent in the middle of the mix. They really should write a book.

Cathleen Gardella started at the Capitol in January of 1967, as a messenger in the Office of Legislative Counsel. To provide some perspective, Bion Gregory, the affable and admired longest-serving Legislative Counsel in California history who died suddenly in September of 2004, was a legal student at that time.

CGar: Bion and I were like baby kids together. I stayed with Leg Counsel for a few years and then went to the Assembly when then Assemblyman John Burton gave me a job working for a small committee. I went back to finish my degree, came back and worked for Richard Alatorre in the Assembly, then Senator Bill Lockyer. Then I worked for a Republican, Bill Craven, for about a year. He was one of the dearest bosses I ever had in my life, and I dearly miss him. He went to the Republican Caucus and fought to hire me and two other Democratic staffers.

CC: Was there a danger that you would get blackballed working for a Republican?
CGar: (laughs) I was a secretary. I wasn’t a consultant then, so no.

CC: How old were you when you came to the building?
CGar: I turned 19 a week before. I grew up here in the Capitol.

CC: Were you looking at this as a career?
CGar: Not at all. No, I was married. My husband was a vet student at UC Davis. I was commuting from Davis and supporting my husband in vet school. I had to do something, and I had a couple years at community college. I thought I was going to be a doctor’s wife and live the life of Riley. I began as an hourly intermittent employee, but later I became a permanent full-time employee. I remember when I started work in Leg Counsel; it was $1.37 an hour. My friends were making like $1.25 or something.

CC: What are you doing now?
CGar: I am a consultant to Senator Ellen Corbett, which is fun because Ellen is in the 10th Senate District (Bill Lockyer’s old district), so I’ve come full circle. Ellen was an intern in Bill’s office when I worked for Bill. Now I am working for her. It’s fun.

CC: How difficult was it to start as a messenger and move up to consultant?
CGar: It was hard because a lot of people pigeonhole you. They see you in a certain way. It was John Burton (the San Francisco politician who became State Senate President pro Tempore) who gave me the opportunity.

My name is Aurora Wallin. I started in 1977. My child’s thirty and I didn’t have kids when I first got here. I worked for Tom Bates (now the mayor of Berkeley and husband of Assemblywoman Loni Hancock) for ten years. Tom was very open. You’re a secretary and you do secretarial stuff, but he encouraged me to do more. He’d ask if I wanted to carry a bill? Staff a bill? Give him bill ideas. I was the committee secretary for him in Human Services for ten years.

CGar: That’s when I met you, when you were working for Human Services.
AW: I loved working for him.

CC: Why did you choose the Capitol?
AW: It was a quirk. I wanted to be a medical secretary. I got an AA degree and I heard about a Latina Health Conference. They had a group of ladies on the dais. One of them, Sonja something, I can’t remember her last name, worked for the UC Davis Medical Center. She hired me for about 2-3 years. One day she gave me a call. She said do you remember me? I said, “Of course I remember you.” She said, “Jim Turner, from the Personnel Department at the Capitol wants to hire someone fluent in Spanish.” I said, “okay.” I was hired. I started in the pool.

CC: Were you hired specifically because you could speak Spanish?
AW: Well, (laughs) in a way, yeah, but I didn’t really use my skills...there were no Mexicans at the Capitol. When I started here, we were few and far between.

My name is Alicia Nantz. I started as a messenger in July of 1972. I think myself and Linda Macias and another gal, Erma, who worked with the Committee on Health when Assemblyman Art Torres had it, were the only Mexicans working at the Capitol. The other Latino member was Richard Alatorre. I think he and Art were the first two Latino members. But then Cathy Cruz came along, we were the only Latina messengers. That’s where we started.

CC: What did a messenger do?
AN: A messenger was a person who did all the running around and delivering stuff, sat in offices, answered phones, did the grunt work-stuff each office now does on their own.

CC: Did you work out of a specific office?
AN: We were on the sixth floor across from the cafeteria.

I’m Peggy Ely. I began working here in 1975 as an elevator operator. I did that for a few months. Then I started in January, 1976, as a messenger. There were about 18 of us, mainly girls. We all paired off. We did the bill runs and dropped copies of bills in legislative offices. We delivered press releases across the street to the reporters.

CC: A legislative office would call the messenger and ask for assistance?
PE: Yes.

CC: The messenger’s office doesn’t exist anymore.
PE: No. Richie Ross (now a leading political consultant) got rid of them as part of the cutbacks when he worked for the Speaker.

CC: What was the pay when you started?
PE: About $500-$600 a month when I started. When I became a sergeant in 1981, I was making $1,170 a month.
AN: The pay wasn’t the only problem. When I started in 1972, we weren’t able to wear pants. It was John Burton who was instrumental in letting us ladies wear pants.

CC: What did you wear?
AN: Skirts and dresses pants.

CC: Were there any male messengers?
AN: There was only one. His name was Michael. (laughs) I think then he got into Supplies pretty quick.

CC: Were there male jobs and female jobs?
AN: It seemed to work out that way. Those were the times. The steno pool was across from the messenger pool. Next to the messenger pool would be the Address Controller’s Office who addressed all the letters and envelopes for the legislators. It was not handled by each office then. There was another room-scriptomatic-where they would do signatures for the members. The members wouldn’t sign their letters. They would do auto-pen. We had the whole sixth floor across from the cafeteria.
AW: I really enjoyed the pool. I was sent to offices and I didn’t have to work late. It was nine to five, strictly. You were sent to a legislator’s office, and everybody was grateful you were there to help.

CC: What were legislative offices like in those days?
AW: Two staff...a secretary and a consultant. Sometimes they had two consultants.
CGar: There were no Chiefs of Staff in those days.
AW: No. Those titles came much later.
CGar: One legislative person and one secretary, and that was it. The secretary was the receptionist and did everything else that needed to be done.
AW: Assemblywoman Kathy Wright called me up in the pool. She offered me a job, and I said okay. She was an absolutely wonderful woman, very, very nice to everybody. It was me and Jamie Khan (now a successful lobbyist) in that little office. That was it. I prepared her binders for committee, her binders for the floor, and Jamie did legislation. I did scheduling. It was just the two of us.

CC: The Speaker controlled staff in those days?
CGar: Well, Majority Services served the members. Of course, Majority Services was a scaled down version of what they have today. It was a much smaller staff. What do they have over there now-three hundred people or something?
AN: We also had the Assembly Office of Research, too. (In its heyday, it was headed by Steve Thompson, who went on to run the California Medical Association and has a walkway on K Street dedicated to his memory.)
CGar: Right, the Assembly Office of Research provided research and legislative background for offices. It’s gone now, too.

CC: The system; it went from centralized to local.
AN: Yes, you would call to have someone if you needed help. “Our secretary is out, can you send somebody?” An office wouldn’t be without anybody. Today, each legislator only has their own office to chip in. Back then, I think it worked as a good team for all members.

CC: How were you treated?
AN: Very well. I’m happy, or I wouldn’t be here now.

CC: Have the legislators changed?
AN: (laugh) That’s a loaded question. It’s a different era now.

CGar: Recently, Pete Wilson said people should drink more, and John Burton said they should go out more often. There’s less of that, and I think there is a certain dysfunction about the place; (laughs) not that the dysfunction wasn’t always there. It’s just by its nature of being smaller-legislators and all the staff-everything was in this Capitol building. There was no Legislative Office Building (or the Data Center), which is now on 11th Street in a major multi-floor building. I mean all of Legislative Counsel was located here in the Capitol (they now occupy several floors on L Street). Even some of the agencies were in the Capitol-Ken Cory, when he was Controller, had his office downstairs. The Treasurer was up on the second floor where the pro Tem’s office is now.
AN: We even had our own bank because the Treasurer’s office was here. We would cash our checks at the Treasurer’s office.
CGar: There were less people. It was more family. You really did know everybody and everybody knew you. The only chief of staff was in the President pro Tem’s and Speaker’s office. Usually the lead person was an administrative assistant.
AW: I left the Capitol for three years and worked for the Department of Aging. I was bored. When they interviewed me they asked what do you do as a committee secretary? They didn’t comprehend it all. I did everything from opening the mail to setting bills and putting amendments across the desk and setting the hearings. And, it all had to be done before the Assembly Desk closed.

My name is Cathy Cruz. I arrived at the Capitol in 1972. I was only 17. I had graduated from high school in January of that year. The Capitol provided a lot of opportunity in those days. My brother was going to law school and knew people at the Capitol. Sharon Bain, John Burton’s second wife, hired me.

CC: Was it fun?
CCruz: It was so much fun. It didn’t even feel like work. We looked forward to coming to work.

CC: Where have you spent most of your time in the Capitol?
CCruz: I worked mostly for Rules. I worked in Accounting and went to school at the same time. I ended up handling all of the business for the district offices-such as leasing, equipment orders, all that it takes to run an office.

CC: Did you expect to make the Capitol a career?
CCruz: I have stayed in the Capitol my entire life, except the three years that the Republicans took over...then I was a stay-at-home mom.

My name is Dixie Petty. I’ve worked three places-with Lt. Governor Leo McCarthy, from 1983-88. Then I came to the Assembly and worked for Tom Hayden for a couple years with the Labor Committee, and then to the Local Government Committee. That’s where I’ve been for 17 years. I’ve been mainly in committee work. It is exciting. It is also hard work producing what needs to be accomplished to get the bills heard.

AW: I think committee work is getting harder today. I find myself having to train people on the phone.

CC: Is that a product of term limits?
AW: Most definitely. They don’t know the basics.
DP: They don’t know the difference between a legislative calendar and a regular calendar.
CGar: (laughs) Sometimes they don’t know they have to move their bill through the other house.
DP: It is true. They often don’t know they have all the extra work of moving a bill through the Senate and the Assembly both.
CGar: It takes three years for a consultant to see all the cycles up and running. I forget who this person was that made that conclusion but, yes, people need to learn all aspects of what’s going on here.

CC: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen?
PE: You’re in a different environment because of 9/11. There’s a lot more security for the members. It’s not like the ‘70s when members called the sergeants and they’d just take you anywhere.

CC: Were there women managers and women in authority when you started?
CCruz: Well, Maeley Tom from the Rules Committee.
AN: Sharon Bain. She was married to John Burton. She was personnel officer.
CGar: There was a sexual distinction then, and you know, it was just starting to change...I think things have changed tremendously.
CCruz: It is amazing to think of the changes.

CC: Was there a problem with the men being respectful of the efforts that women made in those days? [big laugh]

CC: (laughs) In general; I’m not asking for scandal.
CGar: You know, I think there probably was a different attitude in those days. There was a lot of gender stuff going on.

CC: What are the changes you’ve seen that astonish you the most?
CGar: Well, the ethnic diversity, of course.
AN: Yeah, absolutely.
CCruz: Most definitely.
AW: We work hard during the busy times. We were here all hours of the night, and that’s another thing other state employees don’t understand. If we’re in session, we have to be here. You probably get paid extra, they ask. No, we don’t.
AN: I remember doing a floor report (bills being heard that day). We had a yellow sheet, we had a pink sheet, and we had a blue sheet. You had to type this stuff up, and if you made an error you had to go back on each of the three copies and erase each one of them. It was not easy.
CCruz: I remember coming in on a Saturday when Assembly Rules first installed the computers. We were the guinea pigs.
CGar: I remember David Roberti’s (pro Tem) office was the only Senate office with a fax machine.

CC: Have the opportunities you’ve wanted been available?
CGar: For myself, I’d say I’ve reached all the career opportunities I’ve wanted. I got to be the legislative director for the pro Tem. I think the gender barriers and the pigeonholing have really fallen away. I think the opportunities are there if you want them.
AW: I’ve enjoyed what I do. I like the fact that there’s a busy time and a slow time. (laugh) At the Department of Aging, there’s never an interim.

CC: Have you seen a lot of people come and go?
PE: Oh, yeah.
DP: Term limits have affected this place a great deal. You know, we’re the last of the Mohicans.

CC: What is the worst element of term limits?
DP: You’re losing a lot of knowledge. I mean, when you could call somebody like Dion Aroner, who I worked with for ten years, and she wrote most of the Health and Human Services code, and if you needed something, Dion knew what you were talking about (Dion followed Tom Bates into the Assembly and was termed out after six years). Dave Doer was that person in Rev and Tax. Paul Press, Health Committee. I mean I could name you one person for every committee I dealt with, and I got everything I needed from them.

CC: Your friendships have been life-long.
AW: The first person I walked precincts with was Cathy Gardela.
CGar: I remember that.
AW: I had never walked precincts before and I thought I’d go. I walked for Mayor Moscone in San Francisco (the irrepressible Moscone won the race and was killed at the age of 48). I’ll never forget. Oh my God, it was so much fun. I learned a lot.

CC: Were you required to do more political stuff in the earlier days?
AN: It was voluntary.
AW: We were not required.
CGar: There is a bit of an expectation, but it was purely voluntary.

CC: Would your career be set back if you didn’t volunteer?
AW: No.
CGar: I’ve always done it. I’ve always felt it was part of the gig.

CC: Nobody lost an election in those days.
AN: I remember Jack Denton losing to Marty Martinez. Jack was the Majority Floor Leader, and it was in his own backyard. It was really sad. (Martinez would later lose his congressional senate seat in a race with a California legislator.)

CC: Did the politicians, because it was more of a profession and there weren’t term limits, seem bigger back then?
DP: I think it is the opposite.
AW: Yeah, I think so, too. I could go back to Mr. McCarthy’s office (Lt. Governor) and chat with him. He was available.
CCruz: We had Governor Brown walking into offices and talking to you.
CGar: Ronald Reagan schlepped around these halls all the time. It wasn’t like Schwarzenegger with bodyguards and motorcycles waiting to escort him across the street to the Hyatt. Reagan was showing up to the members’ birthday parties by himself.
AN: Fundraisers were not even called fundraisers back then. They had receptions. Jesse Unruh would be there, you know. It was fun to see people of that caliber just walking around and enjoying the crowd.

CC: Did everybody party together?
CGar: The lobbyists used to pay for everything.

CC: (laughs) Thank God we’ve changed that.

CC: What were the lobbyists like?
CCruz: They were very friendly.
AW: Fun. I mean, now, the thought of going to lunch with a lobbyist...we just don’t do it.

CC: Aren’t you amazed when you run into members who treat their staff poorly?
CGar: (laughs) Nowadays, especially with the plethora of lawsuits, yeah.
AW: A good legislative member is one who isn’t micromanaging.

CC: But, of course, in the pre-term limit days you didn’t walk in as a freshman and become a committee chair.
CCruz: Overnight, exactly.
CGar: They can be chairman for 4 or 5 years and then they’re gone.
AW: Right. It’s too rushed.
CGar: They may not have those types of skills. You’re getting people who may have never been in politics before.

CC: What is the best advice you’ve heard?
CGar: Willie Brown said to the members it may cost you now, but in the long run, it’s going to pay off if you hire experienced staff.

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