A legislator’s guide to summer in Sacramento

Our Capitol correspondent asks lawmakers how they beat the heat

Photo By Larry Dalton

“One must be creative in dealing with the weather. I like stupid, funny, silly movies where I do not have to think. That calms me down and cools me off.”
Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson

Nearly every year, the cycle of activity inside the Capitol reflects the cycle of seasons that come and go outside the building’s tall doors and echoing corridors. In the springtime, Sacramento’s weather is pleasant, and so is business at the Capitol, where bills happily navigate their way from agreeable committees to amiable floor sessions. But as the weather heats up, so do legislative sessions. Summer transforms the city into a furnace and brings mayhem under the Capitol dome. In July, when temperatures start looking like good gas prices, partisans are usually digging in while the stalemate over a late budget becomes critical. By August, when unshaded parking lots are hot enough to melt lead, the legislative engine revs at redline as the deadline for bills looms, and the budget is often, by this point, weeks late.

At this time of year, it’s important that lawmakers keep their wits sharp. And the only way to do that, to guarantee that our sober representatives are ever-vigilant in safeguarding the public welfare, is to keep them out of the mind-numbing heat.

In that spirit, then, SN&R offers some summer-survival tips from lawmakers who, all too often, resort to the pleasures of work to stay out of the heat.

Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox, sadly, typifies too many of his peers. When it gets hot, Cox lamented, “I work. I work.”

Senator Dean Florez, also unimaginative in keeping cool, admitted: “I like work. I just plan on being in the air-conditioned confines of this building.”

It’s not a bad idea.

The Capitol is one of the most generously air-conditioned buildings in town, cooled (and heated) by a network of pipes that constantly circulate through state office buildings downtown. “When you adjust the thermostat, what you’re doing is adjusting the flow of air over one of those two pipes,” said Department of General Services (DGS) spokesman Robb Deignan. DGS oversees the network, which pumps water from subterranean wells through five miles of pipes and 5 million square feet of office space in 23 state buildings.

If that sounds antediluvian, consider the alternative: nothing. Air conditioning didn’t come to the Capitol until the 1920s and wasn’t in wide use until the 1950s and 1960s, according to State Capitol Museum curator Vito Sgromo. “It was common for them to work around the issues of heat by using fans and shades over the windows and ceiling fans,” Sgromo said. “There was no expectation that there was anything better, so they just used that to kind of exist.”

Hanging around the office may be effective, but it’s no fun.

Fun-loving Senator Richard Alarcón, who acknowledges that summer means being busy all the time, said there’s still time for dinner at the usual places: Esquire Grill, Frank Fat’s, Morton’s of Chicago and, sometimes, Tapa the World. “One of the few things that we have time to do is dine, because you can work that into your schedule and meet with people.”

There’s also bowling. Alarcón said he’s a big fan of the sport—giddy when the annual legislative bowling tournament rolls around in February. “I love bowling,” Alarcón gushed. “I actually thought about joining a league, but I don’t have time.”

Senator Kevin Murray, who was identified by peers in the upper house as one of the more socially active members, was one of several lawmakers who said they head to the movies on scorching days.

“I like pretty much any kind of movie,” said the senator from Tinseltown. “I’m on the film commission, so I’ll go see just about anything and everything, from the foreign movies at the Tower and the Crest to big-budget movies.”

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson also sticks himself in front of movies, either in chilly theaters or his air-conditioned Pocket-area pad. “The weather here is very unique, and one must be creative in dealing with the weather,” Wesson said. “I like stupid, funny, silly movies where I do not have to think. That calms me down and cools me off.”

Senator Liz Figueroa, also a summer-swelter cinemagoer, confessed that she barricades herself in her apartment in warmer weather, either catching up on reading or working out. “I have a treadmill in my apartment,” said Figueroa, who identified herself as a former waterskier in less-busy times. “I don’t like to perspire in public is my problem, so I don’t exercise in public, and I don’t like to go out when it’s hot.”

Assemblyman Tony Strickland doesn’t mind sweating in public. He said he and a few other members like to shoot hoops at the Capital Athletic Club before work at 6:30 a.m.—even if it’s not a great way to keep cool. “We get up a sweat,” said Strickland, a third-term Republican kind enough to let freshman Democrat Nicole Parra join the group on the court. “We’re always working day and night, so the only time that we can clear off our calendar to get together is to play basketball early in the morning.”

As a freshman, Parra hasn’t yet known a Sacramento summer, though she’s experienced furnace-like heat at home in Hanford. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, Parra said she didn’t mind the heat in which she campaigned last summer. “The most fun that I’ve had,” she deadpanned, “was walking precincts because people, when you walk precincts and it’s 110 degrees outside, they are not only more appreciative of the fact that you took the time to go door to door, but they always offer you lemonade or ice-cold water.”

Another member in denial about extreme heat is Assemblyman Juan Vargas. “Back in 1990, I was in law school at Harvard,” Vargas recalled. “I went out for First Night, January 1, 1990, and I thought I had frozen my toes off.” Vargas told himself that if he didn’t lose his toes, he would never complain about heat again. “So, when it gets hot, the only thing I say is, ‘Hey, I wish it was 10 degrees hotter.’ And I’ve still got the toes. Didn’t lose one of them.”

Although some lawmakers don’t let themselves accept the reality of the heat, Senate President John Burton likes to bask in it. The well-tanned senator doesn’t get that way by lying around in the freezing, fog-shrouded summers at home in San Francisco. Instead, he grabs his cell phone and a stack of papers and heads out onto the patio of his P Street condo to bronze himself under the sizzling Sacramento sun.

During a floor session, Assemblyman John Longville shared his practical secret weapon against the heat: layering. “If you hang around here, you’ll see me most often with my jacket off,” Longville confided. “Now, you have to have your jacket on to speak, and I’ve got a bill coming up in a few minutes, so I put my jacket on.”

When he’s not entertaining his Assembly colleagues with one of the colorful speeches he frequently makes on the floor, outdoorsman Dennis Mountjoy likes to beat the heat by escaping to nearby lakes. “Out in Rocklin, there’s a bunch of little lakes for largemouth bass fishing. It’s a pretty target-rich environment. And when the sun sets, we go frogging,” Mountjoy revealed. “Frogs are tenacious little devils. I enjoy frogging. It’s just camaraderie. I try to drag some Democrats out on the boat with me.” Citing privacy concerns, however, the Southern California Republican refused to say which Democrats have joined him on bipartisan frogging missions. “Hey, you know what? I can’t go mentioning names. They may not want you to know. It’s just good times. It’s just about going out there with a flashlight and a spear and getting yourself some frogs and laughing and having a good time. I take the frogs down to Simon’s and trade ’em for chop suey.”

Despite Mountjoy’s vivid imagination, neither frogs nor chop suey is on the menu at Simon’s, but the bar and cafe does feature a full menu of Chinese dishes and is, without a doubt, a popular hangout for legislators. Owner Simon Chan opened the 16th Street watering hole almost two decades ago, after bailing out of an old job at Frank Fat’s, the former social center for politicos. Today, Chan pays close attention to the air conditioner. “The electricity bills go up a lot, but the whole time it’s on nonstop,” Chan said on a recent weeknight. “I set it around 70.”

Chan has customized the hangout by installing a special bin behind the bar where beer bottles chill on ice. He also put a mist machine and a fan on the porch in back: “My customers turn it on. They know where the switch is.”

Simon’s is decorated with framed photos of merrymaking lawmakers, many of the photos depicting Wesson. “The speaker comes in here about three or four times a week,” Chan said, looking at his watch. Then, he looked out the window and remarked that Wesson probably would be walking in at any minute to join the half-dozen lawmakers already ensconced in booths and on barstools.

Asked by an SN&R reporter for his coldest drink, Chan whipped up one of his signature mai tais. The $6 drink, served in a pint glass, features shots of three different brands of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, lime juice, sweet-and-sour mix and grenadine. “It’s a strong drink,” Chan cautioned.