There is a K Street in Sacramento.
However, the band of Jewish citizen lobbyists that descended upon the state capital last week had little in common with the Armani-suited influence peddlers who turned the like-named street 2,400 miles away into a metonym for the Washington, D.C. lobbying industry.
On May 15, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, or JPAC, brought together 100 Jewish professionals and lay leaders from around the state for its annual Day of Advocacy.
For a $95 registration fee, anyone interested in participating in the political process was able to attend an evening reception with lawmakers, a working breakfast and lunch with state officials, and an intense afternoon in the Capitol building.
Their goal: Walk the halls, meet with legislators and let them know the Jewish community is watching them.
Representing Jewish federations, Jewish community relations councils and other Jewish advocacy programs, JPAC is the most prominent Jewish lobbying organization in Sacramento. Its members weigh in on issues of interest to the Jewish community, from social services and health care to divestment from Iran.
That’s what brought Tiburon resident Nancy Goldberg back to Sacramento for another Day of Advocacy. A longtime volunteer with S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Goldberg came ready to do battle and give lawmakers an earful.
“I’m here because I believe one voice can make a difference,” Goldberg said at the May 14 evening reception at the Citizen Hotel, the night before the lobbyists fanned out across the halls of state power. “You don’t just go lobbying when things are good. Too many lives are on the line.”
“I’ve been interested in politics since I was in high school,” said Dr. Eli Taub, a retired pediatrician from Los Altos taking part in his seventh Day of Advocacy. “This is an excellent opportunity to take my involvement in the Jewish community and combine it with my interest in politics.”
The wine-and-cheese reception drew several state legislators from the Bay Area, including Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D-southern Alameda County and parts of Santa Clara County), Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), and Assembly members Richard Gordon (D-South Peninsula), Susan Bonilla (D-northern Contra Costa County) and Jared Huffman (D-North Bay).
Speaker of the Assembly John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) also dropped by to shmooze.
They mingled with Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Anita Friedman, JFCS executive director, Akiva Tor, the S.F.-based Consul General of Israel, and numerous other Jewish community leaders.
Much of the chatter was on the hot story of the moment early last week — the then-breaking news that California’s projected budget deficit had ballooned from $9 billion to nearly $16 billion.
That ominous development all but guaranteed that money for social services would remain scarce.
“I’ve been poring over the numbers,” Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-San Fernando Valley) told the crowd while accepting JPAC’s award for legislator of the year. “It’s ugly.”
A briefing handed out to Day of Advocacy participants noted that in the last four years, $15 billion has been cut from health and human service programs aiding the very young, the very old, the very poor and the very sick.
If Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal on the November ballot, featuring a quarter-percent hike in the sales tax and income tax increases for high-earners, fails, and the
$9.1 billion it would add to state coffers does not materialize, even more draconian cuts are certain.
At the May 15 breakfast and lunch, participants received a few pep talks, though the message was hardly peppy. They heard from Sacramento insiders, and none sugarcoated the state’s bleak fiscal condition.
“Without new revenues, the cuts will be worse,” Pérez said. “We need to make sure our seniors have the services to live with dignity.”
Other speakers included State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Ken De Rosa, an official in the state Department of Finance. Both offered relatively discouraging reports about the budget. “Sorry this is sort of gloomy,” Lockyer said.
Though the 2012 deficit has ballooned,
De Rosa remind the JPAC group that last year it stood at $26 billion, which makes the current $16 billion figure look comparatively better.
Gia Daniller-Katz of JFCS, the S.F.-based agency’s government relations director, told the group that the state has “determined it no longer has the resources to provide services to the frail elderly it has had over the last several years. The safety net we fought so hard to protect has unraveled.”
After Controller John Chang, the state’s chief fiscal officer, talked about how California, like Wall Street and many consumers, borrowed too much, the participants received their lobbying marching orders: Focus on three bills pending before the legislature.
The first was AB 1732, an anti-bullying measure that would empower school districts to identify cases of cyber bullying, specifically “burn pages,” which some kids set up on Facebook and elsewhere to taunt and bully their peers. This bill was passed unanimously by the Assembly and is now working its way through the Senate.
Next, was SB 1193, the Human Trafficking Hotline Bill. It would require specified business, such as airports, farm labor contractors, emergency rooms and bus stations, to post a flyer listing a human trafficking hotline number. This bill has moved out of the Judiciary Committee and soon will be debated on the Senate floor.
Finally, the citizen lobbyists were told to focus on
AB 2160, a controversial measure introduced by the Assembly’s Blumenfield. Now being debated on the Assembly floor, the bill could negatively impact private insurance companies that have certain links to investment activities in Iran.
Why these issues? San Francisco lawyer and JPAC chair Michael Sweet said he and his colleagues “look at what’s been introduced [in Sacramento] on issues that are important.” Then they take their best shot. The point is to get results.
Sweet believes issues like bullying and human trafficking matter to Jewish community activists.
“It’s about making the world a better place,” Sweet said. “It’s part of what we do. We don’t judge and we don’t limit the tzedakah work we do to Jews.”
A sheet of bullet points offered suggestions on how to be an effective advocate. Among them: Be clear about what you want, don’t argue with the legislator and don’t quarrel amongst yourselves.
Then the activists walked the three blocks to the Capitol building, where they broke up into small groups of four to six to meet lawmakers face to face.
The crowded fifth floor of the Capitol looked like Target on Black Friday. Except the only thing the JPAC crew was shopping for was a legislator’s sympathetic ear.
They weren’t the only ones in the Capitol. The JPAC volunteers shared the halls and legislator’s ears that day with members of the California Chiropractic Association, who spent their time arguing against an Assembly-approved bill requiring parents who don’t want their children immunized to first meet with a licensed health care professional.
Most of the JPAC activists had three 15- to 20-minute meetings with state Senate and Assembly members, in most cases those from their own districts.
Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco and Daly City), the speaker pro tempore of the Assembly, welcomed a four-woman JPAC contingent into her office, which was decorated with family photos and a tabletop of model horses.
Ma, whose grandfather was the first mayor of Kunming, a city in southwest China that now has a population of 6.4 million, seemed at ease with her Jewish guests, noting she grew up in Great Neck, Long Island. “Everyone there was Jewish,” she quipped.
San Francisco novelist and JPAC volunteer Susan Alexander lobbied Ma on the human trafficking bill, which is similar to a successful law already on the books in Texas.
“Who would believe Texas would be ahead of California,” Alexander said.
Ma seemed inclined to support the bill, suggesting the hotline number also be listed in Asian newspapers (since much of the human trafficking crisis involves women from China).
Meanwhile, at the office of Gordon, a first-term assemblyman, Taub joined fellow JPAC activists Sandy and Selma Tandowsky of Burlingame. Regular, everyday citizens most of the time, suddenly they were in front of a lawmaker, pushing him on the Iran divestment bill.
“We can’t quit,” Taub stressed to the legislator. “Every month that goes by is a month closer to when Iran has a nuclear weapon. The alternative [to sanctions] is to use force.”
Gordon, who took part in a JPAC-sponsored fact-finding mission to Israel a few months ago, showed his visitors a photo of himself with Israeli President Shimon Peres, something he called a prized possession.
“This is good policy,” he said of the bill. “I’m going to vote yes.”
The conversation then turned to the state budget cuts in education and human services, including a 40 percent cut for K-12 public schools. Gordon, like his visitors, finds them repugnant — but he said there’s little the state can do, given that all tax hikes must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the Senate and Assembly.
“The safety net is very frayed,” he said. “If we pass [the governor’s tax measure] it will buy us a couple more years. But we cut $17 billion last year.”
Afterward, Taub reflected on the Day of Advocacy, noting it means a lot more than just getting lawmakers to vote a certain way on certain bills.
“This process is perhaps as much about building relationships between our community and the legislators,” he said. “We were in a way preaching to our friends, who don’t need the preaching.”
Taub said he found the Day of Advocacy a meaningful exercise in Jewish activism, even if the wheels of government turn slowly.
“I go to back to Hillel,” he said. “I go to Sacramento with the spirit of: If I am only for myself, what kind of human being am I?”
By early evening, the citizen lobbyists were filing out of the Capitol and heading back to the Bay Area, some by car, some by train. As the four-hour lobbying effort came to an end, Sweet deemed the day a success.
“A lot of the efforts we made to develop relationships with members of the legislature are coming to fruition,” he said. “Even when the answer is ‘There’s no money,’ the legislators know there is a voice in our community reminding them that there are people who have needs, and [that] those needs sometimes get lost in the shuffle.”
Goldberg was satisfied that her voice once again made a difference.
“You don’t stay silent,” she said. “You don’t just elect someone and say ‘It all belongs to you.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
cover photo/dan pine