At the beginning of each legislative session, said Kristin Olsen, each member of the Assembly is asked to stand when the name of their county is called.
When Stanislaus County was called, she and Adam Gray stood. When San Joaquin County was called, she and Susan Eggman stood. For Merced County, it was Gray alone. But when Los Angeles County was called, “it looked like half the room stood up,” Olsen told The Bee’s editorial board during a visit Wednesday.
Impressive show of force.
But what if instead of sitting down after the names Stanislaus, Merced or other Valley counties were called, those legislators remained standing? Our representation would still pale in comparison to the megalopolis, but it would be a far more formidable group.
Now you know why legislators from Lodi to Bakersfield have coalesced into what they’re calling the Central Valley Caucus.
It’s not one of the state’s 11 official Assembly caucuses (which include six based on ethnicity and five on topics ranging from aviation to outdoor sports). But it could be very, very potent – especially when the Valley’s senators such as Anthony Cannella, Cathleen Galgiani and Tom Berryhill are included.
The group got a sense of its clout in last year’s negotiations for Proposition 1, the state water bond.
“We looked at our success, and we thought we should formalize this,” said Olsen. So the group appointed a chair (Democrat Gray) and a vice chair (Republican Cannella) and started meeting regularly. What they’ve been finding is that, on many issues, party affiliations mean far less than their hometowns.
“We were trying to find areas where we could work together,” said Olsen. “And we wanted to demonstrate to our colleagues, and to the governor, that we can stand united on some things. That’s never been done in the past.”
It’s being done now. And it’s reflected in at least part of Olsen’s legislative agenda.
The entire Central Valley Caucus co-authored a package of bills to end lawsuit abuses brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of the way California adapted the law, professional “victims” and their predatory lawyers have been preying on small businesses for years. Many have paid $10,000 or $20,000 or even $50,000 to avoid a lawsuit. Some businesses couldn’t afford it and instead closed – putting employees out of work.
With the name of every member of the caucus on each piece of legislation, they are much more likely to withstand any backlash from attorneys groups. The focus of the legislation is to give business owners a chance to remedy any minor violations rather than pay lawyers to leave – creating a win for the disabled and the small-business owners.
The Valley group is also working together on some aspects of education reform. Assembly Bill 1318, to remove caps on how much money school districts can hold in reserve, is made less controversial by having a Republican (Olsen) and Democrat (Gray) as co-authors.
Other attempts at unifying through geography have failed. The official Rural Caucus, for instance, has never gained any traction.
“It’s not done a whole lot, including the year that I was chair of it,” said Olsen. “It’s so spread out, from the top of the state to the bottom. There are just fewer things that unite the group geographically.”
The Central Valley Caucus’ other priorities are water and higher education. And it doesn’t hurt that one of the members (Olsen) is the Republican Assembly leader. The united stand, said Olsen, is more important.
“As we band together,” said Olsen, “we’re going to get more opportunities.”
The governor, she said, will be “less inclined to dismiss” Valley concerns. And “we have an easier time getting meetings” with state officials, she said.
With nine Assembly members and five senators, the Central Valley Caucus is still small compared with Los Angeles – which has 26 Assembly members alone. But it’s harder to ignore 14 representatives than to shut out one or two at a time.
In the past, said Olsen, “We usually got table scraps.”
Now, it appears we’ve got a seat at the table.