As a journalist covering California politics from localized issues to state bills to actions with national and international consequences, I’m often asked a lot of fun questions.
Sometimes it’s simply asking where a certain petition is online, which is usually answered with a link.
Other times it’s more direct. “How many nuclear plants are left in California?” One. Barely.
“Who is the Mayor of Los Angeles? Eric Garcetti. For now.
“Why is homelessness so bad in California?” Multiple factors including housing costs, the number of homeless services in the state, lax laws about tents in public areas, the cost of living in-state, and just so many other factors that is beyond a one sentence description.
Is LA hosting the all-star game this year? Not a political question, but yes after being moved from 2020 because of COVID-19. All of these have been asked of me in the last week. And that’s not even getting into the more bizarre ones that have come in over the years like if California banned gasoline (No. Well, not yet anyway) or if they have legalized cocaine (Same answer).
Sometimes though I’ll get asked something I honestly don’t know the answer to and dig later to find out.
During the weekend I was asked “Don’t, like, politicians here still carry badges and can act like cops? (sic).” I knew the latter part of the questions wasn’t true, but the badge thing stumped me. I know people at the U.S. Congressional level do. In fact, the approximately 70,000 given out to those who work in or round the U.S. Capitol are seen as status symbols. But in California? I did a little digging, and much like anything in California politics, dig down deep enough and the results are hilarious/depressing.
First off, anything with the seal on it cannot be used on a badge given to anyone by lawmakers themselves. In 2007, Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, who had been both a Congressman and Lieutenant Governor in the past, made up dozens of badges with the seal on them along with the words “California State Assembly Commissioner” on them and gave them out to campaign contributors. No harm there, right? Well, wrong.
Turns out Assembly leadership, led by then-Speaker Fabian Nunez, noticed and got completely up in arms about this. Turns out giving Assembly badges to anyone, including those with the completely made up title of “Assembly Commissioner” are a major security violation. Any kind of ID for those in the Assembly and Senate are needed to quickly move about places, and having a gaggle of political contributors managing to get into lawmaker-only areas doesn’t exactly send the best of messages. The Sergeant-at-Arms immediately put a stop to this. New rules were put in place that had all badges be approved and given out by the Sergeant-at-Arms, lawmakers themselves couldn’t hand any out, and that an annual audit of these badges be put in place.
Dymally was punished by having a high school in Los Angeles be named after him.
State lawmaker ID limits
So only lawmakers get them. What about using them? Well for that we need to move ahead a few years to 2011. That year, then-Assemblyman and current Senator Steven Bradford was driving home in Gardena when an ice cream truck began to run him off the road. Or not. It’s not clear what started it all. What is clear is that Bradford forced him over, got out, and flashed his Senate badge. The ice cream man even said that Bradford had been hounding him for a few years wanting to see his business license. Both claimed that damage to the vehicles came from each other, with Bradford stating at the time that it was a safety issue with the ice cream man actually being a danger.
“It’s not about me, it’s about young folks in the city – you have an individual who is that reckless with a three-ton vehicle,” said Bradford in 2011. “He doesn’t care about life, he doesn’t care about seniors and young folks. An individual like that shouldn’t be on the streets.”
Bradford also added that “I did not show my badge. I was knocked to ground by Hawthorne PD officers and my wallet fell out of my pocket and the officers saw the badge when they picked up my wallet. It was then the officers realized who I was and one of the officer also said ‘my father votes for you.’”
While the tactics were, let’s say, questionable, the bigger issue to come out of this was badge use. Nine years before, Bradford had actually been arrested while a Gardena City Councilman during an incident in Hawthorne where, during an incident with police, he showed his Councilman’s badge.
After the 2011 incident, it was made pretty clear that any lawmaker I.D. shouldn’t be used in this way. Having a badge for non-law enforcement public office doesn’t entitle you to become a cop. At least not yet.
Lawmakers still need specialized ID today at pretty much every level, but it cannot be shared with family and friends, doesn’t entitle you to get out of traffic stops (sometimes – it still happens in some cases today at higher levels), and doesn’t allow you to be a cop or stop ice cream men in the middle of the road in your Buick.
But getting into government buildings? Yes, it can definitely be used for that. And, lets face it, there’s probably a restaurant out there that gives a free breakfast for those with them like it’s their birthday at Denny’s or something. It really just boils down to, yes, you get special identification, just use it to do your job. You want to be Jefferson Smith, not Marshal Dillon.