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Annie Wang remembers the panic she felt being a freshman in a 500-person chemistry class at UC Davis when her period arrived—and she didn’t have a tampon or pad. There was nowhere nearby to go, and leaving to find something meant missing the class.

So she tried to focus on the lecture instead.

“I stayed in my seat and prayed it would not be too bad. When I got up, I had left a mark on UC Davis in a very bold way,” she said. “It was a very embarrassing moment for me.”

She knew she couldn’t be the only one in this predicament—that “a lot of my classmates had experienced similar situations where they were in class or going to class and suddenly got their period and were not able to go to class or had to scramble,” she said.

Now she’s one of many student activists, advocates, experts and officials working toward what they call “menstrual equity.” In California, that means exempting period products from the state sales tax and ensuring that tampons and pads are provided as freely as toilet paper in public schools and universities, government buildings and prisons.

It’s part of a global movement—partially funded by feminine-hygiene product manufacturers—to bring periods into the consideration of mainstream policymakers. A documentary about “period poverty”—the reality that some women miss work and some girls miss school because of cultural taboos or because they can’t afford period products—won an Oscar this year. Already in California, public schools in low-income areas are required to provide free period products, and college students are petitioning for free products in state universities. And an ongoing state Superior Court case claims the state is violating the 14th Amendment equal-protection clause by taxing the sales of period products, arguing that tampons and pads are not luxuries.

But the most closely watched effort is under way in the state Capitol, where lawmakers expect to advance a bill to end that sales tax.

A few years back, there were a lot of eye rolls and snickers when Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens carried such a bill. Embracing the novelty of it all, she dubbed herself “Tampon Queen” and propped a huge pad and tampon in her office window.

“It allowed a conversation to happen that was more than a tax—it’s about menstrual equity and our biology,” she said.

Her bill cleared the Legislature in 2016, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying it should have been addressed within the state budget and that “tax breaks are the same thing as new spending.” That prompted a tweet retort from Garcia:

@JerryBrownGov please mansplain why it’s ok to balance the budget on women's backs? He vetoed #AB1561, the unfair #tampontax continues. — Cristina Garcia (@AsmGarcia) September 13, 2016

With a new governor in place, she’s at it again. This time, her colleagues have been so eager to back her Assembly Bill 31 that it has more co-authors than any other this session. Last time, she said, “I had to beg them to join me.” This bill is expected to garner Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support.

But Jerry Brown isn’t alone. Editorials in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have contended that it’s unwise to carve out exemptions from the state sales tax in such a random fashion—especially when the state taxes items equally as essential, such as toilet paper, diapers and toothpaste. The California Tax Reform Association criticized the bill for drawing a line new to the state sales tax: “gender necessity. … The problem with drawing such a line is that many possibilities for exemption follow the logic of gender specificity. Clothing, cosmetics, over-the-counter and pharmaceuticals are all examples of products that can be construed as both gender-based and necessary,” the association noted.

And the California State Association of Counties also opposes the idea. “After the past 30 years of changes to sales and use tax collections, counties have come to depend on those revenues to balance their budgets and specifically offset the costs of providing realigned services, including criminal justice, health, mental health and social services,” the association wrote.

Garcia countered: “I respect the need for California to be fiscally sound, but the state budget should not be balanced by a tax of a person’s uterus. The same goes for local governments; our tax codes should be gender neutral.”

A legislative analysis said the bill, if enacted, would cost the state of California $9 million in lost revenue in the first year and $19 million in the second year.

To be clear, there is not an extra tax on tampons and pads. But unlike food and medicine, they are not exempt from California sales tax, because the state considers them not necessities, but luxuries.

Thus far, some other states—including New York, Florida, Connecticut and Nevada—and the District of Columbia have banned sales taxes on period products. Across the globe, Canada, India and Australia have long since eliminated the tax, and a battle is underway to end it in the United Kingdom.

“Today, the most progressive state in the union is behind the curve in providing a gender-neutral tax code that doesn’t profit off of a woman’s basic biological functions,” Garcia said.

Menstruation is about equity and engagement as much as it is about health, said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who co-founded Period Equity, a group that is behind the tampon-tax campaigns nationwide. It produced a glitzy ad that has model and actress Amber Rose fondling a bezel-set diamond pendant from which a bejeweled locket contains a tampon, asking: “Where else would you keep something 36 states tax as a luxury?” The ad’s kicker: “Tell the government where to stick this tax.”

“The taxes and the challenges of access are unfair and discriminatory toward women,” said Weiss-Wolf. “It’s an enormous distraction and, at worst, a hindrance to being fully present.”

At the age of 16, Nadya Okamato founded PERIOD., The Menstrual Movement, a nonprofit that donates products and works on menstrual policy and education with 350 chapters across the world.

“The tampon tax is not the issue that will solve period poverty, but it sends a message that menstrual hygiene is necessary and it’s a right,” said Okamato. “It’s something that happens to the majority of the global population for an average of 40 years of life, and it makes human life possible. It’s not something that should be treated with shame and stigma; it should be normalized.”

The group, celebrities and a period-products company recently co-signed a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for free products at all schools.

Some critics on social media, however, warn that once the government makes products available at no charge, costs to taxpayers could escalate, because some people who can easily afford to buy their own tampons and pads will instead avail themselves of the free ones.

“This not about whether I can afford it,” Garcia said, noting that she’s asked for free products to be available in state Capitol bathrooms. “It’s about how my biology does not behave in an expected matter. If I’m tracking down period products, I’m missing out on work.”

After Wang’s embarrassing moment at school, she started a campus chapter of PERIOD., which is petitioning the UC Davis administration to provide free products in all campus bathrooms. UC approved and funded a pilot program to provide free products, stocked by student volunteers, in up to 13 campus bathrooms.

The chapter surveyed students and reported that 52 percent of student respondents said they missed class or work in the last school year, because they could not access a tampon or pad.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The resignation of California Democratic Party chairman Eric Bauman comes at a particularly emotional moment in California politics—on the heels of historic wins for Democrats and after a year of bipartisan reckoning over the apparent culture of sexual bullying within the political class.

Bauman became the latest casualty of the #MeToo movement when he resigned last week, hours after Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom called on him to step down over allegations he harassed staff members and party activists with numerous lewd comments and incidents of inappropriate physical contact. Bauman said he has a drinking problem and would seek treatment.

“I have made the realization that in order for those to whom I may have caused pain and who need to heal, for my own health, and in the best interest of the party that I love and to which I have dedicated myself for more than 25 years, it is in everyone’s best interest for me to resign my position as chair of the California Democratic Party,” Bauman said.

The fact that Bauman’s alleged behavior persisted even as the public gaze focused so heavily in the last year on rooting out sexual harassment may be a testament to the counterproductive role alcohol too often plays in Capitol culture. Or it may point to the declining significance of political parties—how important can a party leader be, after all, if he can decree “zero tolerance,” as Bauman did, for sexual harassment, and then openly proceed to harass his staff?

But most of all, Bauman’s resignation is a sign that the #MeToo story is far from over.

“There are a lot of untold stories, and frankly, a lot of bad actors who haven’t been held accountable yet,” said Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist who helped coordinate a public letter that last year kicked off the anti-harassment movement in the state Capitol.

During the past year of tumult and introspection, three legislators resigned, facing harassment allegations, and several others were publicly reprimanded for behavior ranging from using vulgar language to giving unwanted “noogies.” On the same day Bauman resigned, the Assembly released records saying Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia violated sexual harassment policy by acting “overly familiar” with a staffer when, in a drunken state, she grabbed him at a legislative softball game. Throughout this year, the Legislature passed dozens of laws to combat harassment in workplaces statewide, and formed a special committee that crafted a plan to improve the culture inside the Capitol.

Bauman, who is gay, spoke out last year in favor of legislation to give Capitol staffers whistleblower protection if they report misconduct. The Democratic convention he organized in February included new precautions to keep participants safe, such as extra security and a hotline for reporting harassment and assault.

Now Bauman himself will be the focus of an inquiry by a new Commission of Inquiry and Recognition being formed by a Democratic party activist in Los Angeles who says he’s been a victim of Bauman’s inappropriate advances. The commission includes former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin.

“There is going to be a lot of focus on who enabled this. There are still people in party leadership who enabled this to persist as long as it has,” said Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats club. “They are part of the breakdown in governance in the party that contributed to the worsening and widening of the hurt (Bauman) has been allowed to inflict.”

Johnson said Bauman doesn’t deserve credit for California Democrats’ electoral victories this month—which included flipping seven seats in the House, capturing every statewide office and gaining supermajorities (and then some) in both chambers of the Legislature.

Political scientists and campaign strategists agreed that party leadership seemed to be only one factor among many in the blue wave this election. Democrats, they noted, also were buoyed by Californians’ deep dislike of Republican President Donald Trump, as well as a strong push from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and numerous labor and activist groups that raised huge sums of money and organized campaign volunteers.

“The state party did not have a major role in what happened in regards to Congress,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired political science professor at the University of Southern California.

“What the state party is, by and large, is a way for donors to launder money,” she said, because the law limits how much they can give to individual candidates—but not how much they can give to the state party.

The party hired an employment lawyer to investigate the accusations against Bauman. That process will continue despite his resignation, said acting Chair Alexandra Gallardo Rooker. An executive summary of the findings will be made public.  

Rooker will continue to serve as the party chair until delegates elect a new leader, likely at their convention in May. What’s not clear, however, is how many more political figures will fall before the #MeToo story is over in California.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Inside the California Assembly chamber on the night of June 1, the presiding officer urged lawmakers to recognize former members in their midst, “the honorable Henry Perea and Felipe Fuentes.”

In a familiar Capitol ritual, the former assemblymen waved from the balcony as applause rang out from their one-time colleagues.

But the two weren’t just retired lawmakers—they were now lobbyists being paid by oil companies to kill a bill that would soon meet its fate on the Assembly floor below.

That bill, by Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, would have forced industry to reduce air pollution that comes from their plants. Garcia knew the lobbyists in the balcony were pals of many of her Assembly colleagues. She knew oil and other industries were working hard to defeat her. And she knew her bill was in danger.

A million people in her industrial Los Angeles neighborhood “have been treated like a wasteland,” Garcia said in frustration, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she cast a glance toward the balcony. “Clean air is a big deal for a lot of Californians. You have a choice: Do we all matter?”

Her bill fell six votes short, as moderate Democrats joined Republicans to quash it. The moment marked a win for oil—and revolving-door politics.

Today, Garcia cites the lobbyists’ special relationships with current legislators as among the factors to blame for her bill’s demise.

“When you have a former member on the floor at the same time they are working for or against the bill,” she said, “you open the opportunity to have access in a way lobbyists normally would not have.”

Sacramento is full of termed-out or retired lawmakers who make second careers as lobbyists, strolling through a “revolving door” between government and the private sector. Current law prohibits ex-legislators from directly lobbying their former colleagues for one year after they leave the Legislature, and a measure on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would slightly strengthen that by barring legislators who quit mid-term from lobbying during the remainder of that two-year-session, plus another year.

Still, the oil industry’s strategy this year was striking. After failing last year to prevent a new law requiring massive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, oil came back this year lobbying hard. Democrats held a supermajority in the Legislature, but were divided over how to redesign the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program, which forces businesses to reduce emissions or pay for permits to pollute.

The oil industry’s goal: to shape the next phase of cap and trade through 2030. And it had hired four former lawmakers—all Democrats—to advocate on its behalf.

Each hailed from predominantly working-class, Latino districts and joined an influential “mod squad” of moderates during their legislative tenures, which covered various periods between 2002 and 2015. Two are from Kern County, the biggest oil producer in California. And three quit their elective office mid-term to work for industry.

All four declined interviews for this article, as did their employers. Three were registered lobbyists during the peak of cap and trade negotiations this year:

Henry Perea, the son of a Fresno City Council member and grandson of Mexican immigrants, made his mark in the Assembly as the former leader of its mod caucus before quitting mid-term, initially to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. Now he lobbies for the Western States Petroleum Association.

Felipe Fuentes, raised in the San Fernando Valley, worked as a legislator to secure tax credits to keep filmmakers in the state, then was named to the Los Angeles Times 2016 “naughty” list for bailing on his Los Angeles City Council seat to become a lobbyist. His firm’s clients include an oil production company.

Michael Rubio, who worked his way up in Kern County politics, abruptly quit the state Senate in 2013 to work for Chevron, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

• A fourth is not a registered lobbyist, but manages government affairs for a refinery company: Nicole Parra, whose father was a Kern County supervisor, won election to the Assembly at age 32 and also became a mod caucus leader, known for sometimes endorsing Republicans.

“The industry showed incredible smarts by going out and hiring these people. Nationally, the oil industry is very Republican,” said David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant who knows all four through his work running a fundraising committee that helps elect business-friendly Democrats.

“Their knowledge base is enormous. Their relationships are broad-based and deep. If I were in trouble, they are some of the ones I’d hire,” Townsend said.

Oil companies have a long history of fighting against the aggressive climate policies backed by many California Democrats. This year, though, instead of fighting against cap and trade, oil teamed with other business interests to lobby to make cap and trade more industry-friendly. In the final deal that lawmakers approved on a bipartisan vote in July, oil won a new law forbidding local air-quality districts from enacting emissions restrictions tighter than the state’s—as well as a potential perk worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Leading environmental groups supported the bill to extend cap and trade for another decade, but other environmentalists wound up opposing it for being too easy on polluters.

“This easy crossing from legislator to advocate for the industry has happened before, but it seems to have been happening recently in greater bulk. So that, to me, is kind of distressing,” said Kathryn Phillips, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which opposed the cap-and-trade plan. “These are people who have been friends with the people they are going to lobby.”

Many aspects of those relationships play out in ways the public never sees—through text messages and phone calls, or at private get-togethers. Weeks before lawmakers voted on the final cap-and-trade bills, Senate leader Kevin de León dined with Perea and Rubio at an intimate Sacramento restaurant known for $44 steaks.

De León, a Los Angeles Democrat who has carried many clean-energy bills, said former lawmakers didn’t get any special treatment from him.

“I sit down with everybody across the spectrum. That’s my job as the leader of the Senate,” he said. “I have to sit down with all perspectives, whether it’s oil, whether it’s clean energy, whether it is labor unions, whether it’s businesses.”

After Perea became a lobbyist, he met with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to talk about cap and trade, and held additional meetings with the speaker’s staff, Rendon acknowledged. But the speaker rejected the idea that former lawmakers were especially influential in negotiating the next phase of California’s landmark climate policy.

“On an issue like cap and trade, where members arrive with a certain set of values and with information already, I am inclined to think that this is less impactful,” Rendon said.

On the other hand, former lawmakers—especially those who served most recently—can bring unique insider know-how to any lobbying effort. They understand caucus dynamics, know how to tailor persuasive messages to particular legislators, and enjoy unusual access to public officials.

Signs of that were on display throughout the year in the bustling Capitol. In April, Parra participated in a lunchtime discussion with legislative staffers about professional advancement for women of color, joined by a legislator, a lawmaker’s chief of staff and an aide to the governor who works on environmental issues. And in September, as lawmakers began a long night voting on dozens of bills, Perea strolled down a Capitol hallway packed with lobbyists and slipped into the back door of the Assembly chamber—right past a sign labeling the room restricted to “members and staff only.”

Well-connected environmental advocates also roam the halls. Last year, for example, the Assembly honored former legislator Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who now runs a group that works to expand use of electric vehicles.

When politicians leave office, they frequently take a job developing a lobbying strategy—but not directly lobbying. Rubio did that when he quit the Legislature in 2013 to work for Chevron, as did Perea when he resigned in 2015 to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. But as the cap-and-trade negotiations heated up this year, both officially registered as lobbyists—a sign that they anticipated having a lot more direct contact with lawmakers. Perea left the pharmaceutical group to join the Western States Petroleum Association as a registered lobbyist in May. The next month, Rubio registered as a lobbyist for Chevron. In September, he filed paperwork with the Secretary of State ending his registration as a lobbyist. (Both men scored spots this year on a popular list of the 100 most influential players around the Capitol.)

Fuentes was elected to the Los Angeles City Council after he was termed out of the Assembly in 2012. He quit the City Council last year to become a lobbyist with a firm called the Apex Group, whose many clients include Aera Energy—a firm that drills for oil in the San Joaquin Valley.

Parra, after being out of elected office for eight years, was hired by Tesoro (now Andeavor) in November as a manager of state government affairs.

No one has complained to California’s political watchdog that the former lawmakers broke any ethics rules in their advocacy work this year. The assemblyman carrying the bill to lengthen the time lawmakers are banned from lobbying said it’s not inspired by any of the Legislature’s recent departures.

Still, even if legal, the idea that personal relationships may influence statewide policy can be disconcerting, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“If we think about what we’re worried about when it comes to any lobbyist, it’s the idea that our lawmakers are making decisions based on what hired guns are asking them to do as opposed to what’s good public policy,” Levinson said. “Lobbyists have an outsized influence on lawmakers, and that is exponentially increased when that lobbyist is a former lawmaker.”

Even if former lawmakers held office at different times than today’s legislators, they may be connected through other political circles. That was the case for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, whose time in the lower house coincided with Perea but not the other three. She knew them, though, through California’s larger network of Latino Democrats.

Gonzalez Fletcher said she never felt pressured by the former legislators as the cap-and-trade negotiations advanced—perhaps because she declared her support for the bill early. Still, she saw them around the Capitol or ran into them while out for after-work drinks.

“There was a lot of checking in: ‘Where are people? Where do you think things will land?’ It felt more like information-gathering in my brief discussions with former members,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “I didn’t feel a lot of hard lobbying going on.”

At a time when many lawmakers worry that Sacramento’s lobbying corps isn’t as diverse as either the state or the Legislature (Latinos make up 39 percent of Californians and 23 percent of state legislators), the oil industry has been represented by black and Latino lobbyists in the Capitol for several years. Its move to bring on the four Latino former lawmakers reflects a larger economic shift in California.

“It’s not because they are Latino,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant with expertise in Latino politics. “It’s because they represented districts that are poor and working-class. There just happens to be a very strong relationship between race and class in California.”

Madrid said working-class communities respond to industry arguments about the cost of environmental regulation—either as consumers who will see the cost of gas increase, or as workers who want to keep blue collar jobs in their regions. With Republicans divided over cap and trade, and lacking much clout in the Capitol, it was logical for oil to bring on some prominent Democrats.

“You’re starting to see a transformation of what has traditionally been a right-left, red-blue, Republican-Democrat divide,” he said. “There is a realignment occurring.”

Another indication emerged five days before lawmakers voted on the cap-and-trade extension. The California Business Roundtable, a group of 30 companies including Chevron and Valero, enlisted a new lobbyist: Richie Ross, former bare-knuckles chief of staff to one of the most powerful Democratic Assembly speakers in state history, Willie Brown.

Today, Ross is unusual among Sacramento lobbyists because he is also a political consultant whose clients include 10 Democratic legislators—giving him financial connections both to the groups that pay him to lobby, and the politicians who pay him for campaign advice.

He said he provided advice to the Roundtable and did not lobby his political clients in the Legislature: “They had me register (as a lobbyist) because at that point, everyone was uncertain as to whether they would need me to lobby.”

The Roundtable’s president, Rob Lapsley, is a longtime Republican. But he said business groups knew that when it came to cap and trade, they needed Democrats involved to get the plan they wanted from a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Richie is a smart, strategic advisor with long-term relationships. We found that of great value,” Lapsley said. “He goes back a long way. And he was very helpful in getting additional insights.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics