Dotson Wilson has closed his last roll and tallied his last vote.
The California Assembly’s chief clerk and parliamentarian is retiring after nearly 40 years as a Capitol staffer. That includes 27 years as the chamber’s first ever African-American chief clerk.
In a wide-ranging interview with CapRadio, Wilson touched on several ways in which he’s seen the Legislature evolve over his decades of service.
First and foremost, he says, the Legislature — and the Capitol ecosystem that surrounds it — have become much more diverse. He remembers getting on an elevator in the early 1990s, while longtime San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Willie Brown was speaker and Republican Pete Wilson was governor.
“One of the lobbyists on the elevator said, ‘You know, we’ve got to figure out how to come to a solution with the governor and Willie.’” Wilson recalled. “And so I interrupted the two gentlemen and I said, ‘What do you mean, the governor and Willie?’ They said, ‘Yeah, the governor and Willie!’ I said, ‘It’s either the governor and the speaker, or it’s Pete and Willie.’”
More surprisingly, perhaps, Wilson says lawmakers have become less confrontational. For example, he points to LGBTQ rights.
“Some of the debate that occurred in the ’90s, early 2000s, was very, very negative — and on some levels it was vile,” he said. “But when the Assembly passed legislation in terms of marriage equality, you saw a debate that was more professional, was deferential to both views.”
Wilson also argues the legislative term limits voters enacted under Proposition 140 in 1990 hurt the institution by shifting power from lawmakers to staff and lobbyists.
He says whenever he heard staffers dismiss elected officials behind their backs by boasting that they’d be gone in a few years, “I would interrupt them immediately and say, ‘Let me tell you something — if you really believe that, why don’t you go run for office?’”
Here are some of the other highlights from Wilson’s interview, edited for brevity and clarity:
On legendary Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who hired Wilson to start his career and went on to nominate him as chief clerk:
My vantage point of Speaker Brown was as an employee. As an employer, he was fair, but he demanded excellence, he demanded the same type of commitment — 10, 12 hour days — that he lived up to. So somebody might say, ‘Oh, we saw him at an event in the evening.’ But he’d be at an 8 o’clock staff meeting, demanding that you be up to speed and as knowledgeable as he was on the process.
He chaired the most complex committees, mastered a wide range of subject matter areas. And I think unless you worked on his staff or you were a member of the Legislature, you didn’t appreciate his in-depth knowledge of policy, and his understanding of all the nuances of politics. That’s why he was able to serve as the speaker of the Assembly for 15 years.
On an infamous incident after the 1994 election when Republicans thought they had won control of the Assembly but failed to take power when the new Legislature convened after being outmaneuvered by Willie Brown. Wilson ruled against Brown on whether a Republican assemblyman who had won a Senate seat in a special election could be kicked out of the Assembly because a person cannot occupy two offices:
There was a situation where there was a nine-member swing of who controlled the majority (from Democrats to Republicans). And I had to make a quote-unquote ruling on whether a member could be removed from the body. And I made that ruling based on advice and consultation with our Legislative Counsel, and made it in a way that was in the best interests of our institution. And I did it wearing the hat of the chief clerk and parliamentarian, and was bound by certain standards of the law, integrity and made the ruling in that context.
On the legend that Willie Brown asked Wilson to stay home the next day after Wilson ruled against the speaker, when in fact Wilson had been hospitalized due to stress:
Well, I did have a health issue at the time, but I was not asked to stay home. That would be like somebody saying the world is flat. I mean, that just did not happen. Mr. Brown did not do that. And that’s something that was made up by those who fill in the blanks with falsehoods.
I was off for a couple days, but when (Brown) made the actual rulings which resulted in (a Republican assemblyman who’d been elected to the Senate) being removed as a duly elected member of the Assembly, that was in January of 1995, and I had been (back) on the job for over a month when that happened.
So those rulings were not made in the dark of night or in the absence of me not being there. And I’m proud to say that since those quote-unquote rulings, I’ve been in the Assembly at over 2,000 floor sessions. And despite the fact I’ll be 65 in December, I have one of the best attendance records of any legislative staff member in the building. And I’ll just leave it at that.
On where he keeps the keys to the closet with all of the Legislature’s political skeletons:
I’ll tell you this — that most of the stories, 99 percent of the stories, I wouldn’t share with you, because I take confidentiality seriously. So any story that I heard or observed in confidence would remain in confidence. And in terms of where the key is, I would say that I can’t tell you that.
But in terms of sharing a story, I think one of the most fascinating stories that I’ve heard — it’s kind of folklore — is that we know the Senator Hotel is across the street. And there’s always been this discussion of, when I was in Appropriations Committee, formerly the Ways and Means Committee, well, why does it meet on Wednesdays? How did that day come up? In fact, going back to the 1940s from what I understand, one of the lobbyists over at the Senator Hotel always had libations and social events, and they were always on Mondays. And some of the members of then the Ways and Means Committee complained that with the Monday committee hearing, it conflicted with the social events at the Senator Hotel, so they switched the Ways and Means Committee hearings to Wednesdays, and it’s been that way ever since.
On who his favorite Assembly member is from his 27 years as chief clerk — and asked for an answer other than “all of them,” as parents might say about their children:
Well, that’s the right answer! I’ll say that in terms of favorite members, I truly — and I’m being serious — I don’t have a favorite member.
On who his least favorite Assembly member is:
Same answer applies! I believe that in this position, when you start saying that someone is your favorite or least favorite, then you are in effect disrespecting their constituents who elected them to office.
On whether he ever wanted to run for office himself:
When I was in high school, I wanted to run to be student body president. But I passed on that opportunity, and I ended up serving on the student council.
Beyond that, I’ve really not had an interest in running for office. And I think everyone who’s worked in (the Capitol) building, when they first entered the building, they were in awe. Because less than one-half of one percent of the public sector jobs are here in the California Legislature. But once I started working here and I realized the commitment that every elected member has to make — not only to get elected but to serve their constituents — you have to give up your weekends. You have to give up Sundays.
I was someone who, I’m very ritual driven. And before all the technology — streaming, DVDs and even VCRs — my ritual was to watch 60 Minutes on Sundays. So when I knew that I might have to give that up if I were to run for office, I never pursued anything — whether it was a school board member or anything else. And my passion has been working in the capacity I’ve worked in over the past 27 years.
On his life experience and family background that led him to work in the Legislature:
I grew up in the Bay Area, five minutes from all the civil rights and student protests from UC Berkeley. I could literally ride my bike to UC Berkeley. And in our family, I never understood why there were laws that said, because of the color of my parents’ skin, they couldn’t live in a certain neighborhood. So I was fortunate to be able to see that struggle over racial covenants and discrimination in housing in my living room.
And one of my mother’s mentors — she was the third African American teacher hired in the Berkeley school district in the 1940s, long before I was born — her mentor was a lady, Elsie Rumford, who was married to Byron Rumford, who was the author of the (state’s) Rumford Fair Housing Act. And that was a major struggle politically in the 1960s in California. And even though the California Legislature, to its credit, with (prominent Republican and former U.S. Defense Secretary under President Ronald Reagan) Caspar Weinberger as one of the swing votes, passing the Fair Housing law right here in this chamber, and then to see the voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, overturn that law and strike it down through the initiative process, that is why I had a passion for politics.
If the Republican Party had embraced equality of opportunity for my family, maybe I would have had a different party leaning. But it was the Democrats who fought for my parents to have the right to live anywhere they wanted to. The house I grew up in, my parents got a Caucasian friend to buy the house for them, and then the lady who was their friend quick-claimed it back to them.
On whether he ever found it hard to put his political views aside to be the Assembly’s chief clerk:
When I became the chief clerk, I didn’t walk around with a — I grew up as Giants baseball fan — I didn’t walk around with a Giants hat on my head.
I was elected to carry out a responsibility. And I didn’t find that to be much of a challenge, the kind of upbringing I had. You focused on your integrity, you focused on getting the job done and doing it in a way that would make your family proud.