Autobiography of a Powerful California Lobbyist
There were times when lobbyists controlled state legislatures. State legislators served part-time with low pay and thus were susceptible to high-paid lobbyists who controlled the flow of information regarding bills, as well as campaign contributions, to legislators. The Pennsylvania Railroad lobbyists used to sit on the Senate floor where they were referred to as “Pennsylvania’s 51st Senator”. During the late 1960s and 1970s, the Pennsylvania legislature was converted into a full-time legislature with salaries that legislators could live on (without sometimes relying on assistance from favor seekers) with full time skilled staff who could research issues and provide independent information other than the facts the lobbyists provided.
Other states had similar experiences with lobbyists. California actually had a famous ‘super-lobbyist’ who not only represented clients but realized that, by playing a major role in getting legislators elected, he could greatly influence the legislature for his clients. This book, “The Secret Boss of California”, is the autobiography of one such lobbyist, Arthur Samish.
Samish was considered to have been more powerful than political party bosses, as he directed where large flows of funds from large corporate contributors were distributed to legislators he favored (which were, of course, the legislators who favored his clients.) In his own words, Samish was “the Governor of the legislature. To hell with the Governor of California.” Governors came and went, but Samish had substantial influence over the legislature for decades.
Samish helped elected enough state legislators in order to control the election of the Speaker. The Speaker then appointed the committees, and Samish attempted to see that committees that affected his clients were composed of legislators who agreed with the positions of Samish’s clients. Samish owned a ventriloquist’s dummy, as that represented how Samish h saw himself, as the holder of the strings to a legislature that moved as he wished.
Samish’s candidate recruitment interviews may be questionable. He told of first meeting one legislator, Jack Tenney, by asking him what his prior occupation had been. “I played piano in a whorehouse in Mexicali”, the candidate replied, to which Samish responded “Jack, you’ll make a good legislator.” Samish helped elect Tenney by sending out letters stating that the National Democratic Committee supported Tenney. As Samish explained, “it didn’t matter that there was no such thing as the National Democratic Committee…What mattered was getting Jack Tenney elected.”
California adopted a number of measures such as cross-filing that weakened the power of political parties. With weak political organizations, Samish as a powerful lobbyist stepped in to fill a political void in recruiting and financing candidates. Samish was a skilled lobbyist who learned what motivated different legislators to follow his lead. As Samish explained. “I can tell if a man wants a baked potato, a girl, or money.”
Legislative pay then was low, causing some legislators to fall to bribery on votes to supplement their income. Samish was a manipulator, but he made it clear he never used bribery, stating that bribery was “for amateurs”. He didn’t need to persuade legislators as he had already chosen candidates who supported his goals and had helped elect them. Thus, the legislators entered officealready on his side. Legislators were lobbied by Samish through his helping getting jobs for their relatives, plus Samish saw to it that lawyers and insurers Samish represented gave breaks to favorable legislators when using their services. If the legislator decided to vote against Samish’s clients, Samish simply did what he could to see the legislator was defeated for reelection. When a Lt. Governor wouldn’t make Senate appointments as Samish saw fit, Samish had the Senate take away the Lt. Governor’s appointment powers.
Once a legislator was speaking on the floor against a bill Samish wanted. Samish slipped the representative a note. The legislator read it and then stated “now that I have told you the bad things about the bill” and then continued speaking in favor of the bill Samish wanted.
Samish was an operator. He helped his client bus lines get tax breaks through a voter initiative by staging a “Drive the Hog From the Road” campaign that called for a favorable vote for his client, even though the issue had nothing to do with reducing large trucks from roads. Another time he led a “Let’s Clean Them Out-Vote Yes on Number Two” campaign that had nothing to do with cleaning anyone out. Samish once saved a client, San Francisco Bank, $20 million by having a bill introduced that reprinted the entire banking law with a one word change that no one found that helped this bank save that money.
It is interesting to note that Samish worked on a contingency basis. If he didn’t get a client’s legislation passed, he didn’t charge the client. I only mention this to make current lobbyists sweat when they read this.
Samish,, for his Philip Morris client, kept a cigarette tax from being created. For his movie industry client, he kept dog racing out of California so races would be one less competitor for entertainment dollars. For his beer industry client, he saw to it the beer tax was never raised.
Samish’s manipulations finally caught up with him. He was first banned from the State Senate, but he claims that did not bother him because he still was a major force in the State House. Eventually he was charged with tax evasion, a charge he denied, but he pled guilty and was sent to jail.
Eventually one’s bad deeds come back and haunt, and Samish discovered that. Hopefully, there will never be another time when such a manipulator could ever operate. Yet, if there ever is a state without lobbying disclosure, unlimited campaign contributions, too many Republican legislators, and low paid legislators, who knows?