The first in a series of posts about Sacramento, California – my hometown.
The Posey’s sign stands, at the corner of 11th and O Streets in downtown Sacramento, as a monument to an era in California politics which no longer exists. Located two blocks south of the State Capitol, Posey’s Cottage was the restaurant which housed the "California Derby Club," perhaps the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) of the Legislature’s so-called lunch clubs, where members of the State Senate and State Assembly – at the time, almost entirely male, almost entirely white – would gather, across party lines, to eat, drink, carouse, and make political deals. In his biography of Willie Brown, James Richardson described the clubs and their atmosphere:
The clubs operated out of the public eye. Their colorful names, such as "Caboose Club" and "Derby Club," evoked colorful origins. The Caboose Club was composed of legislators who had been old railroaders before they were elected. The Derby was a collection of legislators and lobbyists who wore English bowlers while eating and carousing. [Assembly Speaker Jess] Unruh ran his own feast, called the "Tuesday Club," meeting for breakfast on Tuesdays at the same time as the Derby. Another club, more of a drinking clique, was called "Moose Milk" after a concoction served up at all hours at a nearby hotel.
Lobbyists were, of course, club members and paid for everything. The clubs were more than just social gatherings; they were important and discreet marketplaces of political power. Lawmakers and lobbyists mingled cutting deals, telling off-color jokes, and schmoozing well into the afternoon. Legislators were often well pickled by the time they showed up for their late-afternoon committee meetings. The clubs were safe havens where the powerful could trade votes, form friendships, soothe feelings, and promise campaign contributions. The longest-serving state senator in recent times, Democrat Ralph Dills, recalled, "Usually you could find a place to go to have a free meal and a drink—almost any place in town and at almost any time of day. The Senator Hotel was full of such meetings. Sometimes committee meetings were held over there the night before—not too well publicized." The clubs were decidedly male institutions, reflecting the near-total male domination of the Legislature; in fact, a women's restroom was not installed in the Senate until 1976.
The California Derby Club, the only one that survived into the 1990s, was typical of the boozy clubs. Insiders got the joke: the club's initials were the same as those of the liberal and insufferably serious California Democratic Council. The Derby was a bastion of senators and a few select Assembly members. The club was founded and run by Siskiyou County's senator, Randolph Collier. The silver-haired Collier was the senior member of the Senate, having been elected in 1939, when Willie Brown was five years old. Another wheel in the club was the Senate president pro tem, Hugh Burns, who had condemned Willie Brown over the Vietnam telegram incident. The Derby Club was founded on silliness, inspired on a legislative junket to London in the 1950s. On a whim, the California lawmakers purchased derby hats in a London shop, and when they came home they sported their bowlers at lunch. The Derby clubbers thenceforth wore their bowlers at lunch every Tuesday, and they developed a whole series of silly rituals. "We don't usually talk politics. It's mainly just old friends enjoying a visit together," said Senator Alfred Alquist, elected to the Assembly in 1962 and still serving in the Senate three decades later.
The club members ate (and drank) at Posey's Cottage, a shabby meat-and-potatoes joint a block from the Capitol. Once a year, the members donned tuxedos and their derbies and marched intoxicated around the Capitol on their way to a banquet honoring themselves at a downtown restaurant. During one such banquet a drunken Derby member jumped up on the bar at Frank Fat's, which had just reopened after a fire, and urged the boys to burn the place down again. He was restrained. "It's more a tradition than an organization," explained John Foran, who was part of the San Francisco Democratic organization rivaling Brown and the Burton brothers. Foran was invited to join the Derby Club in 1964 as a sophomore assemblyman. Willie Brown and John Burton were never invited to join.
As outsiders like Brown and Burton joined the Legislature, and as Democrats and Republicans alike veered further from the center (particularly after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978), the popularity of the lunch clubs declined. The final nail in their coffin was probably the approval of term limits in 1990, but as late as 1993, Posey’s Cottage was still listed as one of the country’s 50 top political hangouts in Campaigns & Elections magazine. The restaurant closed not long after that.
Certainly without question, the members of the Derby Club engaged in behavior that would be viewed as highly inappropriate today, behavior that quite possibly would have cost them their seats in the Legislature. On the other hand, anyone who believes that today’s California Legislature holds a candle to its predecessors is living in a dream world. The current legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, are men small in stature as well as their ability to move a positive agenda on behalf of the state’s citizens. It’s hard to imagine either of them engaging in productive after-hours socializing with their Republican counterparts. That they are now part of a roster that once included men like Randolph Collier, Al Alquist, Ralph Dills and Hugh Burns is little more than an historical accident.
As far as I can remember, I had dinner at Posey’s on only one occasion, on New Year’s Day in 1974. I don’t remember anything about the food, but I do remember enjoying the experience. Today, the building which once housed Posey's is a popular Mexican restaurant, Vallejo’s, which continues to host the occasional political fundraiser but without the atmosphere and collegiality of the past. O Street is no longer open to auto traffic, being part of the main Light Rail line.
(A note on the photographer: Michele Catalano is a well-known, long-time blogger who lives in Long Island, New York. I started reading her current blog, A Big Victory, about six months ago, and I’m just sorry that it took me so long to discover her. She recently paid her first visit to Sacramento, in and around which I’ve lived my entire life. She loved it, which is just another testament to her insightful nature and common sense. She has graciously given me permission to use her Sacramento photographs in my posts about the city (of which this is the first). Her entire Sacramento portfolio may be viewed on her Flickr site.)