California to spend nearly $100M to fortify state Capitol following Jan. 6 attacks in Washington

By Dustin Gardiner
San Francisco Chronicle
December 2, 2021

Gina Frisby, chief of staff for Assemblyman Evan Low, D-San Jose, packs boxes at Low’s Capitol Annex office in Sacramento, Calif., on Nov. 29, 2021. The Annex will be demolished and replaced with a more modern building that complies with building codes. For now, lawmakers and staff are clearing out their offices to move to a newly constructed office building two blocks away from the Capitol.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — After a violent mob stormed the the halls of Congress on Jan. 6, Assembly Member Ken Cooley said he knew right away that California needed to dramatically beef up security at its own seat of state government.

Cooley, who is overseeing a project to renovate the state Capitol, said he called the commissioner of the California Highway Patrol two days later to ask what could be done to prevent such a siege here.

Now, as California prepares to move ahead with plans to renovate its Capitol complex, the state will spend about $96 million on security upgrades. The renovations include stronger windows, better fortified entrances and part of the building will be raised on a higher platform, so access can be easily monitored.

“That just sort of reflects the times we are in,” Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, told reporters this week during a tour of the Capitol. “But it will always have the look and feel of a people’s house. That is a very important public value.”

The changes will be part of a roughly $1.2 billion project to demolish and replace the eastern half of the Capitol complex in Sacramento, the roughly 70-year-old addition that is known as the Annex and houses offices for Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators.

Cooley said discussions about how to build a more secure Capitol go back several years. But he said the state took a “hard look” at those plans in light of civil unrest, especially the events of Jan. 6.

On that day, hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump assaulted police officers and overran barricades as they laid siege to Congress. Many of the rioters hoped to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Five people died during the attack, and about 140 police officers were injured as the mob attacked them with metal poles and bear and pepper spray. Four officers later committed suicide.

Anti-government extremism has also become a growing problem at the California Capitol in recent years. Last year, far-right groups like the Proud Boys and other militias regularly brawled with counter protesters on the grounds.

Numerous anti-vaccine protesters have been arrested in the last few years after they blocked entrances or disrupted hearings. In 2019, a woman threw blood from a menstrual cup on senators.

After the Jan. 6 attack in Washington, D.C., Newsom deployed hundreds of National Guard troops to help secure the statehouse and nearby government buildings as Trump left office and President Biden was inaugurated.

The state also erected a 6-foot chain link fence around the Capitol during the final weeks of Trump’s administration.

Cooley said it’s clear from the Jan. 6 insurrection and aggressive political demonstrations of many sorts that the Capitol must operate differently. He said protecting the building is part of legislators’ work to “pass on the baton of democracy.”

In addition to better fortifying entrances, the state will also remove the parking garage in the basement of the Annex building, where legislators park today. Cooley said a new parking garage will be dug under the nearby Capitol park.

He declined to elaborate on other security upgrades planned for the complex.

But it could take until at least late 2025 for the new Capitol complex to open. In the meantime, Newsom and legislative staffers have moved to a “swing” office space, a new building a block away that cost nearly $430 million.

Demolition on the old Annex is expected to start early next year, pending the outcome of lawsuits filed by activists who say the project could displace rare and historic trees on the Capitol grounds.

Including interest payments on bonds, the project could cost the state between $1.2 and $1.3 billion. But Cooley said the price tag could be closer to $900 million if the state doesn’t borrow money.

The 147-year-old west wing of the Capitol is not part of the renovation project. That historic portion of the complex, which houses the Assembly and Senate floors, most committee rooms and public galleries, will remain open.

In the end, Cooley said the Annex portion of the complex will still be welcoming to the public because security upgrades are being made subtly so as not to change that character.

“It won’t ever have a fortress feel,” he said.

Dustin Gardiner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @dustingardiner.

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