By Lou Desmond
February 10, 2022
Lou Desmond: Tonight, joining us on the show, we have Richard Cowan. Richard is the former chair of the historic State Capitol Commission. How do you end up in that position? What kind of bona fides do you bring to the table to get there?
Richard Cowan: So, when I finished my Navy service in the Vietnam era and came back to my hometown, Sacramento,
Desmond: Thank you for your service.
Cowan: Thank you. The 1860s Capitol was just beginning to be restored and I applied for and won a position on the construction team doing that restoration. I loved it. I loved going to work and working with the craftsmen, using old practices to restore our beautiful Capitol. And so, years later, I volunteered and was the Senate appointee to the historic State Capitol Commission. Our job was to advise the Legislature about the Capitol building, and eventually I became the chair.
Desmond: So, you've never been an elected official.
Cowan: That's correct, unless you count student body president in high school.
Desmond: Okay, thank goodness. So, we don't have to blame you for any of the problems going on currently in our governance. So, a bit of disclosure, I worked in and around the Capitol for a number of years in my early career in politics, and public relations, and lobbying. So, I actually worked at the Esquire building. I was on the 21st floor and my window looked out over the Capitol Park. And you don't know exactly what I'm talking about, right?
Cowan: I do exactly.
Desmond: The Esquire Grill, wonderful restaurant on the bottom floor of that building, and my father's law office was at 4th and J Streets for many, many years in the California Fruit Exchange Building. Now he had, he had the ninth and 10th floors. I used to walk down K Street to the Capitol area when I was a kid; because my family has been involved in politics in California for many, many years, in fact, my grandfather Earl Desmond was Speaker pro Temp of the California State Senate. Back in the 1950s and early 60s, he died shortly before I was born in 1967. And you know where he died? In the Capitol Park grounds. He was jogging, and he dropped dead of a massive heart attack. That is the place where we would go when we go remember my grandfather on his birthdays and so forth, and that became a place that I'm very familiar with. Now, apparently, there is a large cross-section of people in the Capitol who want to destroy that area, correct?
Cowan: Yeah, it's bad and I'm afraid, Lou, it's begun. I was there today, and workers are beginning to ball up the roots of some trees to relocate them in the park. And of course, statistically, we know that not all will survive. You know, the beautiful palm trees that ring Capitol park in Sacramento. About 50% of those survive a move, and the plan is to remove 28 of those palms. So, we'll lose some of those and then we're going to lose quite a few. We have 884 trees in Capitol Park. The plan to demolish the Annex half of the building, rip up the Western Front Porch of the building, and dig an underground parking garage in Capitol Park, will take out about one hundred and twenty eight of those.
Desmond: You know, hang on a second. I've been in that Capitol Annex building hundreds of times. There's nothing wrong with that building. There's already an underground parking that's secure. There's gates around all of that. I don't think there's a security problem there. The building may be old, it may not be ornate, but it's certainly serviceable. Why do you have to tear down the whole thing?
Cowan: Man, yeah, that's the question we've been asking the Joint Rules Committee of the Legislature. Not too many of your viewers--or your listeners--may know the Capitol is the only building in the state government that's owned by the Legislature. All the other buildings are owned by the Executive Branch, which knows very well how to refurbish buildings. And over the 70 years that the Legislature has occupied, the Eastern half of the Capitol, called the Annex by some--by you insiders, Lou--they they have really not taken very good care of it. So yes, it needs new air conditioning. Yes, it needs some wider stairways to meet current codes. And yes, it needs fire sprinklers. But I ask you when it's time to replace your air conditioning, Lou, do you tear down your house? No.
Desmond: Well, it's actually I actually have direct, relatable experience with this because my father owned the California Fruit Exchange Building at Fourth and J. He was very fortunate to get a really good case--he was a personal injury attorney--and he represented a PG&E worker who had his legs amputated after being nearly burned to death and electrocuted because a map was wrong where he was digging, and even though he went back to his supervisor and said, "Hey, I don't think this is right, I think there are high power lines herein the ground," supervisor said "What are you talking about? Look at the map! Go, go do what I tell you!" And he was horribly, horribly burned and he lost both of his legs. My dad represented him. So, let's just say that was a nice payday, because PG&E was the deep pockets on the other end of the suit. My dad got his--you know--30% commission, and he had been renting two stories of office space for his law firm, that grandfather started, and he was partners then with his brothers. Long story short, when I was growing up, I worked at that building. I did janitorial work. I worked with the guys that did the HVAC. I was going to graduate school nearby at University of California, and I told my dad I needed more money and he said, "Well, I got a job for you. A couple of days a week when you're not in class, you can come work here at the building with Charlie and the building engineers." And so, that's what I did. I did the early morning janitorial. I started the burners in the morning. You know, it was old steam heated building, all right? So, you had to get the boiler going in the morning and in the summer you had to open the windows because it was hot...anyway; that was a 10 story office building. When we had to redo the HVAC or the roof or something like that, I remember that cost coming in at like $500 to $700 thousand. They want to spend north of $1 billion to knock this building down and build a new one? Are you kidding?
Cowan: Well, it's terrible. We think we could give the old 1950s Annex part of the building everything modern code needs. Even strengthening its structure--although that's not required by law, but let's say we should do it; we can add fire sprinklers, upgrade the HVAC, make the exiting wider; we could do everything we need to do to that building for probably $350 million. And we think--
Desmond: I got to tell you, even $350 million sounds like a lot to renovate an office building.
Cowan: Well, yeah, but they don't want to just renovate. They do want to bring more staff into the building, and, as you remember, from walking there, the Fire Marshal is already wincing at how many people were working in that building.
Desmond: But you know what? Go to the Congressional Office Buildings in Washington, D.C., where I've been many times, and look at how weird those offices are cobbled together and tell me that's all fire code.
Cowan: Well, what's smart about what is done in D.C. is they gave up long ago thinking that you could keep enlarging a building and put the whole government there. In 1860, we thought the whole government fit into the beautiful, ornate Capitol; By 1920, we had built office building 1 and 2 right across the street. After World War II, we added the Annex, and then in the 60s, as you know, buildings up and down Capitol Mall housed an army of state workers. It's folly.
Desmond: Which by the way, the fact that we have to keep making government buildings bigger to house more government workers just pisses me off. I think it's absurd. They don't need the staffs the size that they are. Look, I run a public relations firm. I run a publishing company. I do a radio show every night, and I write several columns a week during the football season for STATSalt.com. I'm the beat writer for Notre Dame and for the Las Vegas Raiders. Okay? I do all of that with one assistant, okay? And a staff at the PR firm of 5 people. The amount of staff and the bloat and the lard and the waste in government is just obscene, and this smells to me. Like people trying to build a monument to themselves and their egos. Your thoughts?
Cowan: You know, I'm going to I'm going to allow the professional legislators to figure out how big a staff they need. What I want them to do is to save half the money they were going to spend on it, save the historic Annex building, which, by the way, is a Nationally Registered Historic Building, and I don't want to lose a single tree out of Capitol Park.
Desmond: I agree with you completely. And by the way, you just executed a beautiful bridge maneuver, which I teach people in my public relations crisis communications classes that I hold, especially for law enforcement. I'm certified to teach a class to law enforcement for public relations--help teaching them how to be PIOs, public information officers. That's one of the hardest things to teach people is how to bridge and get out of a question you don't want to ask gracefully--uh, don't answer gracefully--and you did a wonderful job. And I understand, there's people you don't want to get too far on the wrong side of them. So, I'll say it. When you are using the public's money, what you should be thinking about is bang for the buck, and the best functionality. I was the communications director for a multi-billion-dollar real estate development company in my early thirties; and my developer boss, when he would go build a big new subdivision, three thousand homes, five thousand homes, you name it. He would demand of the City Council that he be allowed to build the schools himself, and he guaranteed that the schools would be built before anybody moved into any houses, and that he would meet all of their code and anything that was required; but, what he wasn't going to do was have a vaulted 40 foot mezzanine over the teacher's lounge with a bunch of wasted space so that it looked pretty. He would say, "I'm not building an art gallery, I'm building a high school, and if I can do it for $8 million and meet your requirements, then I'm going to do it for $8 million." And too often--and here's... You probably have heard this saying--economists will tell you, when you are spending your money on something for you, you're very picky and you're very careful. When you are spending your money--I'm sorry--when you're spending somebody else's money on something for yourself, you're pretty careful. But, when you're spending somebody else's money on something else that isn't even for you--Caution to the wind! Money, no object! Who cares? There's no limit to how much money somebody will spend when they're using other people's money for something that's not for them, and they're also not going to care about the quality. And that's what we have here, right?
Cowan: So, I wonder if you've been doing your homework? Because when I was curious why the replacement building, which, by the way, is going to be 100% sided with glass in an era of security concerns--which is, by the way, an expensive scan but one that's terrible for security in a building. Why so big? Why so tall? Why so wide? And then we were shown some renderings. It's got a three-story Galleria inside it.
Desmond: Oh my God.
Cowan: And I asked someone, why? You know, that's not needed(?)
Desmond: Where's the movie theater?
Cowan: And they said, "Well, I'm not on the team that's doing it, but for years I did public relations for the Legislature and I think that's where they planned to hold events for future donors to come and have a little wine and shrimp and cocktail sauce. They can't raise money in the building, right? But you can entertain and then later ask for money, right?
Desmond: Oh, it's that's obscenity.
Cowan: Isn't that awful?
Desmond: That's an obscenity. If you're a private developer building a hotel in Las Vegas--God bless you--but if you are building an office building to get the people's work done. No spas, no gyms, no beautiful sit down restaurants, because it's not an appropriate use of the money.
Cowan: I couldn't agree more. This one is really in a bad way. I have an architect friend of mine who happens to be special forces veteran, and he said--
Desmond: Bless him, and thank him for his service.
Cowan: You betcha. He said the glass skin provides no concealment and no cover. So, that all of the security officers, the Highway Patrol protects the Legislature, if they're trying to move them, as happened January 6th in Washington, to a more secure place, all of their movements will be observable from outside. Really not ideal.
Desmond: By the way, I know that the California state legislator people are all very concerned about green, right? You know, something about Sacramento having lived there for many years that I remember is in the summer, it's hot! And that's when the Legislature is in session. I remember I used to wear seersucker suits in August, and, funny story--Steve Swat, who was a long time Capitol reporter in Sacramento that you probably remember from being on KCRA-TV--Steve was my first boss in the public relations business. And, Steve, one day said, "Hey, I need you to go to this press conference with me tomorrow. It's with Senator Ken, Mattie"--Mattie, of course, was the patron saint of horse racing in the Capitol--And it was something to do with, you know, letting horse race tracks-- this was during the tribal gaming wars, right? and he wanted the horse racing tracks to have access to some of the slot machines and things if we were going to allow it for the Native Americans and yada, yada, yada--So I show up, it's an August day, I walk into Steve's office and I'm wearing a blue seersucker suit with a white shirt and a pink tie. I kind of look like Gatsby, or somebody that just walked out of a novel in Louisiana; Maybe all the king's men, right? He looks at me and he goes, "You can't seriously be wearing that." And I said, "Steve, it's August in Sacramento." Oh, he just shook his head. He's got his dark blue blazer on in his suit and everything else, and we walk over to the Capitol and Senator Kent Maddie walks out. You know what he's wearing? A blue seersucker suit with a pink tie.
Cowan: So, you know you've hit a really good point there. We have some folks who also served a past tense on the historic State Capitol Commission who've done calculations about the heat island effect. If you get rid of those trees, there's a terrible gain of cost of air conditioning the building, there is carbon sequestered in those trees that gets released, and it takes a heck of a lot of energy to replace the steel and concrete we've already invested in the existing building, which we could avoid that loss if we recoup it.
Desmond: Look, we can agree, we can agree to this: the entire plan is absurd. What do we do to stop it?
Cowan: Alright, I'm glad you asked. So, the listeners down there--
Desmond: Me too!
Cowan: The listeners down there, some of them may have participated in a poll. Listen to this; Save Our Capital, a group of volunteers, taxpayer organizations and chambers of commerce had a poll taken by a professional firm, and across all parties, all age groups North and South, 76% of those people who were told about the project opposed it. Here's what your listeners can do. If they can contact the Governor, or the President pro Temp of the Senate, or the Speaker of the Assembly, with a written letter or a phone call--that gets counted. And if they want to use the website, SaveOurCapitol.org. They have the addresses and the phone numbers of the Governor, the Pro Temp and the Speaker. Two different organizations have filed a total of four lawsuits to stop this, and we believe injunctions may be filed yet this week to stop the tree damage. And they can donate, if they wouldn't mind, helping people and volunteers fund these lawsuits. SaveCalCap.org has a site where you can donate online, or the address where you could donate with a check, and that's a 501 C-3 organization that's collecting the money. You probably remember the name Burnett Miller, past mayor of Sacramento. Burnett worked on the restoration, wonderful man, and he worked on the restoration of the Capitol with his work--
Desmond: Richard, I got to stop you. We got one minute. Recap and give people the information again.
Cowan: Okay. So, it's a terrible project to demolish half of the Capitol put up a new glass Crystal Palace, dig up the trees in Capitol Park to put in a two story parking garage and rip up the West Front. It'll cost twice as much money as we think rehabilitation would cost and do a lot of economic damage, a lot of environmental damage. To stop it, call or write the Governor, the President Pro Temp of the Senate, or the Speaker of the Assembly, and donate some money at SaveCalCap.org
Desmond: And by the way, the grounds where my grandfather died, would be forever destroyed. Just sad. Lou Desmond and Company show, Richard, thank you. We filled the half hour beautifully. Appreciate you being on the show.
Cowan: Lot of fun, Lou, and greetings to everyone in San Bernardino where my wife went to college.
Desmond: Well, you wouldn't know I'd have so much Sacramento history, but I do. So, there you go. Lou Desmond and Company program. Thanks for listening, everybody.