Personnel Profile: Ken Cooley

Ken Cooley is the consultant on the Senate Committee on Banking, Finance and Insurance and a Rancho Cordova City Councilman. He also offers in-depths tours of the Capitol, to help staffers learn to be knowledgeable about the building. Cooley is currently considering a run to the State Assembly.

How did you first become familiar with the layout of the Capitol?
In ’77, I was a Berkeley grad of Political Science, hired out of Cal as chief of staff for Assemblymember Lou Papan. Papan was Joint Rules chair and that gave him responsibility for the state Capitol restoration. The restoration wasn’t just cleaning up and polishing the building, but was basically a new concrete and steel building under the original walls to stabilize unreinforced masonry for the future. This was quite expensiv – a lot of steel, a lot of concrete, a lot of meticulous disassembly and reassembly. So the expense of this became an issue in Papan’s 1978 re-election campaign, just about a year after I had gone to work for him to run his capitol office. There was a major hit piece sent all across his northern San Mateo district alleging that the restoration was “Papan’s Palace.” Sort of a “feather in his nest” type allegation – he’s up here making the Capitol a Taj Mahal for him and his cronies.

From that moment on, I was a tour guide. If we had constituents or VIPs, he wanted to explain to them what was actually happening. Starting in 1978, I kept a dozen hard hats in my office, I had keys to the projects and of course I knew the supervisor, the workers, Michael Heller and his crew, the contractor. I was doing that for years, until the building opened in ’82.

What interests you about the architecture and layout of the capitol?
It’s a beautiful building and the story of how it came to be reconstructed is pretty interesting. There was definitely a case of everybody who was on that project doing their very best to make it outstanding. The building is replete with stories of how individuals came to improve the building with their personal ingenuity. I think you can relate that to the larger challenges we have in the building. There’s a facet of the building that I always point out: on all the monumental staircases, the younger side, right beneath the railing, has a carving of a fasces – a bundle of sticks – in the mahogany. This is a very ancient symbol of governmental authority and representative government – the idea that an individual stick you can snap but a bundle of sticks is very resilient.

Next time you walk through Capitol Park and you look at the old, stylish lights, the poles with the globes on top. About two-and-a-half feet off the ground they taper up into a ring. If you look closely, you’ll realize that the ring itself is a fasces, a bundle of sticks. That tells you that the original design of the capitol had this idea of the bundle of sticks, which is up on the restored staircases and the light standards in Capitol Park, was seen by the earliest Californians as very closely related to what goes on in this building.

You’re currently considering running for Assembly?
I’ve always worked very hard for my local Democratic members. In my city, I walk for them. I’m a twice mayor in my city, top vote getter and I have a reputation from my earlier days as a candidate of walking, doing the door-to-door work. I just love doing that. So, what I’ve communicated is that I will be running unless my Assemblymember wants to move in.

Will you continue giving tours if you’re elected?
That’s an interesting thing. I don’t do them that often. I think most members of the Legislature would walk their constituents through. It’s not like I’m a regular staff tour guide doing this on a daily or weekly basis, so of course, yes.

What advice would you give to newcomers on how to effectively navigate the Capitol?
Obviously, three digit numbers are in the historic wings. If you’re in a red room you’re in the Senate, if you’re in a green room you’re in the Assembly. I’d say just to staff generally, look to learn the stories of the history of the building. Whenever I have kids over in the capitol I have them look way up on top of the cupola where they have that gold ball on a post. I say to them that if they saw that shape in a comic strip on a Sunday morning, you’d think that was an idea that someone just had. Of course, that’s not what the people who designed the capitol were thinking of when they put the gold ball way up there. But I think to understand what this building represents, to see in that post and ball the symbol of a light bulb and ideas, is pretty close to the heart of the whole enterprise.  

Do you have a favorite part of the Capitol?
Probably, the first four areas – the rotunda and the museum room spaces. That’s where most visitors to the building head for. In a sense, my favorite part is those spaces, to just look at people. Our guests in the state capitol recognize the importance of that building, from seniors, to people from around the world, to kids, and you see a lot of the views of the building and its influence on the first floor.

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