Los Angeles Times
Thursday March 7, 1996


Easy Riders Turn Savvy Lobbyists

California's bikers have grown more sophisticated in fighting the helmet law. Instead of Hells Angel style protests, they campaign for friendly candidates and have their own political action committee.

Times Political Writer

SACRAMENTO-John Francis Foran, at 5-foot-5, vividly recalls his encounter with the Hells Angels 28 years ago. He was a state lawmaker from San Francisco leading the uphill fight for a bill requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

And there he was, toe to toe with Sonny Barger and a dozen burly, tattooed gang members.

"You know how big I am?" asked Foran, recalling the meeting at the state Capitol. "I was standing against the wall and they were towering over me, telling me why I shouldn't be carrying this bill."

As is it happened, the bill failed to pass that year. The Legislature "did agree with us," recalled Ralph "Sonny" Barger, who for years was the infamous leader of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. "Who was that guy who tried to push it through? He was a total jerk.'

A helmet law finally passed in 1991 after years of pressure from insurance companies and health and safety officials.

That action set the state's biker lobby on a new course. And today its image is no longer one of an outlaw gang but of a politically savvy and broadly-based group that more closely reflects a cross-section of California. Indeed, today's motorcyclist is more likely to be an accountant, physician, professor-or peace officer-than a free-booting knight of the open road. Such changes are due in part to the growth of the riding population, but also to a concerted effort by leaders of motorcycle groups to clean up their image.

Bikers no longer merely race around the Capitol in circles to make a very loud point. They have formed their own political action committee, assembled a lobbying team and provided foot soldiers in political campaigns across California. Their chief representative in the legislative halls is Paul Lax, 45, a suit-and-tie Century City lawyer and executive director of ABATE, a national association that includes about 10,000 Californians.

Lax, whose legal clients are large construction companies, does have a beard-although it's neatly trimmed-and he sometimes wears black leather when he rides his Harley. Beyond that, there is little similarity between him and his group, and the shaggy Angels of the 1960s.

After eight years of learning the democratic process from the grassroots up, he and ABATE are savoring their biggest success:

The Assembly in January voted to repeal the helmet law, about two weeks after 5,000 motorcyclists rallied at the Capitol and then fanned out to lawmakers' offices to quietly argue their case.

The turnaround is due in part to the Republican takeover of the Assembly and its Transportation Committee. But Sacramento sources agree that a major reason for the repeal vote in the full Assembly is successful lobbying by ABATE and affiliated groups such as the Modified Motorcycle Assn.

Although they face a tough battle in the state Senate beginning next month, Lax and others seemed to buck the odds-and monied interest groups such as the insurance and health care industries-in winning Assembly passage.

The repeal vote came shortly after Speaker Curt Pringle of Garden Grove and other Republicans assumed control of the Assembly. However, Lax insists that ABATE's cause is not strictly a partisan one, even though many Republicans embrace ending a helmet requirement as consistent with the GOP concept of freedom of choice.

The bill did receive a majority of votes from Republicans, but could not have passed without the support of at least eight Democrats, Lax said.

Political Lessons

The repeal measure still faces major hurdles, including a Senate Transportation Committee headed by a helmet law supporter, Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who signed the law.

Transforming the motorcycle lobby into an effective organization has involved more than wining and dining lawmakers or pouring money into campaign coffers. It has been classic ground-up lesson in political action.

"This is exactly what we were all taught in school . . . [what] you were supposed to do if you didn't like something," Lax said. "You don't sit on your tail and complain about it. You don't just break the law, because we have never endorsed breaking the law. What you do is you change it."

ABATE's strategy is to lobby key senators, especially through chapters in their home districts. If successful, the group's leaders want to sit down with Wilson to make their arguments.

Even Kopp gives ABATE credit for learning the ropes in Sacramento and developing skills as legislative advocates.

When the helmet bill first reached the Senate in the 1980s Kopp recalled that most members of the Transportation Committee were reluctant to express support for it because they felt intimidated by biker comments that they interpreted as implied threats.

By 1988, opponents of helmets had become "more than just stereotypical cyclists," Kopp said. But even in 1991, when the bill passed and was signed into law, the correspondence from riders "was not sophisticated or deft. Some of it was quite blunt."

Today, their letters and communications are more specific in arguing the rationale. I've been informed those folks have made a difference in the Assembly. They are effective, in my opinion."

Deukmejian Veto

Lax's own tactic is to get opponents or skeptics to wear a helmet for at least 15 minutes while they talk. If they do that, he says, they will understand his argument that the head wear inhibits peripheral vision and hearing, and makes riders more susceptible to accidents.

Then-Gov. George Deukmejian did try on a helmet while Lax and allies appealed to him to veto a helmet bill in the late 1980s. "We explained our objectives," Lax recalls. "He didn't tell us what he was going to do. He said, 'I'll think about it.' "

Deukmejian vetoed the bill. His veto message said that he would Wear a helmet if he were riding a motorcycle-and many riders did so long before they were required to- but that he did not think the state should mandate helmets for all riders all the time.

When the bill passed again in May 1991, ABATE scheduled an appointment with Wilson, but it was canceled before they could meet. Wilson signed the bill shortly thereafter.

"I think there's enough evidence now, if we can get the appointment, if he [Wilson] looks at it objectively, he will see that this is an issue that is not quite so clear as he once believed," Lax said.

A spokesman for the governor said Wilson is not likely to sign the repeal bill in its present form should it win Senate approval, but gave no indication of what concession might win the governor over.

ABATE says it has compromised considerably by requiring anyone under 21 to wear a helmet. Before 1991, the cutoff age was 15 1/2.

Lax knows there is plenty of work ahead. Normally, it is far more difficult to win repeal of legislation than to block passage of a bill in the first place.

When the helmet law was approved, Lax told his associates: "You don't turn this around overnight. The reason this happened is we haven't been visible enough and nobody believes we can be.

"And so we told people to be prepared to hang in for the long haul," he added.

Like any alert political group, the motorcyclists learned an important lesson from their foes.

For years, the riders had gone to Sacramento to rally and appear before legislative committees to testify at hearings on the legislation.

But Lax realized that that was not enough when he read the comments, in a political newsletter, of an aide to former Democratic Assemblyman Richard E. "Dick" Floyd, then from Carson. Floyd replaced Foran as the chief advocate and sponsor of the helmet law after his election in 1980.

Lax recalled the aide's comments: "Those guys [the anti-helmet groups] will never get their act together. They've got to learn that if they are going to influence the system, they can't just show up on the day of the hearing and make an impression. They've got to be here every day."

Lax took the comments as both inspiration and challenge and set about building ABATE into a political operation.

ABATE was formed as a training and education group in the early 1980s, adopting the name American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education. The group now uses only the acronym. And its legislative agenda is not helmets only. The group has campaigned to win motorcycle access to carpool lanes on freeways and worked for this year's repeal of the federal penalties levied on states that do not have helmet laws.

The group has formed a political action committee to distribute campaign contributions to potentially friendly legislators. But there was no chance that ABATE could raise enough money to have much effect doing that alone.

Rather, The group would have to rev up its Harley power. Success would have to come through personal contact with politicians, through the number of supporters, and by making a case that motorcycle riding can be just as safe, or safer, without a helmet, Lax said.

ABATE began polling candidates on their positions on the helmet issue and established a training program in old fashioned political organizing.

"Most of these people had never registered to vote, forget working in a campaign," Lax said. "We started putting people into campaigns, and that's where we really turned the corner."

Helping Candidates

In 1992, the first big electoral target was Floyd, the Democrat who sponsored the successful helmet law. ABATE offered its help to challenger Juanita McDonald, a Carson city councilwoman.

One day, a call came at 3 p.m. "Help was needed that night", Lax said. He said he called 14 ABATE members. Most weren't home. He left messages.

"I said, 'We'll hope for the best.' I went down there and 12 of those 14 people showed up. The other two left messages that they couldn't come, but would be there the next night.

"And that really was the beginning of it. We put the people down there. They learned how to do it. They went back and told the other people, 'Hey, it's painless. It's fun.' "

McDonald defeated Floyd and won the general election. In January, she was one of the votes that got the repeal through the Assembly.

No one is claiming that McDonald wouldn't have won without ABATE. But McDonald said the bikers were an important factor and the California Political Almanac notes that she received "at least some help" from people, such as Lax, who were angered by Floyd's sponsorship of the helmet law.

Lax cited other races in which he believes that ABATE played a significant role on behalf of potential supporters, including the victories of state Sen. Dick Monteith (R-Modesto) and Assembly-woman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), who won a special election by 28 votes.

Ducheny said ABATE members helped in her first campaign in 1994 by putting up lawn signs, setting up telephone banks and handling other chores.

Since then, she said, she has watched them mature as advocates for their cause.

Sonny Barger is now 57 and living in Oakland after serving four years in federal prison for his role in a nationwide conspiracy to blowup a rival club. He commended ABATE for using such methods as presenting statistics on the decline in motorcycle ridership and sales in its efforts to repeal the helmet law.

But the sometimes acerbic Floyd, who is seeking to return to the Assembly this year, scoffed at the political acumen and image of motorcyclists, and the notion that they helped bring about his defeat.

"I want them to go down and walk precincts in their leather and flowing hair," Floyd said. "I think it's great that they've all gotten involved. Once they're off parole, they can all go vote."

Lax said such talk represents a dated perception of those who ride and own the more than half a million motorcycles registered in California. "We're a lot different than you would expect," he said.

Still, Lax takes no risks in terms of image. When volunteers knock on doors for candidates, he urges them to leave the black leather at home and dress conventionally.

"Wear tennis shoes. Jeans are fine. Slacks are better. A shirt with a collar. No vest. No bandannas.

"You're representing the candidate, so look as much like the candidate as you can," Lax said. "That's just common sense."

But members are encouraged to dress like motorcyclists, with their ABATE patches on their vests, when they work in a candidate's headquarters. Lax wants campaign officials to know that they are there.

As he talked, his own black plastic helmet sat on his desk-the symbol of ABATE's ultimate goal.

"When you have to put this thing on your head every single day, it never lets you forget," he said. "It's not like a tax increase that maybe you see and maybe you don't. It's there every single day.

It's not like any other law."

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