California lawmakers take the oath of office
Republican Assemblymember Randy Voepel from Santee and other lawmakers take the oath of office Dec. 3 at the Capitol in Sacramento. Photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters

I walked into an office that looked just like the three others I had visited that morning in May: American flag, stock-photo landscapes hanging on the walls, inbox overflowing with papers, and busy staffers.

I was at the Capitol in Sacramento for the National Council of Jewish Women’s annual Lobby Day. I’d just finished my first year of college and had barely been home for 24 hours before leaving again to lobby my state representatives on issues like paid family leave, increased early childcare, and extending Medi-Cal to undocumented immigrants.

As we waited to meet with Assemblyman Randy Voepel, I began to realize that this meeting might be a little different than others I had been to that day. Despite living in one of the most Democratic states in the nation, my district on the eastern edge of San Diego is deeply conservative. On the office door was a sign announcing that his office was a “politically INcorrect” space.

We began discussing the first bill, which addressed human trafficking in California. Voepel got excited, exclaiming, “Well if you support ending human trafficking, then you support Trump’s wall!” We respectfully disagreed.

I took a deep breath, smiled at the sign “ask me about my cats” on his desk, and turned to the next bill. It was Health4All, which extends Medi-Cal access to undocumented immigrants in California. I summarized the bill, explained why I was passionate about this cause, and mentioned that I planned to intern at a nonprofit in Tijuana that helps recently deported migrants.

The assemblyman interrupted me, seemingly incredulous, asking if I planned to cross the border. “Do you have kidnap and ransom insurance?” he asked. He turned to my mom, sitting beside me, and proceeded to recommend this insurance, even offering to give us contact information.

He then lectured me on “crime-ridden” Tijuana, painting a picture of my abduction by a cartel and subsequent ransom because of my “privileged background.” Though dumbstruck, I tried to continue the conversation, focusing on the issues. But the assemblyman interrupted me again, giving me a command.

“Hold up your left hand,” he said. It took a moment for me to respond, but I did as he instructed. He told me to hold up just my pinkie, mirroring my hand with his own.  I put down my other fingers so just my pinkie hung in the air.

“Right here,” Voepel said, pointing to the second knuckle, “is where they will cut off the chunk that they’ll send to your mother.”

I snatched my hand away from him. He put his down. My eyes filled with tears, and my lip began to quiver.

“Respectfully, Assemblyman,” I said, “I would really appreciate it if you did not describe my bodily mutilation in front of my mother.”  My mom put her hand on my knee, reminding me she was with me.

But still Voepel continued, stressing my need to protect myself in “that city.” I held back a sniffle as the tears were now actively flowing down my cheeks.

With a voice that infuriatingly wouldn’t remain steady, I answered him. “I am fortunate to come from a life of privilege,” I said, “so I feel especially obligated to help others who haven’t been in my same position. It’s a moral imperative. I think that’s worth it.” I quieted, unable to say more without breaking into sobs.

The assemblyman was finally silent. I was able to pull myself together during the rest of the meeting, while Voepel continued to interrogate my mom and the other lobbyists on every bill we brought before him. At one point he even tried to fend off my seething gaze, saying, “I know the young lady thinks I’m Atilla the Hun, but…”

Finally, the meeting ended. He shook my hand, telling me that he was “not being cruel, just real,” and turned to leave.

I held out little hope that he would support Health4All, or any of the other bills we lobbied him on. I watched on the live feed as AB4 went to a floor vote. Despite Voepel’s no vote, Health4All passed 51-16.

Call me naive, but I believe that most people in politics have good intentions. Even Voepel’s intentions were, I suppose, decent, in a misogynistic kind of way. But good intentions aren’t good enough. We need good bills. We need good policies. We need good people. And from what I’ve experienced, we don’t have them.

Sofia Gardenswartz lives in La Mesa and will begin her sophomore year at Pomona College this fall.