Eric Mills and the Horse He Rode in On 

Eric Mills was the most effective critic of rodeo in California -- at least until he lassoed the charreada.

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But what a difference a few years had made to the charros. Although they had only found out about the proposed steer-tailing ban two days before it was supposed to go to the floor, they managed to get the vote pushed back two weeks. They then arranged meetings with the senators and organized a massive letter-writing campaign to Figueroa. They argued that the bill was an attack on a venerable Mexican tradition, perpetrated by outsiders who didn't understand their culture. "What's next," Rodriguez asked in a editorial, "banning Mexican saddles because they are too uncomfortable for the horses or loud Mexican concerts or the right to speak our language and practice our customs?" Rodriguez later recalled that losing once to Mills had taught the charros a valuable lesson about Sacramento-style lobbying. "This time around we did it right," he says. "Mark Franco and I were in our dark suits and red ties with five lawyers behind us."

Figueroa, who did not respond to repeated interview requests, ultimately withdrew her bill, saying she didn't have enough votes for it to pass. And this time it was Mills who was caught by surprise. In fact, he wasn't even in town for Figueroa's decision. "The day before it was going to go to the floor I, like a fool, had taken off on a vacation I'd been planning for a long time, thinking this was a slam dunk," he says.

It turned out that the charros had some help the second time around. Even though American-style rodeos do not have a steer-tailing event, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association had a reason to be interested in the charros' concerns. "They have this in common," Handley says. "They're scared to death of Eric Mills." While Fox makes it clear that he did not lobby against SB 1306, nor did the association take a position on it, he agrees that he did serve as a paid consultant to the charros. At a meeting in Las Vegas, association officials dispensed advice on animal-welfare issues. "We said, 'If you're going to professionalize, you need to have implemented certain rules and regulations that protect the livestock,'" Fox says. He also apparently suggested that the charros lobby the Latino Caucus to get the bill moved to the Assembly Agriculture Committee, which was more likely to be sympathetic to their cause.

An alliance had been forged, and it was going to be tough to beat when Mills returned to the legislature this April to bring Mexican-style rodeo under the supervision of California law.

Eric Mills is sitting in the state capitol lunchroom, stacking and restacking papers on a small Formica table. He's nervous and tired after several long days of driving back and forth between Oakland and Sacramento. Today is the day his latest rodeo bill goes before the assembly's Art, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media Committee, and it won't be an easy fight. As originally drafted, AB 885 had two parts: It would require rodeos to give two weeks' notice to local animal-control authorities before coming to town, which Mills believes will allow them to deploy their staffs accordingly. More significantly, it would reduce from four to three the number of events required to meet the state's official definition of a rodeo. Since charreadas have exactly three events in common with American-style rodeos, if AB 885 passes, it will subject them to state laws requiring an on-call or on-site veterinarian, as well as any other laws or regulations Mills manages to get adopted in the future. Rodeo advocates believe the bill has a hidden subtext: They think it is designed to give animal-rights activists a two-week notice about upcoming rodeos so that they can show up with picket signs. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the charros are united in opposition to the bill. Their lobbyists are out in full force, easy to spot in the hallways with their cowboy hats and waxed handlebar mustaches.

Today will be Mills' third shot at passing such legislation. His first attempt, which was carried by Democrat Jackie Speier in 1988, was defeated on the floor of the Agricultural Committee, which Mills refers to as a "graveyard for animals." The second time was a weakened regulatory bill authored by Senator Don Perata in 1999, which required American-style rodeos to have a vet on-site or on-call. It passed, but left Mills dissatisfied because it does not cover charreadas and allows on-call veterinarians up to an hour before responding to a serious injury. "That's a lifetime," he gripes. "Would you let a cowboy lie there for an hour with a broken back waiting for an ambulance?"

This time the bill is being carried by Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco, a freshman at the capitol, but a friendly face to Mills. The two collaborated on local rodeo issues when Leno was a San Francisco supervisor.

As he waits in the lunchroom, Mills is anxiously counting votes. The committee has nineteen members, four of whom are from the Latino Caucus, including caucus chair Marco Firebaugh, a Cudahy Democrat. The bill needs ten votes to pass, so Mills will need the caucus to take his side.

But as the failure of Figueroa's steer-tailing bill made clear, legislators are now leery of seeming to attack the charreada. The night before, Mills had been in Leno's office when a deal was cut. Firebaugh had announced he would support AB 885 if all language pertaining to the charreada was dropped, and it was assumed that the rest of the Latino Caucus would vote along with him. Leno and Mills reluctantly agreed.


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