The Fight for California

By Ramon G. McLeod
July 27, 2010

The Fight for California

By Ramon G. McLeod
July 27, 2010

It looked like a done deal. An anti-prostitution law was moving quickly in the California legislature that would have dramatically changed the rules for massage therapists. Assembly Bill 1822 was clearly an assault on the profession, yet very little attention was being paid to it, which is exactly what its proponents expected.

Back in April, passage seemed assured. Who was going to speak out against something targeting human trafficking and prostitution? It was a slam dunk. An easy win.

But those who wanted this bill, which would have required massage therapists to seek in-person police investigation for work permits, hadn't counted on the mild-mannered Ahmos Netanel, executive director of the California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC), or Mike Schroeder, one-time chairman of the California Republican Party and owner of American Massage Council, an insurance business for massage therapists.

Nor did they count on a massive outpouring of opposition from an awakened community that turned what could have been a disaster for massage therapy into what appears to be a come-from-behind victory for practitioners in the nation's most populous state.

The Context

Just under a year ago, California therapists worked under a hodgepodge system that required therapists to be approved by local police departments before they were given a permit to work in a specific community. This meant that if they had clients in different jurisdictions, they had to obtain approvals from each locality individually.

After years of lobby by the community, and most particularly, the California Chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association, Senate Bill 731 was enacted to rationalize the system. A statewide certification board was created, the CAMTC, which was charged with the task of verifying criminal and educational backgrounds before a permit to work was issued. With this certificate, a therapist can legally work anywhere in the state. Local police approval was no longer necessary as all applicants were to be screened based on criminal records provided by the state Department of Justice.

Seemingly out of nowhere, in early 2010, the California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA), led by the group's president, San Mateo Police Chief Susan Mannheimer, began to forcefully lobby for massive "reform" to SB 731.

At the core of what would become AB 1822 was a return to local police vetting of applicants. The CAMTC would continue to exist, but it would essentially become a rubberstamp for the applications approved by local authorities. The real authority would be re-invested in local police departments. The chiefs association went to Assemblyman Sandre Swanson (D-Alameda) to get him to sponsor the bill. As part of their pitch to him, the chief's association argued that the CAMTC didn't have the resources to handle thousands of applicants for state certificates. Furthermore, the association cited a "random/regional sample" of CAMTC applicants in San Mateo city and regions around the city conducted by the chief's association had found that 89 percent of these applicants were prostitutes or had questionable backgrounds. The implication was clear: massive numbers of prostitutes were filing applications to the CAMTC, an organization incapable of handling the work.

In a letter to Swanson, Manheimer wrote: "The specter of the CAMTC, with their limited resources, successfully screening out illegal operators and Human Trafficking victims is completely unrealistic. Additionally, CAMTC is not suited or situated to investigate, deny, suspend, or revoke those who are operating outside the law."

That set off the firestorm.

The Flame Thrower

While Mike Schroeder has a long history in both state and national politics, including a well-earned reputation for feistiness, in recent years he's been very much under the radar as a political force in massage.

"Typically, I don't function on a political level as it relates to the practice of massage," he said. "My role has been to construct a low-cost malpractice insurance program for massage therapists nationally."

Chairman of the California Republican Party in the late 90s, and vice-chairman of the national party during that same period, Schroeder said he has a 24-year history with the profession and was enraged by both the content and the implications of AB 1822.

"When Swanson and the police chiefs suggested that 89 percent were prostitutes, well that was simply a blatant lie," he said.

He said, the police chiefs association, and in particular the group's president, San Mateo Police Chief Susan Mannheimer, were "hoping they'd get away with this ... with leaving the impression that most massage therapists are prostitutes.

"They didn't think they were going to get called on it," he said. "They (the police chiefs association) wanted their turf back, simple as that ... But they've had 50 years to cleanup human trafficking and haven't been able to do so.

"The (current) system now is far more effective in stopping actual prostitutes. They can't 'shop' for jurisdictions with lax permitting and claim to be certified," he said. "And it prevents legitimate massage therapists from being treated like prostitutes and going from city to city to prove that they aren't ... we weren't going to go back to that."

The Quiet One

Those who know Ahmos Netanel use words like "thorough", "gracious" and "professional", but rarely does one hear him called "bulldog".

But during the battle over AB 1822, Netanel came forward with devastating documentation and used careful lobbying to help turn the political tide against the proposed law.

Netanel and Schroeder both realized that the critical element that had conviced Swanson to bring out the bill was the strong support of the California Police Chiefs Association and that groups' survey claim that 89 percent of CAMTC applicants were prostitutes or of unknown backgrounds.

But no where did the police group offer up any evidence that CAMTC had allowed any criminals to actually get through their screening process, which after all, is what matters.

And that's what Netanel seized upon. And then he turned the tables on the CPCA. Netanel produced Council data showing that it was police departments allowing criminals to pass background checks, not the Council.

"The CAMTC has never approved anyone who was not already approved through the DOJ (Department of Justice)," said Netanel. Then he produced a devastating bit of evidence: "CAMTC has rejected 3,424 applicants, who had passed background checks by local law enforcement, but when checked through CAMTC's process did not pass muster. In fact, so far 346 of those already approved locally were found to have criminal backgrounds and denied the statewide certification."

The Community

In late April, as publicity over the proposed law began emerging, the scattered opposition to it began to coalesce. The American Massage Therapy Association, California Chapter, came out in formal opposition to the bill. The ACLU followed suit: "While we support effective efforts to curb human trafficking and child prostitution, we do not believe that requiring massage therapists to complete background checks by local law enforcement - rather than a statewide organization - will combat trafficking. Instead, bad actors seeking to avoid detection will operate further underground to avoid subjecting themselves or the girls and women they are trafficking to increased scrutiny by local law enforcement."

But the key to what would lead to a major gutting of the most onerous provisions of the bill was a massive letter writing campaign. Urged by Massage Today, the heart of the campaign was an email form addressed to all the members of a key committee about to hear the bill. Within 48 hours of the form's posting committee members received more than 2,000 emails in opposition to members of the key committee that was about to hear the bill.

Swanson backed off his support of the original language in the bill and by the time a vote was taken by the Assembly Appropriations Committee in late May, the bill had been massively amended. The bill's language regarding local certification of individual massage therapists was removed. It also calls for the addition of two law enforcement members to the CAMTC including a Police Chiefs Association position and a Sheriffs Association position, and includes an added section to strengthen enforcement against illegal operators of massage businesses.

The CAMTC is looking for additional improvements, but Netanel said, "we are pleased with the direction it has taken." Schroeder, reflecting back on the course the bill has taken said he "felt pretty strongly that the profession would rise up. I was convinced that the minute we spoke out it would react exactly as it did. "I hope now that there will be a little more reluctance to attack this profession," he said. "They thought we would be a total pushover and couldn't exercise any power ... they were wrong about that."