Bam session

The Republicans started it. Oh yeah? Well, the Democrats made it worse …

Illustration By B.Z.

Surely one reason to give thanks right now is that you need not spend any time in California’s statehouse, where the Legislature has unveiled its not-so-special session of ugly personal behavior, nasty partisanship and utter failure to grasp the message from Republican and Democratic voters who elected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I was at the statehouse, however.

And I can report that Republicans in the state Assembly drew first blood, springing a surprise vote on the Democrats to dispense with the usual committee hearings and rules so they could immediately vote on repealing Senate Bill 60, the illegal-immigrant driver’s-license law.

Had the Republican leaders chatted with Democratic leaders about their desire to vote on the repeal immediately (by means of a one-page bill that simply states SB 60 is hereby repealed) on November 18, the Republicans promptly would have learned that the Democrats had no intention of voting that day—nor of suspending rules the Democrats suspend only for their advantage.

No, the Democrats wanted the one-page repeal bill to go to the Transportation Committee for debate, which can take days. And because Democrats control the majority in the Assembly, what they say goes.

The Republicans knew this would happen. But the Republicans had something else, aside from the repeal of SB 60, in mind.

They had in mind embarrassing the Democrats in front of TV cameras that were in Sacramento for the governor’s swearing-in. If the Democrats refused to expedite the vote to repeal SB 60, the Republicans could cry that Democrats are obstructionist lefties who have no intention of trying to help Schwarzenegger.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with repealing SB 60. The Assembly Republicans have failed to hear Schwarzenegger and his call for government representatives to act differently. The Assembly Republicans are walking like hard-core partisans and quacking like hard-core partisans.

How did Assembly Democrats respond? The majority Democrats, not at all accustomed to being pushed around by the minority Republicans, came out with knives drawn.

Like the hard-core partisans they are, the Assembly Democrats drew blood right back. And they didn’t stop drawing blood for days.

The first day went like this (abridged, of course):

“What we are getting instead of action, action, action is delay, delay, delay!” —Assemblyman Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks.

“The people did not say, ‘Throw away every bit of process!’” —Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

“Millions of people are disgusted by what they are seeing here tonight!” —Assemblyman Russ Bogh, R-Cherry Valley.

“We are doing what your governor … asked us to do—not come out and throw the punch!” —Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno.

“I think the governor should be ashamed of what he sees here!” —Assemblyman Juan Vargas, D-San Diego.

“That we need to have a bill, so simple, vetted in committee, is absolute hogwash!” —Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia.

The Assembly met for only two hours the first week of the so-called extraordinary special session. Of that, the members spent 30 minutes insulting one another and 40 minutes adjourning in memory of dead pals or in honor of pals who’d won awards.

Forty minutes adjourning? A schoolteacher who came as a citizen to observe was furious. “If I spent this much time commending my peers, I would be behind in my teaching for the semester,” she said.

I doubt you heard much in the news about the 40 minutes of adjourning. The California political media are doing their usual bang-up job of sanitizing what goes on. Yet at midnight on December 5—the deadline by which Schwarzenegger must get approval for his $15 billion bond to refinance the state debt in order to put it on the March ballot—watch the legislators whimper, “If only we had a few more hours.”

After that first day, Democrats went to work getting payback for how the Republicans embarrassed them over SB 60.

The nastiness started in a meeting on November 19 jammed with people wanting to hear from the new Department of Finance director, Donna Arduin, a budget-cutting expert whom Schwarzenegger took from Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Forget the cleansed media reports. This is what went down: Arduin was asked to appear at 10:30 a.m. to present her audit and explain Schwarzenegger’s $15 billion plan to refinance $12 billion in debt at lower interest, plus a one-time $3.2 billion cost to cover the car tax he rescinded. But Democrat Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach, chairing the hearing, double-booked and asked Chief Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill to explain the current budget situation, also.

Hill went first. Arduin, whom Oropeza and the committee well knew had to be at a noon meeting with the governor, was made to wait an hour and 15 minutes as Oropeza encouraged the committee to ask endless questions of Hill.

Arduin put in a request to Oropeza that she be allowed to make her presentation in time for her meeting with Schwarzenegger. Oropeza refused, saying Arduin could wait. When Arduin finally was allowed to testify, she had 15 minutes to go before seeing the governor.

Suffering from a nasty sinus infection, Arduin asked, into the microphone, if she could be seated while testifying. Oropeza refused to allow Arduin to sit down, using the lame excuse that all the members of the committee should see her face.

People couldn’t believe it. A murmur went through the room. Arduin seemed to hesitate. Was this for real? But Oropeza once again insisted Arduin stand up.

After several minutes of testimony, Arduin pleaded for a chair. Two male legislators jumped up to help her. Oropeza—in the dripping, sweet voice that makes her one of the most grating legislators—exclaimed, “Of course, sit down—of course—if you really need to!”

A joke spread through the reporters leaning along one wall: “Oropeza must have gone to the Cruz Bustamante School of Condescension.”

Arduin explained her audit and then answered questions. The panel knew she had to leave. But noon, the time of her appointment with the governor, passed as Arduin came in for tough questioning by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles. Goldberg did not like the fact that Schwarzenegger says the $3.2 billion in car-tax money he is refunding is an “accumulated debt” from the Davis administration.

“It should never have been raised,” Arduin told Goldberg, of the tripling of the car tax. Arduin said Davis raised the tax because he and the Legislature knowingly chose to spend money the state did not have. Thus, making up for the now-rescinded car tax represents paying a debt from the Davis era.

Goldberg asked another question, but Arduin ended her testimony and left, now late to see the governor.

Newspapers breathlessly reported that Arduin abruptly left, but they left out much of the mistreatment by Oropeza. The Los Angeles Times, for example, despite having a reporter present, omitted that Oropeza forced Arduin to stand and that Oropeza refused Arduin’s request to testify in a timely manner.

One 13-year veteran Republican staffer I spoke to could not recall any precedent in which a committee chair refused a Cabinet member’s request to testify in time to make a pre-set meeting with a governor. A Democratic staffer agreed with this, telling me, “What you saw there was Jenny Oropeza playing to the Democrats, because on that day, she was in the running to become the next speaker of the Assembly.”

Oropeza was showing Democrats she could mistreat a high-ranking Republican after the Republicans embarrassed the Democrats over SB 60. But this backfired on Oropeza. Two days later—partly as a backlash to her bullying Arduin—Oropeza lost the speakership fight to Fabian Núñez, a Los Angeles Democrat who is notably less antagonistic toward Republicans.

In the Capitol rotunda, I ran into Democrat Richard Katz, former senior adviser to Gray Davis, and asked him how his party should be behaving.

“Governor Schwarzenegger needs to be successful, and the Democrats need to understand what happened in October rather than deny events,” he said. “They really need to face reality.”

Unfortunately for all of us, as the special session marched onward, the Democrats were so infected with partisan anger it wasn’t clear if they could snap out of it.

Mistreatment of Arduin spread to the normally respectful Senate. There, Senator Joe Dunn, a Democrat from Santa Ana, in a rare attack on a Cabinet member, stated during a budget hearing on November 20, “Let’s have a little fun here,” and then caustically derided Arduin, who was not present.

Staring at Mike Genest, Arduin’s chief aide, Dunn declared: “I think personally, Mike, that you are the director of finance, and she is more of a figurehead.”

The Democrats chose Arduin as their whipping post in part because during the recall campaign, Arduin said an audit would reveal obvious, major cuts. Democrats are positively fried about this criticism.

I spoke to Tom Martinez, chief aide to Senate Majority Leader Don Perata. Both are known for fairness toward Republicans.

Martinez said of Dunn’s attack, “That sort of behavior does not happen in the Senate. We do not expect to see it continue. It doesn’t reflect most members’ desire to work together.”

Let’s hope Martinez is right. California could be hurt by the childishness in Sacramento. But let’s not forget that the Republicans started this cascading series of events, launching the special session by purposely embarrassing the Democrats over SB 60. I hope it was well worth the 20 minutes of public crowing the Republicans got that first day.