You’re not funny

On Capitol hazing rituals and legislative grab-ass

Greg Lucas’ is a state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every other week in SN&R. He also blogs at

Because of its insular focus and select membership, the California Legislature often has been likened to a fraternity. Like other fraternities, new members of the Legislature are subjected to hazing.

Mercifully, there’s no public nudity, binge drinking or involuntary debasement. If the bras of female lawmakers are frozen, no one’s talking.

Legislators in the lower house are razzed when they present their first piece of legislation to the full Assembly.

This hazing is a longstanding tradition that, like a number of other legislative traditions, has diminished over time. Partly because of term limits.

One thing hasn’t changed: Lawmakers think they’re redefining comic genius, but the gibes are just as unfunny today as they were back in the sepia-tinged glory of yesteryear.

Then again, the absence of term limits meant less legislative turnover, so such failed attempts at humor by lawmakers were less frequent, sharply reducing the torment inflicted on witnesses.

Here’s cruel and unusual punishment: Thirty-nine blunt stabs at levity are required this year to ensure each of the 80-member house’s new members are properly chided.

Consider Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, a Sherman Oaks Democrat, and his bill lengthening by one second the minimum time between when a yellow light turns to red.

Nazarian was accused of using the bill to “work out childhood issues.” (Tee-hee.) Did he mind being known as “One-Second Nazarian”? (Hardy-har-har.)

His education at UCLA was mocked. He was worsening global warming by leaving the yellow light on longer. Positively knee-slapping.

After 10 minutes of ribbing, Nazarian thanked his colleagues for “a lively conversation.”

Aside from being puerile, this hazing is puzzling on several levels.

Lawmakers employ, at taxpayers’ or campaign-contributors’ expense, persons whose job it is to make the public believe their elected official boss is a smart, happening, action-oriented problem solver with a heart as big as Half Dome.

If these silly exchanges are going to occur 39 times, how come those staffers don’t arm would-be legislative comics with a couple zingers?

More fundamentally, why does Speaker of the Assembly John A. Pérez allow these unchoreographed embarrassments? He even participates, skewering Nazarian over the number of seconds he devoted to crafting his “preposterous” bill.

This from the same speaker who professes such deep concern for comportment in the Imperial Assembly that he has limited media access, banned interviews and conversation at the back of the chamber and armed sergeants-at-arms so they can fire warning shots into the foreheads of anyone violating his supercilious edicts.

Yet Pérez allows himself and the members of his house to repeatedly strut their inner buffoon across the stage of public scrutiny, effectively shredding the thin veneer he has tried to create of presiding over purposeful policymakers toiling 24-seven to build a brighter future for all Californians.

That’s the chief issue. The 21st-century audience of school kids, retirees, interested parties and insomniacs watching or listening expects their elected representatives to actually be building that brighter future.

This audience must be either mystified or miffed—or both—at the apparent priorities of their representatives. In fairness, even a few legislators seem chagrined.

California’s 40 senators and 80 assembly members represent 38 million residents of a state grappling with plenty of vexing issues.

And they’re joshing around, having a few yuks. On the taxpayers’ dime.

The budget was passed on time, and lots of legislation has been volleyed from one house to the other, but spending even 30 seconds on tweaking some freshman legislator seems at once juvenile, forced, trivial and irresponsible.

Sadly, while such legislative grab-ass might make Californians grumpy if they witness it, such behavior only reinforces their preconceived notions—expressed in numerous public-opinion polls—that it’s just business as usual.