Hail, new members of the Assembly: Lend me your ears

Just a few moments of your time, 28 Assembly newbies.

For those of you with private sector experience, it’s worth reflecting that few businesses would survive with 35 percent turnover in personnel every two years.

And, yet, the Assembly does. This could perhaps be one of a number of reasons why government can’t be run like a business.

All of you went to Assembly boot camp during the first two weeks of December and, presumably, learned how not to commit felonies by trading votes and other important stuff like that.

No doubt the committee process was explained in excruciating detail, as was the introduction of legislation and the tedious interplay with the 40 schmoes on the other side of the Capitol with the red carpeting in their chambers.

Was it made absolutely clear that the most important person to be nice to in your house is Jon Waldie, from whom all blessings flow? Respond in bipartisan unison here: “Crystal!”
Despite the thoroughness of your training in legislative comportment here’s another two cents, which, of course, are worth every penny.

There is a phenomenon identified in the Capitol as “domed.” In this usage, the term carries none of the meanings linked to it in the Urban Dictionary.  It’s more like shorthand for “domed down.”

Eleven of you new Assembly members served on city councils, several as mayors of cities as far flung as San Jose to Santee. Four more of you were supervisors in Sacramento, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Luis Obispo counties. A goodly number of you are local advocates and volunteers for a variety of civic groups.

Being “domed,” in this usage, means that despite this extensive experience with local governments and communities, once you walk through the Capitol’s rotunda, all such knowledge is erased.

Like one of those gizmos the really nasty bad guys use on the Sci-Fi channel to turn folks into automatons.   

This occurs more than you’d like to think.

Whether Mark Twain actually said it, the admonition is worth repeating: “Better to be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

B.T. Collins, the first head of the California Conservation Corps and, for a time, Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff during the Democratic governor’s last tour of duty, was elected to the Assembly in 1991.

Collins, a Green Beret, lost an arm and a leg in Vietnam. He often described himself as Jerry Brown’s “right hook man.”

Among Collins’ campaign pledges was that he would refrain from any floor speeches for at least his first year in the Assembly, a promise he kept.  

No harm came to him politically because of it nor was the formulation of public policy impaired.

Other lawmakers over the past several decades have not fought so valiantly to be reticent.

For the most part, a survey of Capitol denizens would reveal that those lawmakers who find it necessary to yammer on seemingly every issue are considered, at best, tedious and, more commonly, individuals for whom, in the Twain adage, all doubt has indeed been removed.

As an Assembly member, Don Rogers, a Bakersfield Republican, spoke tirelessly on every issue from gun control to the state inheritance tax.

When Rogers was elected to the Senate in 1986, then Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, one of the most gifted lawmakers during his quarter century in the Legislature, took his new colleague aside.

The members of the Senate were older than those of the Assembly, Maddy explained. Maddy’s statement had the benefit of being true.

Democrat Al Alquist of San Jose was 78 in 1986. Ralph Dills of Gardena was 76. San Francisco’s Milton Marks was 66. Bill Craven of Oceanside was 65.

Because of their age, members of the upper house didn’t have the stamina to last through marathon debates like the Assembly engaged in, Maddy told Rogers.

As both a courtesy to those senior members and a practical necessity, Maddy suggested Rogers restrict his speechifying to a handful of issues.

The prevailing view among Capitol observers was that Rogers grew much smarter during his Senate tenure.  

Sadly, for some, loquaciousness is a genetic trait. If so, best to find a niche.

For example:
Sen. Newt Russell, a Glendale Republican, served in the Legislature 32 years. He was forced out by term limits in 1996.

Russell would regularly speak on the Senate floor but, for the most part, confined himself to the question of whether an amendment was germane to the measure it sought to change. Russell was a stickler on the issue and while his tenacity earned some snickers, the work product of the upper house was far less slipshod.

In the Assembly, some members of the minority party currently raise points of order with whoever the presiding officer is. Best to read the house rules first or you’ll live the Twain adage.

Your colleague, Chris Norby, a Fullerton Republican, routinely chides Assembly members for devoting too much time yakking about resolutions when the state faces far more important matters.

Point well taken.

For John Burton, former head of the Senate, now chair of the state Democratic Party, the most grievous capital offense a lawmaker can commit is  “falling in love with their own bull—-.”

This crime manifested itself in many forms for Burton but you get the idea.

For those of you who are former staffers – Michael Allen, Mike Gatto, Jeff Gorell, Holly Mitchell, Betsy Butler, Ricardo Lara – you are probably immunized to some extent against that sort of narcissism simply because the headset of a staffer is fundamentally different than that of a member.

And that seems to remain even when a staffer becomes an elected official.

Take GOP Sen. Bill Emmerson, a staff member of Craig Biddle back when the earth-cooled and Ronald Reagan was governor.

Emmerson gets his J-O-B done, disagrees with his GOP colleagues on various issues, particularly those involving his area of expertise, dentistry, but does so amiably and respectfully.

Is that due to him being a staffer or just being a swell guy? Empirical evidence seems to point to the former contributing to the latter.

Find something to agree on with your colleagues in the other party.

Several of your biographies promise that you’ll work to end partisan gridlock and the other nasty illnesses afflicting the Capitol. (Drs. Richard Pan and Linda Halderman might be the best suited to address maladies – both real and figurative.)

This collaboration doesn’t have to be some big ideological deal like raising taxes or cutting health care for poor kids, but agreeing on one thing always makes it easier to agree on another.

Finally – and here endeth the lecture – several of your biographies note that you attend church.

Whether all of you do or not, no harm ever came from a prayer or two.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: