Senate doesn’t feel like celebrating

On Tuesday, Senators received at memo from the Legislative Women’s Caucus announcing the cancelation of the annual “Woman of the Year” festivities, citing “financial hardships.”

Meanwhile, several high level Senate staffers say that Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has requested the floor ceremonies and other celebrations be kept to a minimum during the budget crisis. The informal policy apparently led to an unusual exchange last week between Steinberg and Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, over how the Senate should honor a groundbreaking African-American football player.

The Woman of the Year tradition was started by the Legislative Women’s Caucus in 1987 “as a celebration of remarkable women throughout California,” according to the memo from the office of Caucus vice-chair Senator Lois Wolk, D-Vacaville. It went on to note that Capitol ceremonies for the event were also suspended during in 2003 and 2004 during another fiscal crisis.

The Senate budget pays for the celebrations in both houses, which allow each legislator to designate a woman to honor, who then may be flown, often along with a partner, for the annual ceremony. The Assembly consultant to the Women’s Caucus, Elizabeth Fuller, said the Assembly plans to go forward with their event, and are trying to determine a date. The Woman of the Year ceremony always takes place in March during Women’s History Month.

The Senate consultant to the Women’s Caucus did not return calls seeking details. However, Steinberg’s communications director, Jim Evans, said the decision was made by a  vote by the Senate members of the Caucus. The event usually costs the Senate several thousand dollars, he said.

“We support their vote,” Evans said. “The Rules Committee is trying to find savings in variety of places.”

According to several Senate staffers, Steinberg’s office has been informally asking Senate offices to keep celebrations to a minimum since at least early January. With the state facing a $42 billion budget deficit, the Steinberg has wanted to keep to make sure the Senate is not seen dealing with issues that might be considered frivolous, they said.

The alleged informal policy led to an unusual exchange between Steinberg and Wright during a Jan.28 Senate Rules Committee meeting. Near the end of the hour-long meeting, Wright came forward to present an item to the five-member committee about honoring Sam “Bam” Cunningham. Cunningham is most famous for being the player who convinced legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant to integrate his team after they were beaten in 42-21 by Cunningham’s University of Southern California Trojans in 1970.

A fullback playing in his first college game, Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns. His exploits are also detailed in a new documentary, “Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football.” The Crest Theater held a free screening of the film on Monday night. Monday’s ceremonies also had the unusual historical backdrop of taking place during Black History Month, days after the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American President, and the day after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin became the second African-American coach to win a Super Bowl.

Wright began his presentation by saying a floor ceremony for Cunningham would not be necessary: “The committee, it has come to my attention, had some concerns about doing floor ceremonies. I’d just as soon concur with what the position of the committee was. We’ll do a press conference outside. I’ve made the arrangements to use the stairs.”

Steinberg, in his role as Rules Chair, stated the Wright was “welcome to do whatever you want.” Wright replied “it’s okay” and said he did not want to “use an exception” for the event.

“In this economic time and with what’s going on, the policy of the Senate ought to be that we not have excessive floor celebrations and that kind of thing,” Steinberg replied to Wright. He added: “I want to be very clear, I know there has been a little confusion on this. I would like you to present on the floor. I personally want to meet Sam Cunningham.”

In the end, Cunningham was honored with a brief floor ceremony in both the Senate and Assemblyman on Monday, before a longer ceremony outside featuring members of the USC Trojans marching band. Asked after the ceremony about his exchange with Steinberg in Rules, he said that as a new Senator, he was seeking clarification about “decorum” in that body. The ceremony for Cunningham was “not legislative business,” he said, but was also “non-partisan” and supported by many Republicans. In the end, Wright said, he was satisfied with the process was fair: “It was non-selective,” he said.

Evans said that the Senate has traditionally featured less “entertainment” and spectacle on the floor than the Assembly. He went on to say that the issue was not whether Cunningham could have a brief floor ceremony, but whether members of the marching band could also be on the floor. The Senate has continued to honor guests, he said, including a ceremony last month for the state football champions from Grant High School in Sacramento.

“Historically, we haven’t done entertainment-type things on the floor, music or things like that,” Evans said. “We do allow members to have resolution and present significant guests, which is why those requests usually come through the Rules Committee, so everyone know about it.”

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