They Fight Like Girlie-Men

He's not the most credible figure these days, but it looks like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was right about one thing: California legislators are girlie-men.

Or at least they fight like girlie men -- judging by Wednesday's pathetic shoving match on the floor of the Assembly.

The short version of the story (video above): during a debate over two redevelopment bills that were part of the state budget package, Republican Assemblyman Don Wagner compared the bills -- which require redevelopment agencies to give the state money, or be eliminated -- to the sort of shakedown you'd see in the Sopranos.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino rose to demand an apology for what he saw as an insult to Italian-Americans.

Wagner apologized sarcastically "to any Italian Americans who are not in the Mafia and engaged in insurance scams."

That didn't help things.

Assemblyman Warren Furutani then confronted him, and here's where things went horribly wrong. Video shows a bit of shoving quickly broken up by lawmakers.


Now I don't generally condone fighting, but the tradition of legislative fisticuffs is a grand and noble one.

Fights in the California legislature were, by various accounts, early in the last century, and in our early days.

Those were days, mind you, when lawmakers also knew how to negotiate big deals and balance budgets. But in this term-limited era, all the legislative dark arts -- from the deal to the fistfight -- appear to be lost.

And legislators, of all people, should know how to throw a punch, literally and figuratively. But they don't.

The context Wednesday was crucial. The majority party, unable to figure out a way to fight Republicans, surrendered, passing accounting gimmicks and cuts (especially to higher education) that Democrats openly disavowed even as they voted for them. Imagine if the Democrats had some intimidating scrappers in their caucus.

Might be a bit easier to get four Republican votes, huh?

There were some good things even about this fight. Fighting also is a good way to get attention, and legislators desperately need more of it. Ask yourself -- had you heard of Don Wagner or Warren Furutani before yesterday's weak shoving match landed them on the evening news.

The trouble is that these fighting amateurs couldn't land a good punch--if you're going to take the publicity hit, you should get a good hit in.

Also, it's significant that redevelopment bills sparked the fight. Gov. Brown's redevelopment plan was the only significant reform that advanced during this budget season, though lawmakers stopped short of eliminating the agencies, as the governor rightfully suggested. Real reform sparked a real fight, or as close to a real fight as this group is available of.

So imagine two things: that California lawmakers were to push for comprehensive constitutional reform and were to work on their fighting skills. We could fix the budget and maybe even fund a real rainy day fund by televising the whole thing on pay-per-view.

(One little addition:Tim Cavanaugh of Reason magazine, who like me is a champion of legislative fistfights, has posted a terrific video of great fights from around the world here).

More on the budget here.

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