State Senate leader Kevin de León did a very smart thing. He owned up to one of the dumbest things ever perpetrated by a California legislative leader.
The foolish, embarrassing deed the Los Angeles Democrat owned up to showed us again that neither major political party is endowed with a monopoly on wisdom, justice and the American way.
De León quickly admitted that he and fellow Democrats were essentially numbskulls for forcefully removing — “dragging,” read some news accounts — a Republican Vietnamese war refugee from the Senate chamber where she rightfully belonged as an elected lawmaker.
Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove), the nation’s first Vietnamese American female state legislator, had been trying to speak out on the Senate floor against the late Sen. Tom Hayden, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War back in the day. So she was “dragged” off.
Ruling Democrats insisted she didn’t get hauled away for trying to denounce a former colleague. She was booted for the timing of her remarks, which violated the rules.
Huh? No one outside a legislative chamber gives a rat about house rules. But plenty do care when they see video of a female Asian war refugee being forcefully removed by rival politicians. Very bad PR.
Many of the same politicians, after all, seem to be spending every waking moment trying to protect Latinos who, unlike Nguyen, migrated to this country illegally. Good for them. But where’s the compassion for a legal immigrant colleague who was living the American dream until Democrats briefly turned it into a nightmare?
Nguyen, 40, posted her intended Senate remarks on her website.
“Mr. Hayden sided with a communist government that enslaved and/or killed millions of Vietnamese, including members of my own family,” she wrote. “Mr. Hayden’s actions are viewed by many as harmful to democratic values and hateful towards those who sought the very freedoms on which this nation is founded.”
People can agree or not. But it’s her view and she has a right to express it — rules be damned. That’s especially true of a legislator whose district is heavily populated by fellow refugees from repressive Vietnam.
De León quickly agreed. When you shoot yourself in the foot, there’s immediate pain.
“Every senator has the right to speak for their constituents, including Sen. Nguyen,” De León said in a statement issued a few hours after the dust-up last Thursday.
Then, at the next Senate session on Monday, De León told his colleagues: “I was deeply troubled and unsettled by the actions last week…. I take full responsibility for what transpired and for making sure it never happens again.”
That’s about as apologetic as you’ll ever find any legislative leader.
And an apology definitely was due. I can’t recall any lawmaker ever being physically removed from a chamber floor, and I’ve been watching for several decades.
Back to Nguyen.
Her uncle was a South Vietnamese army officer. After Saigon fell, he was assassinated in front of his village and family. Her father, a lower-ranking soldier, was imprisoned several times after the family was caught trying to escape.
Finally they joined the boat people and headed to Thailand. There the family hooked up with a church group that flew them to California in 1981, when Janet was 5. They didn’t speak English, were on welfare and bought clothes from the Salvation Army. At age 10, Janet helped clean houses to earn money for school supplies.
Nguyen fell in love with politics in college and became a Republican largely because of Ronald Reagan.
“He was the president who finally allowed Vietnamese refugees into the country,” she told me. “He fought against dictatorships and communism and kicked down the Berlin Wall. I related to what Ronald Reagan stood for.”
How about President Trump? “I did not vote for him,” the Republican lawmaker said. “Neither did I vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Her problem with Trump? “I disagree with him a lot. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Don’t bother. No explanation needed.
Nguyen became the youngest person ever elected to the Garden Grove City Council and later the Orange County Board of Supervisors. She won election to the Senate in 2014.
Hayden co-led violent anti-Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and was convicted of inciting a riot. But the verdict was overturned. He and his onetime wife, actress Jane Fonda, visited the North Vietnamese enemy during the war, earning enemies back home.
In his 1988 autobiography, Hayden sort of apologized: “Our cause was both just and rational, even if all our methods were not.” He regretted “a numbed sensitivity to any anguish or confusion I was causing to U.S. soldiers and their families.”
Hayden ultimately became part of the establishment and served 18 years in the Legislature. He died in October at 76, and was eulogized in the Senate on Feb. 21. Nguyen decided not to blast him then out of respect to his attending family and friends.
She waited two days. There was squabbling over the rules about when she could speak. Nguyen felt she was being muzzled. So she tried to speak anyway. Democrats cut off her mic. When she still didn’t go mute, she was ordered removed from the chamber. The Democrats’ brains had gone numb.
By Monday, everyone had come to their senses. Democrats were humbled.
Nguyen had become a rising Republican star.
Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter