Senate Aims Rebuke at Assemblyman Johnson's Remarks

Times Staff Writers

In an extraordinary rebuke aimed at apparent anti-Semitic remarks made by Assembly Republican leader Ross Johnson of La Habra, an agitated Senate on Friday unanimously approved a resolution urging legislators to avoid derogatory language in conducting their business.

The resolution identified Johnson by name and directly quoted controversial remarks he made the previous day to Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana), who is Jewish and who accused Johnson of anti-Semitism.

The resolution did not, however, criticize Johnson personally. Instead, it merely expressed the Senate's resolve to "assiduously avoid any conduct that could reasonably be expected to be offensive to any diverse element of our population."

In a hushed chamber after a 20-minute discussion, the Senate voted bipartisan 32-0 approval of the unusual statement, which is not binding on anyone but is intended to discourage "derogatory appellations" in the upper house.

Only minutes before, Johnson, one of the most combative members of the Legislature, made a public apology to the Senate-Assembly budget conference committee of which Robbins is a member. Robbins, however, did not hear it because he was on the Senate floor awaiting action on the resolution.

Later, Robbins, no stranger to controversies that he concedes he helped to create, demurred on whether he would accept the apology, insisting only that "I have no desire to prolong this."

"If I said anything that was interpreted or could have been interpreted as having been a slur on anyone's religious preferences or ethnic background, I most sincerely apologize," Johnson told the committee.

But he told reporters he would never apologize for confronting Robbins in the committee on Thursday "on his inappropriate and quite possibly illegal behavior toward members of the Assembly Republican caucus."

He charged that Robbins abused his position as one of the Legislature's six state budget writers to "bully and browbeat" Assembly Republicans as they came before the committee one by one to seek funds for locally popular projects in their districts, such as parks.

Robbins targeted members of the Assembly GOP because they had refused to give their permission for reconsideration of a high-priority Robbins insurance bill that was killed earlier in the lower chamber.

Johnson learned of Robbins' conduct in the budget committee and charged angrily into the hearing room, where he greeted Robbins as "Senator Torquemada," a reference to Tomas de Torquemada, a leader of the bloody Spanish Inquisition against Jews in the late 15th Century.

Robbins took offense at the remark, to which Johnson shot back: "Maybe, senator, I should have referred to Sammy Glick." Glick was a central figure in the 1941 novel "What Makes Sammy Run" and was portrayed as an utterly ambitious and ruthless film mogul who was Jewish.

After the Senate action on the resolution, sponsored by his longtime ally in the San Fernando Valley, Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), Robbins defended his conduct in dealing with Assembly Republicans and seemed to affirm the legislative adage: "Reward your friends and punish your enemies."

He told reporters he believed that the Assembly Republicans had dealt with his insurance measure "unfairly" and that as a state budget writer, "obviously I'm more receptive to someone who has given me a fair shake."

Each summer, nerves fray and tempers flare as lawmakers fight to see that their interests are provided for in the state budget.

But this time around, pressures seem to loom larger, especially as the FBI and U.S. attorney press their investigations into suspected corruption in the Capitol.

In an interview Friday, Johnson charged that Robbins, a potential contender next year for the state insurance commissioner's post, was trying to divert attention away from a story in Thursday's Los Angeles Times reporting that the Van Nuys Democrat is a subject of the FBI probe.

Johnson said Robbins had "chosen for political reasons to make a great issue out of something that I suspect in his heart he knows is utter nonsense."

Teri Burns, a spokeswoman for Robbins, later denied that notion. "He took it (Johnson's remarks) very personally. It wasn't related to other issues," she said.

It is rare for either house of the Legislature to take on one of its members publicly, although plenty of backbiting occurs in private. The last time one chamber directly criticized a member in public occurred in 1981 when the Senate reprimanded former Sen. John Schmitz (R-Corona del Mar) for issuing a press release that described an audience at an abortion hearing as composed of "a sea of hard Jewish and (arguably) female faces" and using such terms as queer, butch and bull dykes.

In presenting the resolution on Friday, Davis noted that the measure fell far short of criticizing Johnson and zeroed in on his remarks that "could easily be construed as anti-Semitic."

He said that derogatory racial or religious remarks have no place in legislative deliberations.

"There are times like this that I think real men and real women have to stand up and take positions," Davis told the Senate, adding that no one asked him to introduce the resolution.

Other Views

Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), one of the Senate's two black members, agreed, declaring that "we cannot tolerate in jest or in sincerity any insensitive remark." However, Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), who is Jewish and co-authored a successful political reform ballot initiative with Johnson, defended the embattled Republican and asserted that the resolution was unnecessary because Johnson had apologized.

"Assemblyman Johnson says there isn't an anti-Semitic bone in his body, and I believe that," said Kopp, who ended up voting for the measure. "All of us are subject to the vicissitudes of simple momentary loss of rational discourse."

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