When the chips were down, most of Assemblyman Gil Ferguson’s Republican colleagues from Orange County disappeared or refused to vote on his highly publicized resolution justifying the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
And Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) said Wednesday he felt particularly abandoned when fellow conservatives failed to even grant him a simple parliamentary courtesy that would have allowed him to rebut a litany of critics during the highly unusual debate.
“I really did expect that they would do that much,” Ferguson said about the parliamentary maneuver. “So, I was disappointed in that. It was a simple thing. There was no danger to them and it would have allowed me to even out the balance of rhetoric.”
Instead, Ferguson was procedurally handcuffed and left alone to withstand an unusual 70-minute debate over his resolution describing the roundup and detention of 113,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans during the war as militarily justified. And when the Assembly voted 60 to 4 against the measure, five of Ferguson’s seven Orange County compatriots were silent or missing.
Doris Allen of Cypress was out to lunch.
Dennis Brown of Los Alamitos was in his office. So, too, was John R. Lewis of Orange, who listened to the proceedings over an intercom.
Curt Pringle of Garden Grove was lobbying senators on a non-pressing matter. He changed his abstention to a “no” vote later in the day as his Democratic political opponent was making an issue of his disappearance.
Nolan Frizzelle of Huntington Beach sat in his seat but didn’t vote. Afterward, he offered encouragement in the form of a breath mint to Ferguson, whose mouth was parched after the televised ordeal.
Reached Wednesday, those lawmakers said they either sympathized or agreed with Ferguson. But they added that there was too much political pressure or confusing information to go on record with an official vote.
“It was totally a political decision. It was absolutely a political decision,” said Frizzelle, adding that he wholeheartedly supports the Ferguson resolution despite his silence.
Frizzelle said that taking a stand either way would have been misinterpreted, especially since opponents attacked it as racist and uninformed. The internment has been widely condemned in recent years, with Congress voting in 1987 to pay $20,000 in reparations to each of the 60,000 surviving internees.
“If I voted ‘aye,’ then I’m not voting for the bill, I’m voting for what they said the bill meant,” Frizzelle said. “If I voted against Gil, I was in essence condoning the disinformation that had been discussed.”
Added Lewis, who confessed to being torn over the issue:
“I think anybody that would stand up and try to defend Ferguson on that would suffer the same fate of being branded a racist, or whatever else is the term of the day. It’s kind of defending the indefensible.”
Ferguson presented his resolution as an attempt to “balance” a similar measure passed last year that urged California public schools to teach that the internment resulted from “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
The Newport Beach Republican argued that the internment was a mistake, but was justified in the wake of Pearl Harbor and reports of thousands of Japanese “subversives” in California. “It is simply untrue that Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps during World War II,” reads his resolution, introduced Aug. 15. Ferguson asserted that the “relocation centers” were not comparable to the prisons of Auschwitz and Dachau.
Eleven legislators--six Democrats and five Republicans--condemned the measure during Tuesday’s debate as unnecessary, divisive and obnoxious.
Joining the opposition to Ferguson were two Orange County legislators--Assemblymen Ross Johnson (R-La Habra) and Robert C. Frazee (R-Carlsbad). As Assembly Republican leader, Johnson condemned the resolution as “divisive.”
Ferguson said Wednesday that he didn’t mind the “no” votes as much as the fact that five of his Orange County colleagues took a walk when he was counting on them for some procedural help in offering rebuttal.
“I asked those closest to me in the county, since I would be totally outnumbered . . . to raise their microphones and when they were called on, to simply say, ‘I would like to ask the author a question. Would you please respond to the last speaker?’ ” he said.
The maneuver, Ferguson said, would have done two things. It would have interrupted opposing comments, allowing him to offer rebuttal. As it was, he had to sit tight while he took a philosophical drubbing.
And it would have allowed him to get a word in edgewise for the television audience. If people tuned in late, they would not hear his remarks until the end, Ferguson said.
The Orange County legislators “could have kept their finger off the (voting) button, but at least they could have assisted me by performing this protocol, which is done all the time,” he said.
As it turned out, five of them did neither.
Perhaps the one with the most to lose was Pringle, who is facing a fierce reelection campaign in his central Orange County district. The 72nd Assembly District includes Little Saigon, the largest concentration of Southeast Asians outside of Vietnam.
Last year, Pringle authored several resolutions aimed at endearing him to this population. They established a Southeast Asia Genocide Remembrance Week, urged the President not to reduce quotas of Asian immigrants, and called upon the federal government to help reunite Amerasian refugees with their families.
And on Tuesday, the rookie legislator was missing during the debate and vote.
His Democratic opponent, Tom Umberg, wasted no time. Umberg immediately faxed press releases blasting Pringle’s absence as an “affront” and a demonstration of “his insensitivity to the rights of minority citizens.”
Assembly records show that Pringle later changed his vote Tuesday to oppose the Ferguson resolution. He said Wednesday that he left the Assembly floor to lobby senators on a bill he has sponsored regarding the Mediterranean fruit fly.
“I was over in the Senate, working my Medfly votes,” Pringle said. “Sometimes you know it will be a long debate, and you have a chance to do some other things too.”
Yet Pringle’s bill was not on the agenda or scheduled for any debate in the Senate on Tuesday. When asked if he could have lobbied the senators at some other time, he said: “There’s 40 of them over there. . . . I’ve talked to them today. I’m talking to them tomorrow.”
Allen, who is Ferguson’s desk mate in the Assembly, said Wednesday that she had a luncheon date with constituents. Even if she had stayed, she would have abstained from voting because of conflicting testimony, she said.
Brown, who is not running for reelection, said he would have abstained as well. “I admit it. I wasn’t informed about it. I wasn’t born during those days and I’m probably not as informed on my California history as I should be.”
Lewis said he was “betwixt and between” on the issue. While he condemns the Japanese internment as a “usurpation of Constitutional rights,” he also decried the way Assembly Democrats used the issue to administer “political payback” to the outspoken Ferguson.
“The easy thing would have been to vote ‘no’ and be one of the crowd and if I had done so, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you right now,” Lewis said.
“I wasn’t happy with the process and I decided to shun it,” he said.