Ferguson Nears End of Battle in Assembly : Politics: Colorful Newport legislator has respect of foes as well as conservatives whose causes he zealously promotes.
In the political jungle of Sacramento, some state lawmakers duck for cover when the going gets tough. Then there’s Gil Ferguson.
During a decade in the Assembly, the Republican from Newport Beach has consistently performed in the same gung-ho, damn-the-odds manner he employed as a combat-tested U.S. Marine.
Be it taking on archfoe Tom Hayden or pushing a resolution justifying the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Ferguson has demonstrated a ready zeal to wave the conservative flag and charge uphill against the Democrat enemy--sometimes with only a few GOP foot soldiers behind him.
But now such battles beneath the Capitol dome could be coming to an end. Ferguson, 71, is retiring from the Assembly this month, and though he is plotting a run next year for the state Senate seat being vacated by Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), he’ll likely face tough competition from two Republican Assembly colleagues. As the Legislature winds down to its Aug. 31 close of session, these could be Ferguson’s final days.
His departure would leave Sacramento bereft of one of its most loquacious and colorful orators, a veritable foghorn for the ideological right. Ultra-opinionated, forthright almost to a fault, Ferguson has been drubbed by a legion of critics who have called him a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, anti-environment and anti-government.
Love him or loathe him, Ferguson is no standard-issue lawmaker.
“Gil says what he thinks,” Assemblyman Bill Jones (R-Fresno) said. “I don’t agree with him all the time, but you always know where he stands.”
Even die-hard liberal opponents concede a grudging respect for a man they consider one of the Capitol’s true characters.
“Fergie is Fergie,” said Assemblyman John Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco, which Ferguson calls “Sodom and Gomorrah” during floor debates. “He’s got his own point of view and he has fun sometimes with his hyperbole.
“It’s too late in life to change him.”
Rankling the Liberals
Ferguson has managed to push his share of bills through the Democrat-controlled Legislature, including one that established a Caltrans office in Orange County, several aiding war veterans and another that tightened child pornography laws.
But he will be best remembered for staking out controversial positions that rankled liberals and for going down to a series of flaming defeats.
There was his proposal to castrate repeat rapists, which never got out of committee. His effort to block free condom distribution to teen-agers angered AIDS activists, who dumped 140 pounds of manure at his district office’s front door.
Ferguson has also made a career of attempting to ban the sale of sexually explicit tabloids from sidewalk news racks. That idea has repeatedly been squelched by lawmakers claiming it would violate First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
Yet some of his biggest failures have proven prophetic. Ferguson takes credit for proposing the state’s first term-limits law. It lasted, he recalls, just 35 seconds in its first committee hearing before lawmakers voted it down. But the idea was picked up for a state ballot measure and became law in 1990.
Ferguson’s brand of politics clearly has appealed to his constituents. Voters in his coastal district, one of the wealthiest and most Republican in the nation, have routinely reelected him by large margins.
“He has a basic floor he lives on, things he absolutely believes in, and he stands by them,” observed Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), Ferguson’s closest ally. “There are very few people around here who are willing to stand up and voice their principles the way Gil Ferguson has at the risk of being called racist and anti-this or anti-that.”
But some fellow Orange County Republicans act as though they’ll be glad to see Ferguson go. Although he was once part of the inner circle of conservatives known during the 1980s as the “cavemen,” Ferguson is left out of key political decision-making These days.
Most of his erstwhile buddies declined to talk publicly, but some privately confessed they have grown to consider Ferguson a bit of a blowhard, braggart and back-room bully--a nuisance who rubs cohorts the wrong way during leadership battles and the election season.
With characteristic bluster, Ferguson consigns the infighting to the ash heap of political history. He came to Sacramento as an iconoclast, and that’s the way he’ll go out, he said.
“They’ve got an agenda, and I don’t fit that agenda,” Ferguson said. “A lot of their waking time is spent strategizing about power, how to gain more power. My time is spent with the issues of the day and trying to do what we can to move things back toward ideological Republicanism.”
Ferguson arrived in the Capitol carrying a resume filled with achievements.
As a Marine, he served in three wars, was wounded three times and became a much-decorated combat officer. Ferguson was hit by shrapnel from a hand grenade on the tiny island of Tarawa during a World War II battle that proved to be the bloodiest in Marine Corps history. He rose through the ranks during Korea and Vietnam, mustering out as a lieutenant colonel after a career that lasted a quarter-century.
He moved on to private enterprise, first as an executive with the Irvine Co., then running a firm with his wife, Anita, that developed luxury homes. The building company was a success, then faltered during the real estate slowdown, but has since recovered.
Along the way, Ferguson, a USC graduate, wrote a book about his experiences on Tarawa, dabbled in oil painting and maintained a power boat, which he docks near his Balboa Island home and uses for deep-sea fishing.
Ferguson first attracted the attention of Orange County conservatives during the early 1980s with a coalition he formed to push for better protection of property rights. With the help of conservative lawmakers, he mounted an underdog campaign for Assembly in 1984 against the son of powerful Capitol lobbyist Dennis Carpenter, a former state senator from Orange County, and eked out a victory.
It didn’t take long for Ferguson to make his mark. With his dapper suits and his jocular manner, Ferguson evokes the image of anyone’s favorite uncle--until he stands to deliver a speech.
In one memorable address during his freshman year, Ferguson tearfully blasted Hayden--the Vietnam-era anti-war protester who represents the liberal bastion of Santa Monica--as a traitor because Hayden had visited Hanoi during the conflict.
It was the beginning of what would become a cause for Ferguson. Egged on by veterans groups, he pushed the Legislature to dump Hayden from office. Like many of his quixotic quests, the anti-Hayden campaign proved unsuccessful on the floor. But it reaped Ferguson other rewards: a mother lode of campaign cash and nationwide attention.
Hayden and Ferguson haven’t spoken since. But after the attack on Hayden, Capitol colleagues paid heed when Ferguson stood to speak. A legislative Rambo wielding a microphone like an M-16 automatic, Ferguson earned the nickname “Gilbo” for the deadly rhetoric he fired at Assembly Democrats.
“Even that nickname didn’t do him justice,” recalled Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run), a Ferguson admirer. “When he first arrived, Gil didn’t hit town--he attacked it. He doesn’t have that ramrod posture for nothing.”
Hayden wasn’t the only politician to get caught in Ferguson’s line of fire. From the beginning, the assemblyman pursued causes blatantly inimical to those in the legislative business.
In 1992, he sponsored an unsuccessful bill to put state lawmakers in the top tax bracket, reasoning that legislators should endure the burden of a new tax bracket they had imposed on the wealthiest Californians. More recently, he championed legislation that would have required lawmakers to resign from one political office before running for another.
“What I found when I arrived was men and women who had been here for decades,” Ferguson said. “They were more interested in their power than they were the people’s business. After 20 years, some of them 30 years, they think this building is theirs and they think this government is theirs.”
Ferguson has also shown a penchant for taking on populist causes. He battled mightily against the new state law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Closer to home, Ferguson has thrown his support behind elderly mobile home park residents and has stood up to the Orange County tollway agency on behalf of angry Newport Beach motorists.
A prolific letter writer, Ferguson also has become well known for his poison pen, dashing off caustic missives to the high and mighty across the land. In 1990, he bashed George Bush for breaking a vow not to raise taxes. Other letters have unloaded on the chief justice of the United States, Republican Party leaders and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
Equivocation isn’t in Gil Ferguson’s dictionary, and sometimes it causes trouble. He once wrote a letter to a San Diego newspaper blasting then-Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) for opposing a Ferguson bill. Peace confronted him in a Capitol hallway, and the pair had a shouting match that remains legendary in Sacramento.
In another episode in 1990, Ferguson called a group of gay-rights activists “faggots” after they picketed a speech he was delivering. He later said he did not realize the word was derogatory.
Hayden, the assemblyman’s chief target, said that Ferguson has been virtually ineffective as a legislator. “He’s attacked civil rights, affirmative action, gay rights, Hayden, environmentalists, and it must be frustrating for him, because as far as I can see, he hasn’t gotten anywhere,” Hayden said. “He’s just kind of made his point.”
Despite his rigid conservative views, Ferguson has occasionally proved unpredictable. Last week, for instance, he broke ranks with many Republicans by supporting a Democrat’s bill to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
A veteran abortion foe, Ferguson has received campaign support from Operation Rescue and sponsored a bill to prevent police from using pain compliance techniques on protesters.
But after the drubbing Republicans enduring during the 1992 presidential elections, Ferguson declared it was time for his party to stop dividing itself over futile battles such as abortion and gay rights. The stand shocked anti-abortion stalwarts and outraged many Republicans, who called him disloyal.
Because of this episode, among others, a gulf has opened in recent years between Ferguson and the rest of the Orange County delegation.
The rift can be attributed in large part to the anomaly of Orange County politics. Because Democrats are largely irrelevant in the region, the fiercest fights occur in GOP primaries, and bitter feelings can linger between the combatants.
In 1990, Ferguson lost a close special election for a Senate seat to then-Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), who was convicted this year on political corruption charges. Most of the Orange County delegation backed Hill or remained neutral, irking Ferguson.
In 1991, his colleagues were stung when Ferguson agreed to become Assembly GOP caucus chairman under Jones, a moderate who had helped dump Orange County Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) from the Republican leader’s chair.
But the situation really turned nasty when Ferguson and his onetime buddies backed opposing candidates in the 73rd Assembly District primary in 1992. The same thing happened again this year in the primary to choose Ferguson’s replacement.
Present-day political niceties also play a part in the feud. Most of the Orange County legislators are allied with Johnson, who is expected to move into Ferguson’s district to challenge for the Senate seat.
Ferguson’s critics complain that he isn’t a team player.
“He always looked down on the younger members of the Legislature,” said one opponent. “Because he was a decorated officer, he always felt he should be the one calling the shots.”
But what Ferguson’s Orange County brethren view as disloyalty, some call independence.
“A lot of his Orange County colleagues are legislators as a chosen career,” Statham said. “They’re terribly interested in political ladder-climbing. That’s not Gil’s motivation. He’s not going to sit around with them and plot and scheme.”
For his part, Ferguson will always see himself as on the ramparts, leading the charge, waving the flag.
“In the Roman legions, they had men in each company who carried the standard,” the lawmaker said. “He’d rush among the enemy to plant it in the ground. All the other men would fight toward the standard to rescue him. That was his job. I view that as my job.”
Gil Ferguson: A Profile
Gil Ferguson, Republican assemblyman from Newport Beach representing the 70th District, is retiring from the Assembly.
* Born: April 22, 1923
* Family: Wife, Anita; four grown children
* Background: Retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, developer, public relations, and friend and fraternity brother at USC of the late Rep. Phil Burton, a liberal Democrat from San Francisco.
* First elected: 1984
* Reelection record: Winner four times by wide margins
* Best-known effort: Tried on behalf of veterans to oust Tom Hayden from Legislature because of Hayden’s anti-war activities
* In the Legislature: Prolific floor orator for conservative causes. Often sponsors legislation that reflects his conservative ideology--and is quickly killed in Democrat-dominated Assembly.
* Assembly Committees: Revenue and Taxation, Housing and Community Development, Banking and Finance.
How he voted on various issues ranked by special interest groups, on a scale of 100% to 0% (or grade of A to F) unless otherwise noted: California Chamber of Commerce: 100% California Labor Federation: 5% California League of Conservation Voters: 11% California NOW (National Organization for Women): 47% Planned Parenthood: 25% California Pro Life Council: 100% California Abortion Rights Action League: Anti-choice California Teachers Assn.: Incomplete Children Now: 50% California Journal (ranked of 80 Assembly members): 77th overall Sources: California Assembly and Times staff reports