Gung-Ho Conservative’s Goodby : Legislature: Gil Ferguson, colorful, spirited standard- bearer for the ideological right, is leaving the Assembly. Love him or loathe him, you know where he stands.
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 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 although he is plotting a run next year for the state Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), he’ll likely face tough competition from two Republican colleagues. As the Legislature winds down to its close Wednesday, 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, Gil 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.”
Ferguson has managed to push his share of bills through the Democrat-controlled Legislature, but he will be best remembered for staking out controversial positions that rank-led 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 steer manure at his district office’s front door. Ferguson has irked 1st Amendment buffs by attempting to ban the sale of sexually explicit tabloids from sidewalk news racks.
Yet some of his biggest failures have proved 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.
“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 on the outs these days.
Most of his erstwhile allies declined to talk publicly, but some privately confessed that 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.
“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 state Capitol toting a resume filled with achievements.
As a Marine, he served in three wars, was wounded three times and became a much-decorated combat officer, mustering out as a lieutenant colonel after a quarter-century career. 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.
After winning an underdog victory in 1984, Ferguson didn’t take long to make his mark in the Assembly. In one memorable address his first year, he tearfully blasted Hayden--the Vietnam-era anti-war protester who represents Santa Monica--as a traitor.
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. But it reaped Ferguson other rewards: a mother lode of campaign cash and nationwide attention.
Capitol colleagues also paid heed. A legislative Rambo wielding a microphone like an M-16 automatic, Ferguson earned the nickname “Gilbo” for his deadly rhetoric. “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. “
Hayden wasn’t the only politician to get caught in Ferguson’s line of fire. 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.”
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 U.S. Supreme Court, Republican Party leaders and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
Equivocation isn’t in 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 Ferguson has been 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.”
For his part, Ferguson will always see himself as on the ramparts, leading the charge.
“In the Roman legions, they had men in each company who carried the standard,” he 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.”