A former California governor with his larger-than-life bronze likeness now occupying the basement rotunda, the late President Ronald Reagan is not usually a controversial figure around the Capitol. Every year, a Republican lawmaker introduces a resolution to declare his birthday “Ronald Reagan Day,” and every year, that measure passes unanimously through the Legislature.
Tensions, however, have been bubbling under the surface, and they briefly exploded Thursday as some Senate Democrats mounted a miniature revolt against the annual declaration praising Reagan’s “life serving freedom and advancing the public good.”
“I can remain silent no longer,” said Sen. Mark Leno, the San Francisco Democrat, who rose in objection after having voted for similar resolutions in the past.
Leno criticized Reagan for publicly ignoring the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s as thousands, mostly young gay men, died from the virus: “This is not my definition of advancing the public good.”
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His comments inspired another Bay Area liberal, Loni Hancock of Berkeley, to speak up against Reagan’s presidency “as a time when the nation turned in a profoundly wrong direction,” pointing to economic deregulation, the Iran-Contra affair and the war on drugs.
“In past years, many of us have let this slide. We politely vote yes,” she said. “So I wish actually that we as a body could kind of get past doing this every year, because all it does is embarrass somebody.”
Several Republicans stood to passionately defend Reagan’s record: Jeff Stone of Temecula asked his colleagues to show respect for the man who helped end the Cold War.
Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga praised him for promoting job growth by lowering the top tax rate, and Janet Nguyen of Garden Grove, a Vietnamese refugee, said she would “probably be dead” without Reagan.
But their pleas fell on deaf ears. Six Democrats voted against the resolution – including Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, Connie Leyva of Chino, Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Bill Monning of Carmel – while a handful of others abstained. It ultimately passed with 25 ayes.