Tom Hayden might have viewed the amateurish events that played out on the Senate floor Thursday as a fitting coda to his time in Sacramento. Undoubtedly, he would have had something to say about it all.
On Thursday, a duly elected senator got removed from the Senate chamber for speaking her mind. Only this time, Republicans in Washington, D.C., weren’t the heavies.
Instead, ham-handed Sacramento Democrats tried to stifle dissent from a Republican, Sen. Janet Nguyen. As happened when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to silence Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren earlier this month, the party in power suffered a public-relations debacle, and the minority party received a PR bonanza.
Nguyen is the first Vietnamese American in the country elected to a state Senate seat. Having escaped with her family from the oppressive Communist regime in Vietnam by boat, Nguyen arrived in the U.S. at age 5 in 1981, settling like so many other Vietnamese refugees in the Orange County city of Garden Grove.
In 1982, Hayden, renowned for his radical anti-Vietnam War activism, won an Assembly seat from Santa Monica. He and Nguyen never met, and come from very different worlds. But the war has not truly ended for many of us, as became apparent once more.
On Tuesday, the Senate took time out for a lengthy memorial for Hayden, who served in the Legislature for 18 years ending in 2000 and died in October. Nguyen could have spoken on Tuesday, but didn’t out of respect to Hayden’s widow, Barbara Williams, who had come to Sacramento for the eulogies.
Instead, on Thursday, an otherwise quiet do-nothing day for the Legislature, Nguyen stood to speak, or tried to. Opening by speaking in Vietnamese and then switching to English, she started talking about the millions of people who died in her homeland, when Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel and a friend of Hayden’s, objected.
She was, it seems, not following Senate rules. Senators are nothing if not sticklers for parliamentary rules, notwithstanding the unfortunate circumstance a few years back when three sitting senators faced various criminal charges.
Sen. Ricardo Lara, the Bell Gardens Democrat who had the tough duty of presiding on Thursday, agreed with Monning, shutting off Nguyen’s microphone. Nevertheless, she persisted, prompting Lara to tell her no fewer than seven times that she was out of order and to take her seat.
His patience having worn thin, Lara told sergeants at arms to remove her from the Senate chambers. With Nguyen gone, Republican senators rose to her defense, citing Democrats’ hypocrisy by pointing out that whenever GOP members try to honor Ronald Reagan, Democrats denounce Reagan.
Democrats, who have visions of unseating Nguyen in 2018, did themselves no favors. The uncomfortable scene of her being escorted out of the chamber was captured on video, which surely will find its way to Nguyen’s campaign commercials. And she was gaining fame with back-to-back television appearances.
Hayden had become used to being a target of Republican attacks. They tried to block him from taking his seat when he was first elected in 1982, denouncing him as a traitor. For Hayden, it was part of the deal.
In his final book, “Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement,” he wrote about the need to remember the awful reality of the war and the power of the anti-war movement that helped end it.
“So much has already escaped memory, and now the time to capture remembrance is rapidly passing. We need to resist the military occupation of our minds,” he wrote.
Our guess is that Hayden, never one to adhere to the rules, would have urged that fellow senators allow Nguyen to speak. And then Hayden would have stood and spoken his mind, loudly.