SACRAMENTO — Accusing him of using tactics from the Spanish Inquisition, the Assembly's leading Republican publicly upbraided Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana) Thursday for "harassing" Assembly Republicans during budget negotiations.
Robbins, in an unusual speech to the full Senate minutes later, accused Ross Johnson of La Habra of making anti-Semitic remarks to him and said that such "absolutely disgusting conduct by the leader of Assembly Republicans is not in the realm of something that can be excused or tolerated by a member of our society."
Robbins drew immediate support from Sen. Alfred Alquist (D-San Jose), chairman of the joint Assembly-Senate budget conference committee, who deplored Johnson's conduct as "totally unacceptable."
Johnson then hurried into the Senate chamber and denied to reporters that he made any anti-Semitic statements. "That's nonsense, utter nonsense," he said.
Johnson said he had made a "joking" reference to "Sen. Torquemada" as he strode into the conference committee to complain about Robbins' rough treatment of Assembly Republicans who appeared before the committee to plead for funding for their pet projects. Tomas de Torquemada was the grand inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition.
Robbins, who is Jewish, said the reference was anti-Semitic because it was Torquemada who played a key role in expelling Jews from Spain in the 15th Century.
A Second Reference
"Maybe, senator," Johnson said during the committee session, "I should have referred to Sammy Glick." Glick was a character in Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel, "What Makes Sammy Run," who was portrayed as a ruthless movie mogul who was Jewish.
As Johnson entered the Senate chamber, he was surrounded by both Republicans and Democrats, some of whom moments before had hugged and embraced an emotional Robbins. Johnson said he came to "confront" Robbins directly, but Robbins apparently had departed.
About 90 minutes later, Johnson issued a statement to the press and called Robbins a "bully who had intimidated our (Republican) members unmercifully all day." But he insisted, "If I inadvertently said anything that could be misinterpreted in that manner, I most sincerely apologize and would unhesitatingly apologize to Sen. Robbins."
An angry Johnson said he decided to face Robbins in the conference committee after he heard that the senator had been accusing Republicans of engaging in a conspiracy several weeks ago to block a Robbins insurance bill.
Robbins complained that the Republicans used parliamentary procedures to kill the bill that would have imposed stiff fines on insurance companies that tried to escape provisions of Proposition 103 by mass cancellations of California policyholders. The initiative, approved by the voters in November, requires insurers to reduce rates.
"You can't expect to participate in that type of conspiracy and expect to come here and have this particular conferee be receptive . . . to your request," Robbins told one Assembly Republican.
The Republicans denied there had been any conspiracy. Johnson said the bill had been voted down twice in the Assembly and Republicans saw no need to bring it up a third time.
"I admire your tenacity," he told Robbins, "but I don't admire at all your harassing individual members of my caucus. . . just because they voted against a bill that you authored."
Even before the exchange between Robbins and Johnson, the decorous proceedings of the six-member conference committee had turned into a donnybrook when Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) threatened to block funding for rural parks. She said that since suburban and rural legislators are pushing legislation to take school funding away from inner-city school districts, it would only be fair to do the same thing with their park money.
She made the remarks as Assemblywoman Marian La Follette (R-Northridge) argued for funding to acquire parkland in the Santa Susanna Mountains.
"(But) many of your constituents enjoy these mountains," La Follette protested.
"You don't know what my constituents enjoy," Waters snapped. "Every time you want some more money for the mountains, you say that. . . . You would like to think that, but let me tell you, they don't."
The conferees are expected to take at least a week to negotiate a compromise on the state's $50-billion budget.