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Ferguson Nears End of Battle in Assembly : Politics: Colorful Newport legislator has respect of foes as well as conservatives whose causes he zealously promotes.

August 22, 1994|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — 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.

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