If there's one thing that really infuriates state Sen. Cathie Wright, it's when somebody isn't straight with her.
Wright, 69, a scrapper from the coal country of Pennsylvania, got all worked up recently when the leader of her own Republican Party bounced her from the powerful vice chair position on the Senate Budget Committee.
"This is how Republican men deal with Republican women," responded a furious Wright, the only woman among 15 Republicans in the Senate. "If you're going to stab me, stab me in the front."
It was vintage Cathie Wright--a feisty, quick-tempered, platinum blond bundle of energy who says what she thinks and doesn't much care whom she irritates.
More recently, she called for the resignation of California Youth Authority Director Francisco Alarcon after a sex scandal broke at a Camarillo juvenile prison in her district.
"Francisco Alarcon isn't worth his weight," she said. "The Titanic is sinking and he's moving the deck chairs."
And when Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) confirmed last month that he intends to run for Wright's 19th District seat as term limits force her out next year, Wright blasted her old rival as an extremist who is too conservative for her constituents.
"He's a loner," she said. "And he still has a tendency to pick up issues and do more to politicize them than to accomplish anything."
Neither McClintock nor Alarcon would debate the senator.
But Ross Johnson, the Republican leader in the Senate, dismissed Wright's complaint about her Budget Committee demotion as a rant.
"She's entitled to be a petulant child if she wants," said Johnson, another old Wright adversary. "I just think that Cathie is the kind of person who has to be the center of attention." Wright laughed a big laugh when she heard that.
"Looks like I got under his skin, doesn't it?"
A Long Record of Political Battles
The daughter of an upstairs maid and the town handyman in Old Forge, Pa., Wright has been getting under people's skin ever since she first won a Simi Valley City Council seat in 1978. She perfected the trait while serving 12 years in the Assembly and six more in the state Senate.
"I'm tenacious, I'm irascible, I'm a fighter," she said after throwing a haymaker or two at some of her favorite enemies. "You have to be tough in this business, you can't just sit back and let them roll over you."
A cardboard cutout of an elephant displayed in her Sacramento office sums up her statecraft: "It's Better to Be a Stomper, Than a Stompee."
A list of Wright's fights is as long as her record of public service.
She fought an icy skirmish with another conservative Republican, Rep. Elton Gallegly, when he was still on the Simi Valley council.
He got the mayor's job she wanted in 1980, and he failed to back her when state investigators later probed a developer's questionable campaign gift.
For his part, Gallegly says Wright should have thanked his family when the Galleglys canceled their summer vacation to Hawaii at the last minute to host Wright's fund-raiser during her first Assembly campaign.
"Cathie kind of forgot to say, 'Hey, I appreciate that you did this for me,' " Gallegly said.
"I beg his pardon," Wright responded. "I believe I gave his wife a bouquet of flowers. At least they were supposed to be delivered."
Wright fought with former state Sen. Ed Davis, the onetime Los Angeles police chief, in a bitter factional feud among local Republicans. Would he ever support Wright? Davis was asked in 1992. "Maybe," he replied, "if she was running against a mass murderer. But it would depend on how many people he had killed."
She fought with her own party again when Republicans tried to dump Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1988 and she refused to go along.
She fought with just about every Republican in the Legislature in 1997, when she voted for the Democrat-backed welfare reform bill opposed by Gov. Pete Wilson.
She fought with state Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo) and most local public officials in 1998, when she opposed conversion of the old Camarillo State Hospital into the county's long-awaited Cal State University campus.
"That's the one big glaring disagreement we've had over the direction of Ventura County," O'Connell said.
But Wright is no simple pug with a firm jaw, tart tongue and tough veneer.
By all accounts, she is a seven-day-a-week politician who has given herself completely to her role as a lawmaker. She is accessible, visible and turns up on weekends at parades, ribbon-cuttings and charity events. She is argumentative and opinionated, but true to her word.
She is a right-wing Republican who would ban abortions, loathes gun control, hates motorcycle helmet laws and harbors a strong dislike for rules that get in the way of business, industry and housing subdivisions.
To her, government should be small, and taxes should be low.
Yet, Wright, a Democrat until a midlife conversion in 1976, still generally gets along better with Democratic leaders than with the bosses of her own party.