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Richard Floyd dies at 80; tough-talking California lawmaker

Richard E. Floyd, a South Bay Democrat with a penchant for salty speech, helped pass a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Colleagues praised him as a man of great integrity.

August 14, 2011|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • South Bay Democrat Richard Floyd, seen in Hawthorne in 1987, was described by reporters as "bellicose," "irascible" and "bombastic."
South Bay Democrat Richard Floyd, seen in Hawthorne in 1987, was described… (Los Angeles Times )

Former state Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd, a tough-talking Democrat with a penchant for salty speech who was best known for championing a bill that requires motorcyclists to wear helmets, died Thursday. He was 80.

Floyd, who represented the South Bay area in the Legislature from 1980 to 1992 and from 1996 to 2000, died at his Sacramento home of complications related to diabetes, said Martha Felix, his companion.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) called Floyd "one of the legendary figures of California politics."

"He was an outspoken — sometimes notoriously so — advocate for those Californians whose voices are not always heard in government," Pérez said in a statement.

When then-Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a version of the helmet bill in 1988, Floyd denounced the Republican as "the most hard-headed s.o.b." in the state Capitol. He later apologized after being threatened with censure.

His passion for the legislation had roots in real life; too many of his friends had been injured while riding without such headgear, he told The Times in 1991, the year Gov. Pete Wilson signed a similar helmet measure into law.

After Floyd's first effort stalled in committee in 1981, he revived the proposal in 1986 at the urging of a Sacramento woman whose son, riding without a helmet, had died in a motorcycle accident.

"The helmet bill was really his singular achievement," said Mark Gladstone, who covered politics for The Times and now works for the state Senate. "He had no problem confronting these bikers who were opposed to it. He sort of reveled in it."

Many lawmakers facing such opposition "would have backed away," then-Assemblyman Richard Katz, a Sylmar Democrat, told The Times in 1991. Floyd was one of the few who, "no matter how vocal or how mobilized the opposition gets, can take the heat."

Floyd, an Army veteran who was wounded during the Korean War, was also a champion of blue-collar workers, organized labor and veterans.

In addition to the helmet bill, Floyd ranked among his top achievements legislation to establish a state Vietnam veterans memorial, dedicated in 1988 on Capitol grounds in Sacramento.

On Saturday John L. Burton, a former state senator who chairs the state Democratic Party, called Floyd "a stand-up guy, an old-school guy, a little bit rough-and-tumble. Unlike a lot of people now, his word was his bond."

Richard Edward Floyd was born Feb. 3, 1931, in Philadelphia, the third of six children of Herbert and Viola Floyd.

His family moved to Long Beach so that his father could receive treatment for World War II wounds. They later moved to what is now Lawndale, where Floyd graduated from high school.

After serving in the military, he turned to politics and took a job in 1966 with Sen. Ralph Dills, a Democrat from Gardena, after stumping for his opponent.

Floyd stayed until 1980, when he was elected to represent the South Bay region in the 53rd District until 1996 and the 55th District from 1996 to 2000.

He was a cigar-smoking, glad-handing politician right out of central casting, according to a 1996 Times article, who "sprinkled his conversation with occasional four-letter words."

Behind his rough-hewn exterior was "a marvelous, wonderful person," said Felix, his companion of seven years.

Reporters used such words as "irascible," "bellicose" and "bombastic" to describe the assemblyman, who delighted in "uninhibited verbal combat."

Yet "the world was better when there were more guys like him," Burton said. "He may not have had a lot of polish but he had a lot of integrity. He said what he meant and meant what he said."

In addition to his companion, Floyd is survived by his daughters, Lorene and Rikki; brothers Herbert and Robert; and sisters Gloria and Ruth.

Services were pending.

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