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Unmasked: Tempers flare and patience frays as California lawmakers hit viral end of session

Sen. Scott Wilk most memorably exemplified the complications of legislating during a pandemic when he dropped a silent, but clearly lip-legible F-bomb on Friday.
Credit: CalMatters
Sen. Scott Wilk reacts after mouthing the F-word Friday morning during the senate floor session. Image via Senate livestream

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For anyone who has spent the last five months working from home, these teleconference call mishaps ought to sound familiar: 

Your lunch delivery arrives smack in the middle of a presentation, or your dog won’t stop yapping. 

An exasperated colleague drops a muted but unmistakable F-bomb. 

A co-worker mocks a colleague’s comments to his “hon” at home — and is most definitely not muted.

Someone concludes a long speech only to have the moderator curtly remind them, once again, to unmute: “I know you know how to do it because you did it a second ago.”

California Senators: They’re just like us.

They even procrastinate. The Assembly ran out of time to take on some of the year’s more widely anticipated housing and policing legislation. And the testier Senate had a minor meltdown over whether the last bill passed had actually beaten the buzzer — prompting some Republicans to promise a lawsuit.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed workplace culture across the country in ways that are frustrating, embarrassing and occasionally surreal. In the last few days of its lawmaking calendar, the California Legislature was no exception.

A recap of the workplace drama:

Late last week, Santee GOP Sen. Brian Jones tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing 10 out of 11 of his Republican colleagues to self-isolate. In a historic first, they spent the final days of the session casting their “ayes” and “nos” from the other side of a screen.

On Monday night, mere hours before a constitutional deadline to send the session’s last bills to the governor, it hit a crescendo. Sen. Robert Hertzberg, a Democrat from Van Nuys, introduced a resolution to limit debate on all future bills to just two supporters and two opponents. 

Cast from the chamber and now told that their input would be limited, the self-quarantined Republicans staged a remote revolt.

“So you’re just going to shut Republicans out of debate?” said Sen. Melissa Melendez from Temecula. “Not only are you going to kick us out of the chambers for no good reason, but now you’re not going to allow us to debate and speak on behalf of our constituents?”

“Thank you, you’ve asked the question,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, the presiding Democrat, who tried to move on to the Republican minority leader, Sen. Shannon Grove.

“This is bullshit,” said Melendez.

With the broadcast feed now fixed on Grove, the senator from Bakersfield blinked, evidently surprised, before saying, “I have to agree with my colleague Ms. Melendez.” And as the Democrats won the vote, Grove called to her GOP colleagues across the internet: “Make sure you guys get a picture of the screen to see who votes for this so we can get this out there.”

In the chamber, some Democrats felt the Republicans were deliberately slowing down the process with lengthy debate and parliamentary maneuvers. 

Afterwards, Melendez reiterated her observation on Twitter, just in case anyone thought it was a case of a hot mic:

The cussing and sniping notwithstanding, this year has actually been mild by historic standards.

Last year, an anti-vaccination protestor threw a cup of menstrual blood onto the Senate floor turning California’s upper chamber into a potentially biohazardous crime scene. In 2001, a disgruntled food delivery worker drove an 18-wheeler carrying canned milk into the southern steps of the capitol building. 

While less publicly shocking this year, the 2020 end of session was an exceptional one with the state capitol’s procedures, traditions and pomp reshaped to meet the demands of the pandemic. 

Lawmakers bickered over bills, their voices muffled by masks emblazoned with university logos, political slogans and superhero icons. Others had their glasses fog up during impassioned speeches. Absent from the Legislature was the scrum of lobbyists and reporters who typically crowd the capitol corridors. Most are plying their trade safely, if not always as effectively, from home.

Melendez’s outburst was among the most heated of the end of session, but hers wasn’t the only curse word to be streamed into the Senate chamber. 

Sen. Scott Wilk, a Republican from Santa Clarita Valley, most memorably exemplified the complications of legislating during a pandemic when he dropped a silent, but clearly lip-legible F-bomb on Friday.

Struggling with the audio connection on his computer at his Sacramento apartment, Wilk responded the same way that countless Californians likely have when unable to unmute themselves during a work call. The feed was silenced, but everyone in the chamber — and anyone else who might be watching — got the gist. 

Wilk immediately clasped his hand over his mouth, eyes wide. Senators on the floor burst out laughing. Thus was born what may become the most iconic image of the 2020 legislative session. 

Under normal circumstances, an irate lawmaker might whisper an aside to a sympathetic colleague. But after denouncing a bill that would fund health and social services for transgender, nonbinary and intersex people as “depravity,” Sen. Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga evidently did not appreciate being implicitly scolded by Long Beach Democrat Lena Gonzalez, who said that she was “appalled by some of the comments that have been made.”

“You hear that, hon?” he cried to someone off screen, presumably his wife. “She’s appalled — !” 

Sen. Connie Leyva, a Chino Democrat who was presiding over the session, interjected before he could go further. 

“Senator Morrell, just so you know, we can hear everything you’re saying, so be careful.” 

Tension continued to build over the weekend as legislators put in long hours and Senate Republicans continued to chafe at having to legislate from outside the building. On Monday, Santa Barbara Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who has maxed out the number of terms she can serve in the Legislature, found a new way to cause offense. 

She brought in the Republicans voting remotely by saying “We will now go to the backyard.”

“I take issue with that and I find it insulting,” an unamused Melendez shot back.

Jackson, sporting a red wonder woman face mask, said she was “just trying to keep it light.”

Other senators were confronted with other all-too-familiar challenges of working from home.

During Monday’s Senate debate Sen. John Moorlach of Orange County was asking a question when his doorbell rang. “My lunch,” he explained sheepishly, continuing his inquiry.

(For the record: Chicken breast, mashed potatoes, veggies and a salad.)

This was not the first such work-from-home complication for Moorlach, who has been isolating at his Sacramento apartment close to the Capitol. In order to get a strong enough WiFi connection, the senator relocated to the kitchen. But after a distracted television reporter kept remarking on his paper towel dispenser during an interview, he got himself an extension cord and moved to the dining room.

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