Thursday, May 15, 2008

Speaker of the Assembly

Somehow, I received an invitation to the swearing-in ceremony of Karen Bass, speaker-elect of the California Assembly. Sure, I live in Bass’s district, am a lifelong Democrat and contribute regularly to the party, but I still haven’t figured out why I was invited. Nevertheless, I was very aware of the historical significance of Bass’s appointment—not only is she the first African-American woman to be named speaker of the state Assembly, she’s also the only African-American woman ever to lead a state legislative body anywhere in the U.S. I was already scheduled to be in Sacramento that morning, so I called the capitol and accepted the invitation.

When I arrived at the airport, everyone at the gate was happily hugging and kissing. “This is the Karen Bass plane!” someone shouted. Indeed, it seemed like everyone from the 47th Assembly district was flying up for the ceremony. The founders of the New Frontier Club, the oldest and largest African-American Democratic organization in the state, were there, as was state senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is running for L.A. county supervisor. A young man who’s working with Bass on the Obama campaign looked wide-eyed and rather overwhelmed by the commotion whirling around him. I stood on the waiting line next to Mrs. Lee Welinsky, secretary of the Culver City Democratic Club. With so many Democrats on the plane, I knew we’d have a safe flight and so tuned into my iPod and took a nap, even though people were noisily celebrating.

The swearing-in ceremony started at noon. Not knowing what to expect, I headed over to the capitol a few minutes early. The place was a mob scene with dignitaries and school kids clogging the hallways. I asked a security guard where I needed to check-in and was directed to an area on the other side of the building.

“You’ll be in viewing room 4203, on the fourth floor,” the woman at the registration desk said as she handed me a ticket to get into the event.

I was disappointed to be relegated to watching the ceremony via closed-circuit TV, but changed my tune when I arrived at the room and saw it was almost filled to capacity! I showed my ticket and was given a program.

Although not as magnificent as the Assembly chambers, room 4203, named in honor of former state legislator and Congressmember John L. Burton, was still very beautiful with its wood-panelled walls and ceiling-high mural depicting California’s history. A large flat-screen television was set-up at the front of the room in addition to the two smaller TVs on the side. I sat behind a woman who talked about staging a peaceful demonstration demanding more funding for Alzheimer’s research.

At noon the TV screens switched from an outside shot of the capitol to inside the Assembly chambers. The caption noted that this was a “floor session.” People in the viewing room began to settle down. Then, after about eight minutes of watching attendees greet each other, someone yelled, “There she is!” as we all spontaneously leapt to our feet and started to clap. Karen Bass had entered the Assembly chambers. It felt like we were right there with her even though we were half-a-building away.

Speaker Fabián Núñez led the festivities by recognizing “special guests” in the audience. Several people on my end gasped and yelled “OH NO!” when he introduced esteemed actress Alfre Woodard as “Alfred.” Núñez then began naming all the various politicos present. Judging by the reaction in room 4203, former speaker Willie Brown was the most popular man at the event. Governor Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, received only a smattering of applause.

We could feel the excitement of the moment through the TV. We stood for the invocation and pledge of allegiance and cheered our favorite speakers. Three legislators spoke of the speaker-elect’s good deeds and Ms. Woodard recited a poem, “Ego Tripping,” by Nikki Giovanni—all while Bass looked on from the back of the Assembly chambers. I almost cried when the governor mentioned Bass’s 23-year-old daughter who had died in a car crash two years ago.

Then came time for the escort committee, made-up of former speakers Brown, Robert Monagan, Cruz Bustamante, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Herb Wesson, Jr., to accompany Karen Bass to the podium. Her stepdaughter Yvette carried the Bible on which the oath was administered. Afterwards, the new speaker admonished her colleagues to unite in responding to “the current economic crisis the way we would a natural disaster." She also announced that she has asked former governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis to head a commission to examine California’s antiquated tax structure. The viewers in room 4203 clapped their approval. She ended by asking the Assembly to “get back to work!”

I returned to my office across the street and got back to work of my own, moved by the historic event I had just witnessed. Although the plane ride home was far more subdued than the morning, people nonetheless remained joyous as they reflected on the significance of the day. I could almost hear the unasked question on everyone’s lips: is this a sign of what’s to come this November if Barack Obama is indeed nominated?

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