Portantino Treatment May Soon Seem Tame

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino should stop complaining – and start counting his blessings. He’s lucky he’s not being treated more harshly by his Democratic colleagues than he already is.

Portantino was informed that his office budget would be cut – and that his staff might have to spend a month on unpaid leave in the fall. The assemblyman sees this as punishment for his vote against the budget passed by his own party. In response, legislative Democrats have accused Portantino of mismanaging his office expenses.

I don’t know why Portantino’s being punished. But I know this: his treatment should be considered a warning to present or future Democratic legislators who might stray from the party line.

A very gentle warning.

Because if Portantino thinks this is harsh, imagine how a wayward Democrat might be treated in 2013 if the party wins control of 2/3 of the legislature, as some analysts are now predicting.

A Democrat who voted against a budget – or worse still, a Democrat who bucked the party on a revenue raising measure or a constitutional amendment with a 2/3 vote -would likely find Portantino’s treatment tame. After all, Portantino still has a staff and still has an office. A wayward Democrat who denied his fellow Democrats a two-thirds vote would have neither. Such a Democrat likely would face retribution on every conceivable front – from pressure on donors to vetoing of bills.

There’s a case to be made that such punishment of legislators, while ugly, is necessary. Herding legislators is hard, and it can’t be done with sweet persuasion. And while a lawmaker is always free to vote his or her conscience, that lawmaker isn’t entitled to have that vote be consequence-free.

For his part, Portantino didn’t make a mistake in voting against the budget. But he has made a mistake in complaining about his treatment. It amounts to whining. A better approach would be for Portantino to use the opportunity to make the case for his vote against the budget – and to hold his head proudly and ask of his punishers, "Is that all you got?"

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