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The Riggs Report: How political heroes are made

​March 2, 2017

Last week’s ejection of Sen. Janet Nguyen gives her new status

Sometimes, rules are made to be broken.

Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Orange County, knew that she was in violation of Senate policy last Thursday when she attempted to offer remarks critical of the late Sen. Tom Hayden and his storied opposition to the Vietnam War—that was no surprise.

It should have also come as no surprise to Senate Democrats that Nguyen’s forcible removal from the floor by security officers would be a PR disaster for them, and a PR bonanza for the Republicans.

The removal stunned onlookers and outraged the normally mild-mannered Jean Fuller, the Senate Republican leader. It made the Democrats look heavy-handed, raising questions about their political judgement. Yes, they enforced the rules, and did it by pulling Nguyen, a woman and Vietnamese native, out of the chamber in full view of Senate TV cameras.

That video footage is a gift for Republican political operatives looking to next year’s mid-term elections. It also made Nguyen a political celebrity at last weekend’s state Republican Party Convention in Sacramento, winning her points as someone willing to challenge the system.

The issue also raised questions about the majority party’s commitment to free speech.

Those political consequences were entirely predictable, especially for anyone who’s been around the Capitol for more than a few years. It’s no secret that rebellion from within the system can quickly win popular support.

In 2008, then-state Controller John Chiang, now the state treasurer, found himself in a very public fight with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over state worker pay.

Chiang refused to go along with the governor’s controversial order to slash the pay of workers to the federal minimum wage level in order to deal with a budget crisis.

Chiang said at the time that Schwarzenegger “is just trying to make me do something that’s improper and illegal.”

Let’s face it: the state controller, typically, is not a well-known public figure. But Chiang’s defiance on behalf of state workers made him a sudden political celebrity that summer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It gave the Democrats political ammunition to use against the governor.

Chiang’s skirmish was over a legal disagreement on fiscal policy, a move that won the gratitude of state workers.

Nguyen’s conflict was about her unwillingness to stay silent in the face of established rules of order, rooted in still-simmering emotions about the Vietnam War.

But the end result was that both raised their profiles and their political prospects.

Despite the promise of an investigation, last week’s controversy has not been put to rest.

Nguyen offered this response in a written statement:

“I hope that never again, a sitting senator will go through the trauma of being forcibly removed from the Senate floor,”