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The Floor Fight

The tobacco and medical interests could control when AB 816 would be heard in the Legislature. ALA anticipated they would schedule the hearing just before the summer recess, when Legislators were eager to return home and unlikely to think much about proposals before them. The voluntary health agencies, knowing they lacked the clout to stop even a four-fifths vote in the Assembly, decided to concentrate their efforts on stopping the bill in the Senate. Miller believed that the core of liberal Democratic senators who truly cared about the issue would be tobacco control's best—indeed only—chance against the allied tobacco and medical interests.[3]

Isenberg took up AB 816 in the Assembly on the day before the summer break, describing the bill as a routine fiscal bill necessary to balance the budget and fund important health programs. Few members bothered to read the bill, only a handful abstained, and the measure passed out of the Assembly with the necessary four-fifths vote.

About two o'clock that same afternoon, Senator Mike Thompson (D-Santa Rosa) took up the bill in the Senate without ceremony—and it was immediately defeated. Thompson could not even achieve a majority, to say nothing of a four-fifths vote. The bill failed by a vote of 18-12. Thompson was dumbfounded, and he immediately left the floor to notify AB 816's sponsors and author.[3] The tobacco and medical interests and county governments were galvanized into action, and the next four hours saw a dramatic legislative conflict.

The three voluntary health agencies, public health officers, public schools, and the independent universities had stunned the multi-billion-dollar tobacco and medical industries in a remarkable upset. Watching the defeat on television in Senator Diane Watson's office, the dozen or so Proposition 99 proponents could not believe their own success. Minutes after the defeat of the bill, the Democrats withdrew from the floor for a closed caucus. Watson returned to her office and warned the celebrating tobacco control advocates that they could not relax; they were about to witness the full fury of the medical providers, the tobacco industry, and local governments.[3]

Back in session, the Senate violated its own procedural rules, granting


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AB 816 immediate “reconsideration” and another vote. More than fifty lobbyists spread through the Capitol building with promises or threats or demands of support from the senators. On the floor, a passionate debate was underway, pitching the interests of the ill and enfeebled against the obligation of the Legislature to honor the will of the voters.

In a remarkable political event, Governor Wilson left his office (which is also located in the Capitol building) and met with Senator Marion Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), a conscientious Mormon and the only Republican determined to resist the tobacco-medical coalition. This incident was the first and only time during his tenure that Governor Pete Wilson left his office to influence a vote on the floor of the Senate. Senate Republican minority leader Ken Maddy demanded that every member of the Republican caucus support AB 816 and refused to permit any Republican to exit the caucus without a commitment. The speaker of the Assembly, Willie Brown, appeared on the Senate floor with Phil Isenberg and pressured senators to vote for AB 816. Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, moved from desk to desk demanding Democratic votes for AB 816. For three hours, the contest continued as other business was carried out on the floor. Slowly, gradually, inevitably, the governor, legislative leadership, and county and medical lobbyists moved vote after vote. A core group including Senators Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), and Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland) refused to compromise. With only one necessary vote remaining, Lockyer and Maddy threatened to fly in Senator Bill Craven (R-San Diego), who was seriously ill with lung disease, to conclude the contest, and a last holdout conceded, giving AB 816 the necessary four-fifths vote.


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