Guest Commentary

Is it any wonder the Legislature can't get anything done when they spend time arguing about prayers?

There is good reason to be cynical about the idea of legislative decorum. Too often, it seems like a way for whomever it is who is holding the gavel to silence the folks who do not. But the truth is that there really is a general spirit of respect and cordiality, though this is often tested and it is not always 100 percent functional. Think of the Legislature as being a little like any other workplace in that things would fall apart completely unless folks at least pretended to get along. One of my colleagues likened the environment to the old Warner Brothers' Sam and Ralph cartoons which portray the sheepdog and the wolf as friendly co-workers who clock in to fight over the flock of sheep with breaks for lunch.

No, it is not perfect, and no, this is not one of those standard-issue laments about how things were so much better during some dimly remembered halcyon time. The Legislature has always had more than its share of petty and small-minded people who make things difficult for everybody else, and there are times that the process works better than others. Nonetheless, at least from this distance, the Legislature appears to be more dysfunctional than ever, and the latest case of incivility occurred last week.

One tradition at the Legislature is that members take turns giving the opening prayer. As well-reported in the Weekly and elsewhere, last week State Representative Juan Mendez (D-Tempe) used his turn to issue a statement of his humanist beliefs which amounted to more or less of a secular prayer. The Representative's statement was remarkably respectful of other's beliefs and seemed calculated to not insult any of his colleagues.

Of course, somebody had to take umbrage. Specifically, Representative Steve Smith (R-Maricopa), reacted by giving a prayer in response, calling for "repentance" for the previous day's prayer, something which could only be interpreted as an attack on Representative Mendez and his beliefs. This should be expected of Smith, a recent transplant from Michigan who seems to be perpetually shocked that Arizona's population includes Mexicans and other people who do not look like him. He took offense not because he was personally targeted by Mendez's remarks, but because the Tempe Democrat had the audacity to say something he did not agree with.

This exchange was largely unprecedented. In my days at the capitol, I would use my time to make Catholic social-justice prayers and, on one occasion, I brought in the late Tohono O'odham spiritual leader Daniel Preston. The always provocative Ben Miranda (D-Phoenix) brought in a local Imam the day our forces invaded Iraq. There was an agnostic legislator who read Buddhist or secular prayers when her turn rolled around. None of these things brought the sort of reaction from the floor that Mendez drew from Smith. At worst, an overtly political prayer from any member, Democratic or Republican, would generate a terse email from leadership asking us to refrain. I talked to some old-timers at the capitol, and they told me that they could not remember anything like this happening before.

The Legislature has rules against insulting one's colleagues on the floor, and by attacking Mendez's beliefs, Smith clearly crossed the line. The sad part is that people have so come to expect this sort of thing from Smith, and a clique of about half a dozen other Republican lawmakers, who, in the words of one capitol insider I talked to, regularly "take a dump on the table," metaphorically speaking, that it is unlikely that this will lead any further. Unfortunately, any official action against Smith would be spun as confirmation that The Man is trying to keep the brother down. The only thing that will stop this sort of jackassery is to create a political culture that does not continue to reward this sort of thing, and this would be a long-term project.

Though Mendez's prayer got some national attention, Smith's reaction seems to have failed to make this a cause célèbre among the right, and the issue has been forgotten as the Legislature continues to debate the governor's Medicaid expansion proposal. That supporters have been targeted with the most absurdly hyperbolic rhetoric and even threats of violence, should come as no surprise given the context. The Legislature increasingly seems like a place where respectful debate is impossible thanks to a relatively small number of unserious people who need to be ostracized and otherwise treated like the grandstanding buffoons that they are.

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