WARREN FURUTANI LAYS DOWN THE LAW-MAKING FOR LAKEWOOD STUDENTSBy Dave Wielenga
Some Lakewood High School classmates who think there ought to be a law against adults waiting outside public schools and pressing their beliefs upon coming-or-going students are a few real steps closer to getting one.
Their proposal for legal recourse against anyone who “willfully disturbs any public school, any public school activity or any public school meeting” has been prepared by California’s legislative counsel, given an identification number—Assembly Bill 1174 (AB1174)—and introduced by 55th district Assembly member Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach). Next up is a presumably perfunctory pass through the Rules Committee en route to the Policy Committee.
“You should all take a moment and pat one another on the back,” said Wendy Salaya, who teaches Lakewood High’s seniors-only, legislative-advocacy class called Civic Voice. She was grinning proudly as 19 of her students waited for Furutani in the school library Friday morning to plot their next moves in the legislative process.
When the 63-year-old Assembly member arrived 10 minutes later, he congratulated the students, too—briefly. But Furutani’s compliments were tempered with a serious advisory: more work awaits, and whatever time the students spend reflecting upon how far they’ve come decreases the likelihood that their proposal will get where they want it to go—that is, into California’s Education Code.
The Civic Voice project took root last September, when Salaya encouraged discussion among her diverse students so as to find an issue and a perspective that tended to unite them. They discovered a shared sense of unfairness in the continuing opportunism of proselytizing adults who try to spread their message by standing on the public sidewalk outside schools and intercepting children who are helpless to avoid their advances. They say they are weary of fending off the Bibles periodically forced upon them by the Gideon Society, appalled by the hate that was spewed last spring by the Westboro Baptist Church during a chaotic demonstration outside Wilson High and concerned that the children following them through the school system may face much worse.
Furutani joined the Civic Voice project in December when the class mailed requests for help to local members of the state legislature and he was the first to respond.
His participation is appropriate: Lakewood High is located within the sweeping boundaries of the 55th district, and his long history of involvement in public education is epitomized by his terms as president of both the Los Angeles Board of Education and the Community College Board of Trustees.
Hooking up with Civic Voice is politically astute, too. A a goodwill gesture like this can generate momentum toward wherever he may want to go next … that is, unless anybody can come up with a down side to a grandfatherly elected official escorting his constituents’ kids—kids who are about to reach voting age, themselves—on up-close guided tour of the governmental process.
Hmmm … well, you know … maybe somebody can find a downside: how about the nagging suspicion that this is all a show, a cynical parlay of heartwarming sappiness to achieve self-serving expedience? Hey, good one!
Of course, raising doubts about motives—the politician’s and, what the hell, let’s include the teacher’s and her students’, too—is also an old one. In fact, Furutani’s up-close guided tour features maneuvers like that so unflinchingly that it sometimes feels too close for comfort.
“Because you are high school students, your bill will probably generate some excitement and may capture the imagination of the media,” Furutani said early in Friday’s meeting in the school library. “But others may question your sincerity: Is this for real? What are these high school kids doing? Is that Lakewood High School teacher just trying to get a big field trip? What is Furutani trying to pull?”
The assembly member paused to allow the students to consider those disturbing challenges to their integrity. When he resumed speaking again, it was not to suggest answers. Instead, Furutani redirected the students’ attention to lawmaking’s most-important question of all.
“Who’s got a vote? That’s what counts,” he asserted with a facts-of-life shrug. “Those other questions are important only to the extent that our answers will help us secure the votes of committee members that will get our bill to the floor.”
The crash course in legislative process that Furutani is giving to the Lakewood High students has been free of patronizing tone and condescending language. That’s good. But it hasn’t spent much time paying idealistic tribute to the innate goodness of our form of government. That’s … surprising?
“Every once in awhile I walk into the Capitol Building in Sacramento and go, “Damn! I work here!” Furutani told the students with a rare gust of amazement. “I mean, it’s a pretty impressive building.”
It’s not as though a guy with 40-some years of experience and involvement in education and public service doesn’t appreciate the system that has allowed him to have an impact on the world. But he is clearly more focused on mastering how that system works—and then working it. The view of government he is presenting to Lakewood High students is a real-world contest that the participants play very, very hard.
But even as these revelations drain the highfalutin romance from the lawmaking process, they also infuse it with a straightforward, street-level energy. Suddenly, what has often looked like a can’t-beat-the-system collection of arcane traditions, twisted principles and always-a-catches now seems more accessible, interesting—and navigable, with proper and diligent preparation.
“We are here today to learn and consider two things—our strategy and our tactics,” Furutani told the students Friday. “We need to build support for this bill and we have to figure out the best ways to use that support to influence committee members.”
As an example, he cited Assembly member Julia Brownley, who chairs the Education Committee.
“We’ve got to get to her early in the process,” Furutani said. “But to most-effectively seek someone’s vote it is important to know their background and areas of interest. Julia Brownley happens to be a former school board member for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, and someone who might also be described as a liberal. Our contact will probably begin on a staff-to-staff level, but I’m also going to talk to her member-to-member.”
Meanwhile, the students are focusing on assembling support—they’re targeting PTAs, the teachers union, school administration organizations, student groups and planning letter-writing campaigns and petition drives—as well as raising money for the trip they hope to take to Sacramento to personally lobby legislators and testify at hearings.
“We’re going to do a press conference on the steps of the Capitol Building that will hopefully get a buzz going about this bill,” Furutani said. “Everything we do, it’s all a part of showing legislators the support we have, trying to make it easier for them to become part of that support, too.”