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A hardy-hard job: Left with little legislative power, Democrats use humor to express discontent

Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, gestures during an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. Gallardo and some of his Senate Democratic colleagues occasionally use humor to lampoon bills they dislike, but have no power to stop. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, gestures during an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. Gallardo and some of his Senate Democratic colleagues occasionally use humor to lampoon bills they dislike, but have no power to stop. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Knowing he couldn’t stop the Legislature from adopting an immigration-related resolution that he believed greatly exaggerated the violence on the Arizona-Mexico border, Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo chose to satirize the Republican-sponsored measure instead.

Gallardo offered a floor amendment to replace portions of the proposal characterizing the Southern border as an extremely dangerous place with a declaration that lawmakers have now decided to “stop stirring the pot and turning up the heat on people’s emotions and fear levels.”

Another time, the Phoenix Democrat asked colleagues to change a bill aimed at allowing the state to build and maintain a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border on private property. He proposed to alter the bill to say that the governor could not start planning or begin construction on the fence until $1.5 billion was raised through private donations.

The underlying proposal allows Arizona to develop a mechanism to raise money through private donations for the construction and the maintenance of the border fence. Gallardo’s amendment was meant to highlight his point that it’s unlikely enough money can be raised through private funds to not only build, but also maintain a border fence.

The Republican-led Senate, as expected, rejected his amendments.

But the proposals functioned as an opportunity for Gallardo to press his points. In the process, he also elicited chuckles from colleagues.

It wasn’t the first or the last time that Gallardo and his Democratic colleagues would employ a joke to make a point.

Lacking the numbers to block Republican-backed legislation, Democratic legislators have turned to humor and sarcasm to call attention to GOP-backed measures Democrats see as “ridiculous.”

Gallardo, author of most of the amendments that poke fun at Republican-sponsored legislation, said at least six majority members would have to join the nine Senate Democrats to block legislation. In most cases, the chances of that happening are quite remote.

“One of the best tools that I can see in terms of trying to combat some of the legislation is humor,” Gallardo said.

Political scientists say when political humor is interjected into legislative activity, some of it is a reflection of frustration.

After last year’s election, Democrats’ power in the Senate evaporated, as their caucus shrunk from 12 members to nine members, putting them in a “super minority.”

Practically speaking, Republicans don’t need Democratic support in order to advance major legislation. They can even afford to lose some Republican support and still have enough votes to pass a bill.

What’s really causing Democrats a lot of heartburn is the success thus far of a slew of extremely conservative measures that would have been defeated in prior years, including proposals that seek to defy the federal government.

Democrats have been largely helpless to stop the measures, which they say ignore the fact that Arizona is part of a union and that the bills are pre-empted by federal law and would likely be struck down if litigated.

“We have a Democrat minority in the Legislature that is increasingly limited in what they can accomplish,” said Professor Fred Solop, chairman of the political science department at Northern Arizona University. “They’re registering their frustration with the political process. They’re trying to capture attention. They’re trying to encapsulate a position within a humorous moment. So, it’s a way of promoting their interest given their inability to promote it in other ways.”

Southern Arizona-based political consultant David Higuera, who has worked with Democratic candidates, said minority members have to employ whatever tool is available to try and get their dissent heard.

Both Higuera and Solop agree that political humor, when done right, can be very effective in cutting through the noise and getting a message across.

For example, an amendment by Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, would allow Pima County to “secede” from Arizona if Republicans were successful in passing a bill that would have allowed the state to choose which federal laws to follow.

Aboud said it was a “tongue-in-cheek” move that was her way of trying to separate from the “fringe element” in the Legislature.

Recently, Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend a resolution that expressed support for Wisconsin’s governor in his fight against labor unions to say that only Republican lawmakers are backing it. Some Republicans caught on to the joke, saying if that’s the case, the measure should be renamed “SCRR” — meaning Senate Concurrent Republican Resolution.

Arizona, in fact, has a rich tradition of employing political humor.

U.S. Sen. John McCain’s sometimes self-deprecating humor is well known. But another Arizonan’s wit and impeccable timing was also legendary.

During his 1976 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mo Udall delighted audiences with a story about how he had introduced himself and what office he was running for during a stop in New Hampshire, only to be told, “We were just laughing about that yesterday.”

There are, of course, best practices in effectively using humor as a political weapon.

Typically, the most effective jokes are self-deprecating, which humanize politicians and disarm opponents.

It must also be clear to audiences that a statement is meant as a joke. If it’s not perceived as humor, it exposes the teller to myriad risks.

“It’s only funny when people know you are joking,” said political consultant Constantin Querard, who helped many Republican lawmakers at the Capitol get elected.

Querard said politicians should be cautious when employing humor. People assume they are doing serious work at the Capitol and introducing a bunch of “goofy” amendments may be perceived as mocking the legislative process and may blow back, he said.

“Another problem is that people don’t necessarily understand it’s a joke two years and four years later (during re-election campaigns),” Querard said.

Those politicians could find themselves spending most of their campaign time trying to defend the joke because opponents are treating it as a serious endeavor, he said.

That’s why Querard feels that the proper place for political humor is in media releases and press conferences or when making a speech before a crowd — not in legislation.

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