SACRAMENTO - Assemblywoman Sally Lieber has tackled some controversial issues in her time, writing bills to raise the minimum wage and relieve prison overcrowding. Then she proposed a ban on spanking and sparked a real debate.
The Mountain View Democrat has surged to mini-celebrity status in the few days since the Times and other MediaNews outlets published a story on her idea to ban spanking of young children. The "Today" show, "Early Show," "Good Morning America," "Bill O'Reilly" -- all are clamoring for an interview with Lieber.
The 45-year-old lawmaker has succeeded in generating huge publicity for her cause -- and stirring a national conversation not only about child discipline but also about the role of government in general.
"I think we've hit upon an issue," Lieber said, in perhaps the understatement of the year.
The issue is simple: Lieber wants to make spanking children age 3 and younger a misdemeanor. Offenders could face as much as a year in jail or as much as a $1,000 fine, though first-time violators would probably only have to attend parenting classes.
Lieber has yet to introduce a bill, but the description of her idea in an article this week triggered a hailstorm of reaction -- most of it negative, some of it viciously personal. The story has elicited active online feedback and readers' comments. Some defended spanking; many others said the government has no business telling them how to raise their children.
"Unreal," "absurd" and "idiotic" were some of the gentler adjectives that readers used.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fed the spanking frenzy Thursday when, responding to questions from the MediaNews Sacramento Bureau, he said he "got smacked about everything" as a child in Austria but has never hit his own children. Schwarzenegger had doubts about how a spanking ban would be enforced but said Lieber's idea seems well-intentioned.
On Friday afternoon, Lieber was holed up in her office in Mountain View after returning from an interview with CNN. A crew from "Good Morning America" was camped out in her lobby for hours, waiting to get her on camera. "I'm under siege," Lieber said, only half joking.
Much of the media coverage of her bill has been snide or dismissive -- with a decided "there go those California kooks again" tone. Still, Lieber said her proposal is getting the kind of public hearing she could have only dreamed of.
"The volume tells me this issue is very ingrained in society," she said. "People are very wedded to the ability to physically punish children, but almost across the board say they don't do it." Actually, dozens of readers defended the use of an occasional spank to keep children in line.
Barbara O'Connor, who studies the interplay of politics and the media, said Lieber may be misreading the tidal wave of reaction.
"It's the kind of bill that comes up in every session of the Legislature that feeds the perception that governmental representatives are clueless," said O'Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State. "People don't want government telling them how to raise their family."
And it's the kind of story the media love, she said, because it's easy to explain and provokes a visceral response.
"It's something everyone has an opinion about," O'Connor said. "It's water cooler conversation."
Some reader comments have personally assailed the assemblywoman. Seizing on the fact that Lieber has a cat but no children, one person called her "the cat lady" and another a "spinster" who's ignorant about child rearing.
Lieber said she wasn't bothered by the insults. "I'd rather be called a few names," she said, "than know there are children out there being beaten who are defenseless."
And she has no intention of backing down, even though the issue has become all-consuming. Lieber said she began fielding media calls at 7 a.m. Friday, and her chief of staff said he was so busy answering the phone that he didn't have time to shower.
"In a sense I kind of feel like, 'Hey, is this the biggest issue we ought to be dealing with?'" Lieber said. "But then again, children of a very young age shouldn't be beaten, so this is a fundamental issue."
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