Capitol Alert: John Vasconcellos remembered for his 'politics of trust'

ccadelago@sacbee.comJune 11, 2014 

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. and and former Sen. Art Torres remember their colleague, former Sen. John Vasconcellos, as they look at a photograph of him following a memorial service at the State Capitol Wednesday.

THE SACRAMENTO BEE/PAUL KITAGAKI JR.

Former California lawmaker John Vasconcellos, who spent decades championing humanity, much of it from the powerful perch overseeing billions of dollars in state spending, was remembered by friends and colleagues as a fierce revolutionary of ideas and the social conscience of the Legislature.

The face of the Silicon Valley in the Legislature from 1966 to 2004, Vasconcellos pushed for groundbreaking proposals in early childhood education, medical marijuana and self-esteem. His passing late last month was marked in a well-attended ceremony Wednesday in the state Senate chambers.

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said he was not alone in feeling that he was never liberal enough for Vasconcellos. But it didn't take Brown long to discover Vasconcellos would be key to his leadership of the lower house.

"I knew I could never be deemed a reformer," Brown said. "But I could always have John to speak for me in that area, particularly if I explained to John how he could do some damage to all of us if he took the reform too far."

All 16 times Brown was up for the speakership, he said, it was Vasconcellos who nominated him.

Vasconcellos began in state government working for then-Gov. Pat Brown as his travel secretary. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown said he later questioned Vasconcellos about whether people really needed more self-esteem, or less.

Brown said he and Vasconcellos were imprinted, or perhaps scarred, by their Jesuit education and Catholic upbringing. He described him as a "different, but kindred spirit."

"John believed that everybody was good and I couldn't get out of my mind that there was something like Original Sin. That people really weren't that good," Brown said.

Vasconcellos spent years as chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee, and Brown credited him with having a deep understanding of the state budget.

"He was a person who had a drive and a belief and a respect that I think is sorely needed in our particular age of politics that is not built on self-esteem or many of the values that John Vasconcellos (lived) for," Brown said. "Maybe some day when we get rid of term limits we'll have those characters again."

Former Senate leader John Burton, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, said it was amusing to look back and muse about how Vasconcellos was initially considered a moderate before morphing into a liberal firebrand.

"Was it pot, was it LSD, or was it just a natural progression?" Burton asked. "We leave that to others to think about."

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Secretary of State Debra Bowen remembered Vasconcellos' flurry of emails landing in the inboxes of his large network of friends.

Leno described his membership in the email tree as "a blessing and a curse." Just to keep up with the 10 to 15 emails a day took time and effort, he said. Bowen said she filed the all-caps missives in a separate file folder called "Vasco World."

"He would lay out his 20-point plan to fix the Legislature with 'the politics of trust,'" she said. "And then he would send it off to everyone for comment."

Former Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata recalled the pained look of Vasconcellos when he told Perata he couldn't support him for the post of Senate leader. Vasconcellos believed it was time for a woman and person of color to lead the body, Perata said.

Perata relayed to him that he understood. "I said 'John, you are who you are, and I knew that before you got here,'" Perata said.

But he said the conversation had a lasting impact.

"You have to think that a guy like John Vasconcellos served 38 years in constant turmoil within his soul because he was so good that having to encounter some of the politics of division, some of the hatred seen in our business, was very, very difficult for him.

"No one will walk again in the path that John chose."

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