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May 27, 2014
Dan Morain: John Vasconcellos offers wisdom for today's legislators

John_Vasconcellos.JPG(May 27 - By Dan Morain, Editorial Page Editor)

John Vasconcellos was not one to scare easily, as Don Novey found in 1992 when the prison officers union he led spent what for the time was a huge sum of money to unseat Vasco.

"We knew he was going to win. That was a given," Novey said. But Novey had multiple reasons for what he did.

"I made 119 other friends," Novey said, a reference to the remaining California legislators who witnessed what might befall them if they crossed the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

If Vasconcellos wavered in his positions on issues - prisons, welfare, weed, self-esteem, whatever - it wasn't evident to me or to the people who knew him best. Today's legislators, the ones who think they have a future, think they risk their careers if they cross any of the dozens of interest groups that do business in the Capitol.

Vasconcellos, who died Saturday at age 82, termed out of the Legislature a decade ago. No one filled his shoes.

He was the smartest guy in almost any room, and a numbers and policy wonk who presided for 15 years over the state budget, the most complicated legislation of any year. He was the father of California Peace Day, not one his lasting legacies.

He was a Brown Democrat, Pat Brown, that is, having started out in 1960 as an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown's dad. Vasco was elected to the Assembly in 1967 from the Silicon Valley, back when it was known for its prune orchards.

When I first got to know him in 1993, he had a poster on his Capitol office spelling out the dictionary definition of idealist. He was a nonconformist and a liberal, and a curmudgeon who flipped off a Republican who had annoyed him on the Assembly floor during an especially acrimonious time in 1995.

Assemblywoman Paula Boland complained that when she asked that he apologize, he replied: "You got what you deserved."

Most politicians are blow-dried, sharply creased and silver-tongued. Vasco was shaggy, rumpled and mumbled unintelligibly.

He fought for tax credits for low-income renters, increased welfare payments and more money for public schools.

He also understood who brought him to the Sacramento dance, becoming an early proponent of the research and development tax credit, which is California's largest corporate tax break, $2.2 billion a year. Silicon Valley companies are the beneficiaries.

Vasconcellos was an unabashed supporter of providing clean hypodermic needles to junkies to stop the spread of HIV, and he is the architect of what could loosely be called a regulatory scheme for medical marijuana, the bill numbered SB 420.

And of course, he was the touchy-feeling legislator who in 1986 persuaded not-warm-or-fuzzy Gov. George Deukmejian to sign legislation creating the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem, Personal and Social Responsibility.

Garry Trudeau lampooned the self-esteem commission as yet more California lunacy in his "Doonesbury" comic strips, though the high concept went mainstream, an endless source of pride for Vasco.

In 1990, he signed a ballot argument opposing a 1990 prison construction bond. In the 1992 election, Novey decided to make him an example by directing, by my count, $90,000 in union money to help elect a little known opponent, Tim Jeffries.

The amount isn't much by 2014 standards. Vasco won easily. But politicians took notice. The tactic since has become a common part of politics. Interest groups spend five- and six-figure sums to elect politicians who will do their bidding, and unelect politicians who cross them.

Vasco told me that he became "more precise" in his criticism of the prison system, although I didn't notice. He'd regularly denounce state spending on prisons, on prisoner officers' overtime and tough-on-crime bills that added to prison population but did nothing for rehabilitation.

In time, Vasco and Novey, who since retired, reached an understanding. "In John's eyes, there was no dark side. Everything was rainbows," Novey told me Tuesday. "I tried to explain to him there are bad people in the world."

In later years, when he would return from Maui, Vasco on occasion would get in touch with me and offer ideas about how the Legislature could again become a more functional place. I listened to him more than once.

The place has changed.

In Vasco's day, before term limits took hold, politicians knew their districts and voters knew them. Some people might deride that as becoming entrenched. But the good ones - and Vasconcellos was one of the best - used their incumbency to gain freedom from the interests that have come to control Sacramento.

That has been lost and won't be returning any time soon.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.