John Vasconcellos, California’s longest continuously serving lawmaker who represented the Silicon Valley for 38 years, died over the weekend.
The retired lawmaker went home under hospice care on Friday after being hospitalized for weeks. He succumbed to kidney failure at around 12:15pm Saturday in his Santa Clara condo. He was 82.
Vasconcellos, a Democrat who termed out of office in 2004, left behind “a legacy in which he was thought of as both groundbreaking and goofy,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote upon his retirement from the Legislature in 2004. “Known mostly for championing issues like self-esteem and medical marijuana, Vasconcellos wore Hawaiian leis on the floor of the Senate and drove convertibles in the rain.”
He was also known for his brilliant intellect and disarming candor.
The San Jose native made a name for himself when he authored legislation that formed The California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. In 1987, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian signed the bill creating the commission, kicking off a media frenzy that brought ridicule to Vasconcellos but also national attention to his cause. Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau turned “self-esteem” into a punchline, “a code phrase for a peculiarly Californian kind of craziness,” writes the LA Times.
His idealism, a belief in the inherent goodness of people, motivated him to create the commission, the article continues. Vasconcellos believed that low self-esteem led to crime, addiction, teen pregnancy and other social ills.
“[O]ur our society should get serious about understanding the root causes of violence,” he told San Jose Inside during a 2009 interview, adding that the value of self-esteem had “proven to be all we thought it was and more.”
That search for an antidote to society’s troubles was coupled with a personal philosophy that led him through a lifelong journey to become a more complete person and politician. He was unusually candid about his struggles with anger and anxiety, feelings he said were rooted in rage against his emotionally distant father.
“Almost from the day of his 1966 election to the state Assembly, Vasconcellos was a thunderous Capitol presence,” David E. Early writes for the Mercury News. “He was always searching for ways to salve his tempestuous inner demons.”
He was also a skilled budget strategist, an advocate for public schools and “a deal-maker who employed an intriguing amalgam of New Age pontificating and old-fashioned horse trading,” the LA Times states. Though he disdained Sacramento as “a cesspool of cynicism,” he held powerful positions during his 30 years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate, a tenure he credited to the help of “good staff, good friends, and good therapists, in varying proportion.”
“In many ways, John Vasconcellos acted as the social conscience of the California Legislature for nearly 40 years,” says Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), who considered Vasconcellos a mentor. “He was an outspoken advocate for children and the disadvantaged. He was a warrior for social justice.”
Vasconcellos was born on May 11, 1932, in San Jose. He graduated at the top of the class from Bellarmine College Preparatory and went on to Santa Clara University (SCU), where he became valedictorian and class president.
After serving the U.S. Army in Germany as a lieutenant, he returned home to earn a law degree, again at SCU. It was during a yearlong stint as campaign aid for Gov. Pat Brown that Vasconcellos fell in love with politics.
In 1966, when he became a state Assemblyman, he was considered “too liberal by some, yet too conservative by other Democrats—probably because he wasn’t really sure who or what he was himself,” his official biography states.
Politically, he became known for introducing legislation well outside of the mainstream. To Vasconcellos, the ’60s didn’t just come and go.
“[The decade] planted seeds of identity and diversity,” he told the SF Chronicle 10 years ago, “there is a growing number of people who are looking for an alternative politics, one that reflects the humanistic values they hold and the culture they share that has yet to be recognized by mainstream politics.”
After retiring from elected office, Vasconcellos launched the Politics of Trust, a civic engagement project to advance his vision for politics.
“His work was grounded in the belief that California’s prosperity was inextricably tied to the promise that everyone must have an equal opportunity to grasp success,” Beall says. “Making that ideal a reality was reflected in his legislation. He was one of a kind and I will always be proud to point out that John Vasconcellos was from San Jose.’’