California’s political elite, including Gov. Jerry Brown, turned out in mass Wednesday at the State Capitol to honor the late former State Sen. John Vasconcellos.
Brown noted that his long association with Vasconcellos, a fellow Democrat, was often difficult, because of their different philosophies. “John always believed people were born good,” Brown said. “I have a darker view.”
Indeed, that difference was the major divide between Vasconcellos and the current governor. Both men grew up in Jesuit households and were influenced greatly by Jerry’s father, Gov. Pat Brown. Vasconcellos served as traveling secretary to the elder Brown.
The entire day focused on how Vasconcellos—who served 38 years in the California state legislature—prodded, cajoled and often admonished former governors, fellow colleagues and even committee witnesses. He pleaded with them to do more for those who had less. As a former state majority leader noted, he was “the conscience of the legislature.”
Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, a former Vasconcellos staffer who at last count looks to become the next state controller, gave the most poignant eulogy. She noted that Vasconcellos trusted his staff and charged them to “do the right thing.” Vasconcellos, Yee said, was the most transparent person she ever knew. He wore his emotions on his sleeve.
Vasconcellos’ good friend and former colleague, Art Torres, served as master of ceremonies. Former titans of government, including past Speaker Willie Brown, Majority Leader John Burton and former fellow legislators Debra Bowe, Richard Katz, Dede Alpert and Mark Leno, all spoke of their friend. Santa Clara County representatives who were influenced by Vasconcellos,—senators Jerry Hill and Jim Beall and Assemblyman Rich Gordon—were also in attendance.
Willie Brown noted that Santa Clara County had more influence on the budget than any other area when Vasconcellos was chair of the powerful Ways and Means committee and the late Al Alquist served as senate chair of the Finance Committee. Truth be told, had Vasconcellos not interceded for Brown during his contentious fight to become speaker, Willie Brown would never have been elected.
Willie Brown also talked about how Vasconcellos nominated him from the floor at the beginning of every term he served as speaker of the Assembly. The always impeccably attired former Speaker also commented on Vasconcellos personal choice of wardrobe, which drew laughs from the knowing audience.
Vasconcellos preferred comfortable—if not always matching—outfits rather than the rigid uniform of a suit and tie. In his later years, he preferred Hawaiian shirts representing his beloved Maui, usually accompanied by swim trunks of a loud nature. But Vasconcellos’ largest legacy is the number of people who served and worked with him over the years. Like Yee, many continue to serve in various state government departments or make contributions elsewhere.
Staff members Geoff Long and Danny Alvarez spoke of their personal connection with Vasconcellos. The two represented many staff members who filled the back of the Senate chamber to honor their departed leader. Vasconcellos was a champion for those who wished to make a difference in government and he gave his employees wide latitude to accomplish his and their goals.
One staff member privately recounted the story of when he hired her to serve on the 21 Century Committee, which the visionary Vasconcellos created in the 20th century. She asked him what he wanted her to accomplish.
“End racism,” he replied.
The staffer took in the magnitude of the goal and simply said, “OK.”
Vasconcellos wanted to end racism and sexism. He strove to create positive, more inspiring politics. He believed, as one speaker noted, “in the individual. He was really a libertarian.”
Government, he felt, is an institution that should empower individuals, not oppress the disadvantaged—especially the poor. His staff, over 38 years, reflected that philosophy. They are a collection of diverse individuals, given an opportunity by Vasconcellos to achieve great things. In the final analysis, Gov. Brown was right. Vasconcellos believed strongly that people at their core are good.
He often quoted his own mentor, famed psychologist Carl Rogers, who said, “We human beings are innately inclined toward becoming life-affirming, constructive, responsible and trustworthy.” That was John Vasconcellos.
His legacy lives on with those who worked with him, loved him and were inspired by him. We are the ones who will carry on the work he began. Those he touched will long serve the interests of his beloved California and beyond.
A local celebration of John Vasconcellos’ life will be held at Mission Santa Clara on the Santa Clara University Campus at 9am June 21. Attire is Hawaiian Formal, but your clothing need not match.
A video of the State Capitol memorial can be seen here.