A lot of well-meaning politicians come through the Legislature, saying all the right things but rarely getting much done of any real substance. Nicholas Petris, a Democrat who represented the East Bay in the Assembly and Senate for 37 years and passed away Wednesday, was not one of those. He was a legislative giant one that our state is unlikely to see again, certainly not with term limits in place.
I was a reporter for a San Francisco TV station when I first saw Petris work his legislative magic. I had produced a series of stories about farmworkers' exposure to pesticides and its impact on their health and that of their unborn children. One farmworker baby I wrote about had been born without legs and arms devastating birth defects that his mother blamed on her exposure to agricultural chemicals while pregnant.
Petris introduced Senate Bill 950, the Birth Defect Prevention Act of 1984, a measure that, among other things, required chemical manufacturers to test their products for their potential health impacts on fetuses. Despite strong initial opposition from farmers, an important constituency that Central Valley Democrats relied upon to stay in office, Petris maneuvered the bill through the Legislature.
He didn't do it with money or intimidation but with intellect and a silver tongue. He was able to persuade farmers, particularly women in agriculture, that their interests did not always align with the chemical companies; that their health along with their workers was at risk. The bill passed and Gov. George Deukmejian signed it. It became a template for tougher pesticide regulation across the country.
Petris also authored the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act that barred the involuntary commitment of people with mental illness. He introduced the first bill to ban smoking in trains, buses and planes and the first that required children weighing less than 40 pounds to be in car seats. He wrote the law that created the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, credited with saving San Francisco Bay from endless fill schemes.
It helped that Petris looked like a senator handsome, tall, silver-haired, eloquent. But it was time in office the 37 years he spent developing a deep understanding of complicated issues, learning the intricacies of parliamentary procedure and building a reputation with his colleagues for intelligence and integrity that made him such an effective lawmaker.
In 1996, when Petris was forced out of office by term limits, his retirement party served as a wake for a bygone era, a time when public-spirited men and women made the Legislature a career. Sure, there were scoundrels and crooks in the Legislature before term limits. But there were principled statesmen, too, such as Nick Petris. The rapid turnover, the constant churning and the endless stream of rookie lawmakers that term limits engender make it extremely difficult I would argue, impossible to raise a new generation of legislative giants like Nick Petris.