John Vasconcellos, longtime California lawmaker who championed self-esteem, dies at 82

05/24/2014 8:23 PM

10/08/2014 11:58 AM

Former California lawmaker John Vasconcellos, who advanced groundbreaking measures on subjects ranging from human development to medicinal marijuana during nearly 38 years in the Legislature, died Saturday.

The Santa Clara Democrat combined mastery of state fiscal details and policy with outside-the-box interest in early childhood education, self-esteem and other subjects that occasionally made him an object of national ridicule.

Former lawmaker John Burton on Saturday called Vasconcellos a “man of great heart, great intellect and great compassion.”

“John wore his compassion on his sleeve,” Burton said, describing Vasconcellos as the Legislature’s “conscience on the budget” and other issues.

Vasconcellos, who lived part time in Hawaii since leaving the Legislature in 2004, had been in a San Jose hospital in recent weeks with kidney problems. He regularly spoke with well-wishers and left the hospital Friday for hospice care, dying less than a day later. He was 82.

Former state Sen. Art Torres said Vasconcellos “was like a big brother” to him and his family. “I’m heartbroken,” Torres said Saturday shortly after learning of Vasconcellos’ death.

Vasconcellos, an Army veteran, got his start in state government in the early 1960s when he worked for Gov. Pat Brown. He successfully ran for the Assembly in 1966, where he spent the next 30 years before term limits led him to run for the state Senate.

For almost half his Assembly tenure, Vasconcellos led the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which at the time oversaw billions of dollars in state spending and complex programs in a mostly pre-computer era. That wasn’t a problem for Vasconcellos, former chief of staff Sue North said Saturday.

“In those days, he was the computer,” she said. “The more complex the subject, the more interacting the parts, John was the go-to guy.”

The committed liberal carried legislation on a range of issues, many of which had never been the subject of legislative interest.

Among the measures was the first bill to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, which were blamed for depleting the ozone layer, in aerosol cans. Vasconcellos, who had no children, pushed legislation to expand child care through the public university system, change education policy and allow midwives to practice. He was an early legislative champion of the growing computer industry in his Silicon Valley district.

Away from budget appropriations and program caseloads, Vasconcellos became deeply interested in human development and worked with some of the leading experts on the subject.

In the late 1980s, Vasconcellos carried legislation to establish a state commission to promote self-esteem and Gov. George Deukmejian, a conservative Republican, signed it. People around the country, including the cartoon “Doonesbury,” mocked the panel – the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility – as new-age folly.

Vasconcellos defended the commission, and its $750,000 budget, as worthwhile if it kept even a few people out of expensive prison cells, reduced teenage pregnancies or prevented other problems.

“Self-esteem might well be the vaccine for these social ills,” Vasconcellos said at the panel’s first meeting in 1987. “I’m sitting here just feeling that something wonderful is happening.”

It wasn’t the last time that a Vasconcellos idea became the subject of national satire. Years later, “The Daily Show” derided Vasconcellos legislation to allow 14-year-olds to vote.

Yet colleagues said Vasconcellos was ahead of his time on many issues. He pushed a proposal allowing UC San Diego to acquire marijuana for research purposes, despite deep skepticism from law enforcement. California voters later became the first to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Recent polls in California and elsewhere show strong support for legalizing recreational use, as well.

“This is the latest, best, most objective clarifying research,” Vasconcellos said in 2010, after researchers concluded that marijuana provides relief for some neuropathic pain. “That ought to solve the issue.”

Vasconcellos could be sharply critical of other politicians, including fellow Democrats. After Gov. Gray Davis vetoed his 2003 bill to legalize the sale of syringes without a prescription as a way to reduce the spread of AIDS and other diseases, Vasconcellos said, “People are going to die because of Gray Davis.”

The following year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – whose election in the unruly 2003 recall vote prompted Vasconcellos to briefly consider quitting – signed the syringes bill.

Vasconcellos flirted with a run for governor in 1998 but never sought statewide office. After leaving the Legislature, he helped start the Politics of Trust, a group dedicated to fostering “a new politics, based on our highest aspirations and a new, healing vision.”

Sometimes gruff, Vasconcellos inspired intense loyalty among those who worked for him. Dozens of staff alumni are spread among government and public-policy organizations in California and elsewhere. Many kept in touch with the senator as his health declined and shared the news of his death Saturday.

Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, a candidate for state controller, worked for Vasconcellos when he led Ways and Means. “Difficult day for many, myself included,” Yee said.

As Vasconcellos’ legislative career came to a close in 2004, his staff boxed up decades of his papers for the state’s archives as well as a special archives at UC Santa Barbara devoted to human-development issues. On Saturday, North recalled it as “just an amazing amalgamation of policy work.”

“People point to the ‘Doonesbury’ side of things,” North said. “But what you don’t see in the Legislature these days are people who can hold all these different things together and push the ball down the field.”

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