Ross Johnson, the fiery conservative and former ironworker who led Republicans in the California Legislature and became a vocal supporter of campaign finance reform, died Wednesday in Sacramento of cancer. He was 77.
Johnson served 26 years in the Legislature representing portions of Orange County. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1978, along with a group of Republicans who became known as “Prop. 13 babies” because of their support that June for the historic property-tax-cutting initiative, Proposition 13. Though the GOP never held majority control in the house in which Johnson served, he was caucus leader to both the Assembly and Senate Republicans during his stints there.
The leadership job sometimes launched him into the role of mediator between fellow conservatives and emerging moderates in the party. It gave him great authority over many legislative matters, particularly the state budget, which then required Republican support to pass each year.
Susie Swatt, an author and former legislative staff member who worked for Johnson his entire legislative career, said he was a passionate policymaker who “always wanted to do the right thing,” and who strived to reach compromise with Democrats.
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“He always disliked the term ‘Prop. 13 baby,’ ” Swatt recalled. “He didn’t think it was reflective. ... He wanted to make sure there was fairness in the tax system for all Californians. He wanted to make sure government operated within its limits.”
Johnson was plain-spoken, with a sharp sense of humor, but not known for backing down from a fight.
During a late-night budget session on the Assembly floor in 1992, he lunged at Republican colleague Chuck Quackenbush because of a disagreement over a school funding matter. Johnson was vocal when Democrat Willie L. Brown, Jr. retained the Assembly speakership despite Republicans winning a majority in 1994. “You’re not going to steal the vote of the people of California in private, behind closed doors,” he said on the Assembly floor.
Swatt said Johnson “was the best person to work for” in the Capitol. “There was a 10-year span in our office when we didn’t hire anybody. No one wanted to leave.”
John Burton, the liberal San Francisco Democrat who led the Democrats in the Senate, said he spent hours talking to Johnson, even though the only thing they agreed on politically was that “the Russian revolution was a Communist plot.”
“He was a man of his word. Unswerving integrity,” Burton said. “We would laugh about stuff. We would joke about stuff. We would read each other’s mind on political stuff. ... They don’t make them like that anymore – in either party.”
He and Burton teamed up on bills to curb the power of law enforcement to seize assets without first gaining criminal convictions, and to block law enforcement from placing tracking devices on people’s cars without warrants.
Johnson was forced out of the Legislature by term limits in 2004. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to head the Fair Political Practices Commission in 2007, Johnson soon suggested Schwarzenegger’s idea to ban fundraising during budget season was impractical and “suspect constitutionally.”
He dismissed perceptions that he would be soft on politicians as “categorically wrong. ... I’m perfectly sincere about this. I was perfectly sincere when I said I was enjoying retirement, didn’t need this job. But I believe in the mission of the Fair Political Practices Commission.”
Indeed, as a legislator, Johnson had a long affinity for political reform and had sponsored a pair of strict campaign finance measures to rein in spending. One, Proposition 40, was defeated in 1984 after opposition from a long list of interest groups. The other, Proposition 73, was approved in 1988 but later was thrown out by the courts.
More than once he chided the commission as timid and slow to act. “You are a political watchdog,” Johnson said when the agency failed to look into allegations before the 2003 gubernatorial recall election. “A watchdog can’t just sit back and watch. From time to time you need to at least bark, and sometimes bite.”
Even though the amount of total fines dropped slightly during Johnson’s first year, he drew praise for enforcing the law against high-profile politicians and calling out loopholes in the state’s campaign finance system.
The agency moved against then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez for lavish campaign spending on gift items and toughened restrictions on legal defense funds. The agency required more political transactions to be available online, including all “political behests,” which politicians solicit from donors to help out their pet charities.
The highest profile battle involved Democratic state Sen. Carole Migden. The agency fined her $350,000 for dozens of campaign violations. Migden sued on an unrelated matter and Johnson’s FPPC counter-sued, alleging a “pattern of deception” in Migden’s spending reports. The aggressive approach sent a message to the Capitol, Bob Stern, author of the Political Reform Act, said at the time, because it showed the agency is “willing to go after a legislator with a big fine.”
Johnson shrugged off tallies that showed total fine collection had dropped. “We should be concentrating on people who just plainly think the law ought not apply to them, that their winning is important enough that ignoring the law is OK,” Johnson said.
Johnson left the FPPC in April 2010, citing health issues, and Schwarzenegger appointed former GOP strategist Dan Schnur to the post in mid-2010.
Johnson was born in the upper Midwest in 1939 because of a quirk – his parents lived in Orange County but had traveled to North Dakota for a visit when Johnson was born. He became an ironworker in Southern California at 16, served in the Navy and later earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fullerton and a law degree from Western State Law.
Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party who succeeded Johnson as Senate GOP leader, said he had lost his mentor.
“He never took political disagreements personally and was admired, respected, and loved by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Brulte said.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Diane, their two daughters, Susan Wilson and Molly Johnson, and seven grandchildren. Services are pending, but the family asks that in lieu of flowers, remembrances be considered for Women’s Empowerment and the SPCA, both in Sacramento.
Johnson opposed the term limits initiative 1990, but was typically straight-forward when the law forced him out of the Legislature in 2004.
“I still think term limits is a dumb idea,” Johnson said at the time, “but I’ve been here long enough.”