Sen. Jerry Hill slowed his black Tesla to a stop at the intersection of Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue.
He pointed to the sidewalk in front of a dirt lot.
“Thirty-eight homes destroyed,” Hill said. “Eight people died.”
Two years into his first term in the Assembly, a PG&E pipeline burst and ignited a fireball that blazed through this residential neighborhood in Hill’s district. The names of the victims sit in a frame on his desk in the Capitol.
Investigations blamed PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission for the disaster. The polite and seemingly mild-mannered San Mateo Democrat became angry and inspired.
“You get mad and you want to make change,” said Hill, 70. “I found that’s what motivates me.”
The model has proved successful for Hill, who has had more bills signed into law (108) than anyone else now serving in the California Legislature.
The state’s DUI offenders have interlock ignition devices in their cars largely because Hill’s best friend was killed by a drunk driver.
He’s responsible for an extra surcharge on bills that water hogs will have to pay during future droughts.
It’s harder for prom-bound teenagers to get drunk on party buses after Hill passed a law opening up drivers to liability.
Gas pipelines in California’s most densely populated neighborhoods have remote-controlled shut-off valves thanks to Hill – one of 35 bills related to utility safety he’s introduced since the San Bruno blast.
“He’s both tenacious and courageous,” said Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León. “He’s not afraid to take on big causes. His motto is ‘leave no bill behind.’ He will be in his crypt and his arm will be reaching out from the ground to try to rescue one of his bills.”
De León called Hill the “Grizzly Adams” of the Senate in reference to his thick beard. He’s also the Legislature’s resident magician, a black belt and a licensed pilot.
Hill’s list of bills this year follows his legislative style.
A father to one daughter, Hill introduced SB 273 prohibiting marriage for anyone under 18 after hearing about a 12-year-old girl whose parents arranged for her to marry to a 28-year-old man. His colleagues pushed back on an all-out ban, and he amended the bill to require more rigorous judicial screening of under-18 brides and grooms.
SB 65 attempts to crack down on driving under the influence of marijuana. SB 711 reins in wild cost fluctuations on utility bills.
“The first thing they tell you when you get here is don’t get married to your bills,” Hill said. “I get married to every one of them. If I didn’t, I couldn’t argue for them or lobby for them. If I don’t care, it’s hard to be passionate about it.”
He’s used his life experience in other ways. Hill’s 1989 book, titled “Divorced Father: Coping with Problems, Creating Solutions,” was prompted by his divorce with his second wife. He’s been married four times and has two granddaughters.
Hill has plenty of personal financial stability, which he said allows him to push his own legislative agenda. He doesn’t need to pander to interest groups to line up work after he leaves the Legislature. “I feel that it offers a lot of freedom,” he said.
He took over his family’s pool cleaning business, Hill’s Pool Service, in 1978 and expanded it to include construction, remodeling and repair services. The company now serves roughly 1,100 clients, many of which are hotels, apartment complexes or community centers.
He and his wife, Sky, own a large home in the posh San Mateo Park neighborhood; a townhouse on Garden Highway on the Sacramento River; and four rental properties. She owns two spas in San Mateo and Redwood City.
Hill got his first taste of politics in the late 1980s as president of the San Mateo Park Neighborhood Association and led a campaign against a developer’s plan to split a lot. He ultimately prevailed, he said, but not before San Mateo’s then business-friendly city council grilled him and questioned his authority to speak on behalf of residents in public meetings. It ticked him off, so he decided to run for a seat on the council in 1991. He won again.
He left the council in 1998 when he was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the Assembly in 2008 and moved on to the Senate in 2012.
A Democrat who turned Republican and then Democrat again, Hill’s opponents in the Assembly race criticized him for flipping between parties.
Hill explains that he was originally a Democrat in the 1960s at Berkeley and switched parties to vote for moderate Republican Pete McCloskey in the primary for the 11th district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1967. He re-registered as a Democrat in 2003 because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempt to capitalize on his fame to recall Gov. Gray Davis just didn’t sit right with him.
Claire Mack, a stalwart Democrat, won a seat on the City Council the same year as Hill. The two started as foes walking on the opposite side of the San Mateo streets during the election.
Mack says she and Hill were almost always on the same side on issues during their tenure on the council.
“Long before he made the change, I used to say, ‘Look you’re not a Republican,’” Mack said. “He was into women’s issues. He just came at it differently.”
Hill’s popularity among constituents became evident during a recent “Java with Jerry” town hall at the San Bruno Senior Center.
His icebreaker joke: The next town hall would be dubbed “Joints with Jerry.”
He took questions for nearly two hours. Will the Legislature increase funding for health care for the disabled? The political will isn’t there. What’s the deal with red light cameras? It’s a law enforcement money-making tactic with too high fines. Single-payer health insurance? He supports it but doesn’t see it going anywhere this year.
Hill was re-elected in November with 76 percent of the vote in his district. He’s termed out in 2020, when he’ll be 73. He said he doesn’t know what’s next.