Capitol Alert

Cancer claims Greg Schmidt, California Senate’s top staffer for 18 years

Greg Schmidt, inside the Capitol, Aug. 14, 2008.
Greg Schmidt, inside the Capitol, Aug. 14, 2008. Sacramento Bee File

Greg Schmidt, the state Senate’s chief administrator for 18 years, died Wednesday night after what friends described as a brief battle with cancer. He was 69.

Schmidt was a career legislative staffer, mostly as a top aide to his long-time friend, Bill Lockyer, during the latter’s legislative career. Both had been aides to East Bay legislator Bob Crown, whom Lockyer succeeded in 1973.

Lockyer became president pro tem of the Senate in 1994, and two years later named Schmidt as the Senate’s secretary, which made him its manager of everything from the processing of bills to the allocation of office space.

“It was like being the parish priest in a village where everyone thought they were God,” Schmidt’s brother, Paul, recalls him saying about his job.

Lockyer remembers Schmidt not only as a friend, but as a talented artist with “a wonderful sense of irony” and a passion for Russian history who would often draw caricatures of those attending legislative hearings. He also, Lockyer said, was someone with “a very deep belief in the democratic institution and wanted it to be an effective policymaker.”

“He was sensitive to the politics of the place but wanted the professional work to be non-partisan,” Lockyer said. “He was sensitive to politicians but I don’t think he admired very many of them.”

Three subsequent presidents pro tem, John Burton, Don Perata and Darrell Steinberg, retained Schmidt after Lockyer was forced out of the Legislature by term limits and went on to become attorney general and state treasurer. Schmidt retired when the current president pro tem, Kevin de León, took over in 2014.

“Great sense of humor, guy was totally at peace with being himself,” Burton said. “He made the Senate function like an oiled piece of machinery (and) it’s a loss to the Senate, loss to the state.”

“Greg lived an extraordinary life of public service that witnessed, shepherded and safeguarded 18 years of California legislative history at the helm of the California state Senate,” Steinberg said in statement. “He was custodian of both the Senate’s rich traditions and history, on whom its staff, members, and reporters would lean heavily for counsel. He was a mentor, unselfishly committed to ministering a Senate family of thousands during his remarkable tenure. And he was a guardian of the Senate’s honor, who served with compassion, discretion, and an unwavering resolve to champion the constitutional principles of the legislature and democratic governance.”

In a tribute on the Senate floor, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said Schmidt often acted as a sounding board for overwhelmed staff. As a freshman senator, de León himself recalled escaping to Schmidt’s office to “glean some of his sage wisdom and ask him questions.”

“Obviously, he was a man who knew where all the bodies were buried,” de León recalled, fondly. “He probably buried himself many bodies in this building.”

“Greg was instrumental in guiding the Senate as the institution’s nonpartisan moral conscience, pastoral leader to staff and legislators, and an uncompromising conservator of the legislative and democratic process,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is the Senate president, said in a statement.

Schmidt retired amid turmoil in the Senate over allegations of nepotism in filling legislative staff jobs. His son, daughter-in-law and nephew had obtained jobs, and several relatives of another top Senate official had also been placed on its payroll.

Schmidt was born in Oakland and earned a degree from Santa Clara University before joining the Legislature’s staff. He later obtained a master’s degree from UC Berkeley.

Schmidt’s wife, Charlotte, preceded him in death. The couple had four children, sons Jeffrey, John and Thomas, and daughter Korina Tanner. Schmidt’s long-time companion, Cathleen Gardella, cared for him until his death. Brothers Paul and Brendan also survive.

Services are pending.

Anshu Siripurapu of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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