The State Worker

California state spokesman and ex-journalist Jim Zamora dies at 57

James Zamora smiles at a friend’s going-away party in August 2015.
James Zamora smiles at a friend’s going-away party in August 2015.

As a reporter, he covered some of the biggest stories for California’s largest newspapers. As a labor spokesman, he represented California’s largest state-employee union. As a public official, he hoped to improve the nation’s largest state civil-service system – even if just a little.

James Herron Zamora, well-known in Sacramento media, union and government circles, died Thursday evening while recovering from a stroke and a severe bacterial infection. He was 57.

Friends, colleagues and former employers recalled Zamora’s talent for finding just the right word for any given task and his devotion to storytelling borne of nearly two decades as a print journalist.

Sacramento Bee Editorial Page Editor Dan Morain recalled this week that even as an intern, Zamora was “as smart and as talented as they come” when the two men worked in the San Francisco bureau for the Los Angeles Times in the late 1980s.

“Jim was a classic,” Morain said. “He was at his best when he was working sources on the street, telling stories of people who were the underdogs.”

Perhaps that came from his own circumstances. Zamora’s nephew, Erik Herron, said that his uncle had a wild streak growing up that got him in trouble.

“He probably lived more by the time he was 25 than most people do in their whole life,” Herron said.

Zamora hitchhiked all over the country and held a series of odd jobs, including construction work in Washington, D.C., near were he had grown up.

It was there, during a job remodeling a newsroom conference area, that Zamora found his calling, his nephew said.

“They called a meeting and asked the guys to stop working for a few minutes,” Herron said. “Jim was there, watching and listening and said to himself, ‘I’m a smart guy. I could do that.’ It was an epiphany, and he realized that he should go to school.”

As a San Francisco State University student, Zamora worked his way through college as a cabdriver, Morain said, “and knew the city as only a cabbie could.”

While an intern for the Los Angeles Times in 1989, Zamora was on a BART train in the Transbay Tube when an earthquake struck. After the train backed out of the tunnel, his nephew said, Zamora exited to find devastation all around. Undaunted, he took out his notebook and began interviewing survivors. He prevailed on a homeowner to use a phone and call in his story.

After graduating, Zamora launched an 18-year career in newspapers as a reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.

At the Times, he was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team that reported on the Los Angeles riots, noting in a 2011 interview, “I hung out with a group of looters and got shot at. Somebody literally less than six feet away fired a gun at me. I don’t know if he was trying to hit me or scare me. I didn’t stay and get that quote.”

He returned to the Bay Area and for 15 years covered some of the region’s grittiest streets as a crime reporter before switching to local government coverage. He once joked with a friend that the first beat prepared him for the second.

Zamora left the news business in 2008, and for the next seven years he served as the spokesman for California’s largest state employee union, SEIU Local 1000. In addition to handling media inquiries, he worked on member communications and trained leaders in the field to deal with the press.

About a year after he signed on, California plunged into an epic budget crisis and commensurate cuts to state services. The governor at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, furloughed state workers up to three days per month. The unpaid time off hit Local 1000 members particularly hard, since the union represents many of the state’s lowest-paid employees.

The policy outraged Zamora, and he regularly pitched stories about how furloughs cost employees their homes and stressed family relationships – the kind of stories he pursued as a journalist.

“Through his words and deeds, Jim left a bright and lasting impression on all of us,” Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker said in a statement. “A real communicator who was never at a loss for words, his voice was too soon silenced.”

Although Zamora was out of journalism, his drive to tell stories and his admiration of storytellers never abated. He attended a creative writing class and sent personal notes to reporters expressing appreciation for stories he particularly admired – even those that might be considered unflattering to his employer.

In 2011, after a debilitating spinal cord infection left him partially paralyzed, Zamora started a blog, “One in a million: dancing with transverse myelitis,” through which he told the story of his rehabilitation.

“I sit in a wheelchair as I write this, praying I will walk again and rethinking what really matters in life,” he wrote on his blog’s homepage. “I plan to lose the wheels, but come along for the ride.”

Last year Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Zamora deputy director of communications for the state’s Department of Human Resources. He planned to focus his communication skills on improving the department’s website and draining job materials of bureaucratic gobbledygook.

The job suited Zamora, his nephew said, because it continued a theme that drove his career, regardless of the profession: “It was about helping people, in this case just helping people get a job.”

Zamora had been hospitalized for several weeks and appeared to be improving, according to a Facebook post by one of his former colleagues.

“As for the stroke, Jim’s verbal skills and cognitive functioning is top notch,” according to the post. “He was verbal (he’s the one who gave me this story to share), and he was using a ton of ‘$5 words.’ 

Then Zamora’s condition suddenly worsened Wednesday night when caregivers found him unresponsive. He remained on life support just long enough for friends and family from as far away as New York to arrive at his bedside, Erik Herron said, and they were with him when he died.

Meanwhile, his boss, CalHR Director Richard Gillihan, expressed grief in a memo to employees.

“Jim was a valued member of (our) team and made significant improvements in our communications program during his time here,” Gillihan’s memo stated. “He will truly be missed.”

Besides his nephew, Zamora is survived by his 15-year-old daughter, Mia, brother Robert Herron and sister Theresa Herron. The family plans a memorial service later this summer, Erik Herron said. The details will be forthcoming.