Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Exiting politics, Bill Lockyer ponders what might have been

Bill Lockyer has been one of the most driven, flawed and incredibly talented politicians of our time.

He announced Monday that after 40 years in state politics, he won't run for yet another office, state controller. That's not a shock. It would have been a step down for a guy who had been state Senate leader, attorney general and treasurer.

Not that I have blinders on, but I take his stated reason - he wants to do something else - at face value. I also see value in looking back at the part of his career I knew best, his tenure as Senate president pro tem.

Fueled by grilled cheese sandwiches, piles of fries, Diet Coke and the fine Chinese fare at Simon's, Lockyer had a hand in all the major legislation crafted in the mid- and late-1990s. He also played politics especially hard.

In the 1990s, I recall a prominent Republican official describing the difference between Lockyer and then-Speaker Willie Brown, renowned for his Machiavellian ways: Brown would mess - the Republican used a word other than mess - with Republicans from the time he woke up until nightfall, when he would pursue some of life's other pleasures. Lockyer would mess with Republicans from the time he woke up until he fell asleep at around midnight.

"Actually," Lockyer said, chuckling as I recounted the story the other day, "it was 2 a.m."

Lockyer, the wonk, proposed merging state prisons and county jails and turning nonviolent inmates over to the custody of county jailers and giving them $1 billion to care for them. That was in 1995.

Gov. Jerry Brown came up with a similar idea when he took office in 2011, called it criminal justice realignment and won legislative approval, a major achievement. Lockyer made a point of telling me that Brown came up with the idea on his own.

Lockyer started out as Senate leader when Republican Pete Wilson was governor, Republicans held a majority in the Assembly and Democrats had a one-seat majority in the Senate, far different from today, when Democrats control Sacramento and still manage to stumble.

Forced to work with Republicans, Lockyer helped shape a corporate tax rate cut, and later persuaded Wilson to expand the safety net by providing health care for hundreds of thousands of children of low-income parents.

Lockyer could keep his temper in check. Then there was the night in 1998 that Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, a Sacramento Democrat in his final year in office, crossed Lockyer as they worked on a gambling bill, and Lockyer barked in front of 50 lobbyists, "F--- you, Mr. Termed Out."

He could be brutal to Republicans, too, denouncing then-Assembly GOP leader Jim Brulte as a "propagandist" who "brings absolutely nothing to the table except political analysis." Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party, now counts Lockyer as one of his closest friends.

"His grasp of policy and the politics behind it was unsurpassed by anyone I know," Brulte said Monday.

As attorney general in 2001, Lockyer tapped Brulte to carry landmark legislation that allows the state to seize guns of individuals who bought them legally but later became ineligible to own them because they suffered from mental illness or committed a crime.

A master at the inside deal, Lockyer was with Willie Brown at Frank Fat's in 1987 when Lockyer jotted down on a linen napkin the outlines of a truce among trial lawyers, doctors, the insurance industry and the tobacco industry, and went from table to table getting them to sign.

The Napkin Deal had its benefits. It also relieved the tobacco industry of liability for its deadly wares, and had to be rolled back when Lockyer was Senate leader, before California could join other states in the massive lawsuit against the industry. Lockyer kept the napkin.

Lockyer will leave office at the end of 2014 as one of the best politicians I've known who didn't become governor. He would have run in 2006. But voters recalled Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger won re-election in 2006 easily. The last chance came in 2010, but Lockyer wouldn't run against Jerry Brown, a friend. Besides, no Democrat could have beaten Brown in the primary.

"I would have loved to have tried to do that job," Lockyer told me.

Lockyer floated the idea last year of becoming chancellor of the California State University system. That would not have been a great fit. But Gov. Brown could do worse than to appoint Lockyer as a University of California regent, or a CSU trustee.

At 72, with a son who is not yet 10, he reports relatively paltry holdings on his statements of economic interest. Out of office, he will be able to earn millions. He also will try to hold together his third marriage, after the spectacle in which his wife, Nadia, 30 years his junior, melted down amid drug addiction and a sordid affair with a man she met in rehab.

Lockyer has his flaws. But he never ran as a model human being. Voters returned him to Sacramento to do the public's business as he saw fit. He did that, extraordinarily well.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.