If you didn’t know John Vasconcellos, the former Assemblyman and state Senator from Santa Clara who died last weekend at age 82, you might think, from all of the tributes written about how “humane” and “caring” he was, that he was a gentle soul.
You would be wrong.
He was voluble and irascible, passionate and fierce. All in the cause of his lifelong quest to do good in the world. He strove for a personal and civil politics of love and truth, decency and integrity.
Vasco didn’t just wear his liberalism on his sleeve: he waved it like a bloody banner. He was, perhaps, the last honest man in Sacramento. Which is why people from all walks of life and both sides of the political aisle loved him.
In 1986, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau lampooned him as a flake in “Doonesbury” for his “California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem, Personal and Social Responsibility,” Vasconcellos reveled in the attention – for his ego was ginormous – and parlayed the limelight into TV and radio appearances and a spread in People magazine.
Today, few criminologists, sociologists or even politicians would argue with the assertion Vasco made then – for which he was ridiculed – that low self-esteem among young people is a crucial element in addiction, murder, mental illness, bullying and suicide.
Vasconcellos was willing to take the flak that inevitably came his way in pursuit of the greater good. In his personal as well as his political life. As our friend David Early wrote in the San Jose Mercury News:
Vasconcellos was a thunderous presence, almost from the day of his election to the state Assembly in 1966. He was always searching for ways to salve his tempestuous inner demons. He publicly employed an array of “human potential movement” therapies, including psychosynthesis and gestalt, hoping to release rage, tension and fear.
A Truly Human Being Vasconcellos was “the most human man I’ve ever known, a believer in mankind who strove to his last day for a political system of government that was value-based, forgiving, honest,” said his friend, former SF Chronicle reporter Mark Simon in a moving Facebook tribute.
“His friends knew him as a truly decent man who has always based his politics on the notion that humans are basically good and that public policy that stimulates and encourages the good in humankind — he calls it the politics of trust — should be the guiding principle for those who make the laws and develop governmental programs and policies,” our old pal, retired reporter Lee Quarnstrom, told the Mercury News.
Vasco wanted to be governor. But he was enough of a realist to understand that he was not a good match for the scheduling, ass kissing and especially the fund raising required to run a statewide campaign. Nor did he relish the cut-throat and negative tactical politics that is inevitably involved.
He was dedicated to human potential, not potential inhumanity. There won’t be another one like him.