John Vasconcellos: Mensch Who Fought for Decency
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.
Well said. Except that I hope for the sake of our future that more like him come to the fore. We need them. Thank you.
The fact is that human nature is inclined to folly and wickedness overall, and that the problem of many of us especially in our time is an excess if self esteem – witness all the books written about the “Me Generation”. The best thing I know of on self esteem and self hatred is C S Lewis’s essay , “Two Ways with the Self,” in the collection God in the Dock. Basically he says there is a good kind of self hatred and a bad kind.
Vasco was also the best argument you could have against term limits. His institutional knowledge, his power and his integrity were a great loss to the Capitol when he was forced out.
Hank, you could not be more right. Term limits have moved the coins of power from the Legislators to the staff and, even more, to the moneyed interests who prop up flashes in the pans. A couple of terms here, a couple of terms there, and then the poor SOBs think they have what it takes to be Governor? No… we’ve always had “term limits,” because we’ve always had elections; now we have this ridiculous “superego” meant to control our tendency to reelect the familiar… I miss the experience, the gravitas, the substance of John Vasconcellos and the men and women who are like him. God, but I miss “Vasco…”
John’s passing in many ways is an epilogue to what was once a responsible, creative and committed legislature. He embodied the finest qualities of a public servant and, during his time there, he was joined by others who felt about public service as he did. I agree with Mr. Plante that term limits did much to fuel the downward slide of both the Assembly and Senate but the voters, who supported it, are now failing to fulfill their own responsibilities to representative government by failing to vote or inform themselves regarding issues and candidates.
John certainly had his quirks but democracy and government in California were made so much better because of him.
I knew John during some pretty turbulent times. He was sturdy. He was the kind of force in the legislature. When he was with you, he was with you. He listened, understood and worked for the cause. Few had a reputation like his where he could plant his political views and still be heard and received with open-arms on any side of the aisle. I will miss him. We need more like him. I think California is a better place because of him.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of his public forums at the San Leandro Library; he had just been appoionted Chair of the Ways and Means Committee. He talked about anticipating the ability to hand out monies in this position, but outlined the sad state of the economy and the fact that he was not going to be able to hand out monies, but quite the opposite, would have to deal with how to make do with less (Proposition 13 had passed in 1978; he was appointed Chair of W&M in 1980, if I recall correctly). He spoke with compassion, grief (restrained), was very informed, and answered questions from a large audience in a very straightforward manner. Totally impressed me and I always thought he was on the right track when he made public education policy proposals.