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The Unsettled Self-Esteem of John Vasconcellos : He's Been in Psychotherapy for Years, and 'Doonesbury' Ridiculed His Pet Task Force. But the 'Touchy-Feely' Assemblyman Remains One of Sacramento's Most Powerful Legislators. He's Been in Psychotherapy for Years, and 'Doonesbury' Ridiculed His Pet Task Force. But the 'Touchy-Feely' Assemblyman Remains One of Sacramento's Most Powerful Legislators.

August 23, 1987|JACQUES LESLIE | Jacques Leslie contributes frequently to the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

IT'S BEEN A better-than-average day for John Vasconcellos. The tempestuously moody state assemblyman, a Democrat from Santa Clara, has spent the morning conducting hearings of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs, and has managed to dispose of more than 80 bills without a hint of discord from any of its 23 members. Since amiability is not always the hallmark of the committee's deliberations, this is something of a victory, albeit one easily obscured by exhaustion. Vasconcellos' committee considers 2,900 bills a year, six times more than any other assembly committee, and the volume of legislation weighs on him so much that at the hearing's conclusion he confesses to Sam Yockey, the committee's chief consultant: "Geez, I remember now why I hate Ways and Means."

As Yockey relates later, he answered Vasconcellos with a pep talk: "Look at it this way, John. We did 80-something bills today, and the session's half over--that's positive!" Heartened, Vasconcellos replied, "You're right!" and walked out briskly.

To Yockey, this is evidence that Vasconcellos, 55, a longtime psychotherapy patient and psychological workshop participant, has developed a sunnier outlook. Two years ago,Yockey says, the assemblyman would have responded with an expletive.

Later that day, Vasconcellos (Vass-con-SELL-ose) is hooked up by phone to Phoenix, where he's the guest on a radio talk show. Ahead of him lies half a day more of Capitol routine--a meeting with a delegation of pest-control operators who wish to express their legislative concerns; a conference with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, an ally and fellow Democrat; an appearance at a Sacramento bar where a Ways and Means staffer is being given a farewell party; a two-hour interview conducted by a reporter over dinner, and, finally, late-night legislative homework--but for now Vasconcellos is enjoying himself. After all, the talk-show topic is self-esteem, and Vasconcellos is, if not the George Washington of self-esteem, at least its Johnny Appleseed, dedicated to spreading word of its power to cure social ills.

Last September, Gov. George Deukmejian signed legislation bringing into existence Vasconcellos' pet project, the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem, Personal and Social Responsibility, but it wasn't until February, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau devoted three weeks of "Doonesbury" to imaginary task-force proceedings, that publicity about the task force gathered momentum. Since then Vasconcellos has been profiled in People magazine, and he has been a frequent guest on television and radio talk shows. "I've gotten more attention here in the last several weeks than in the (previous) 20 years," the assemblyman says. Never mind that some of the attention, particularly Trudeau's, was derisive; Vasconcellos says Trudeau "helped us enormously (by giving) us national recognition." And perhaps inevitably, the fanfare has provoked speculation that Vasconcellos, who is in his 21st year as an assemblyman, would like to run for governor. The talk-show host asks him: "Is (the task force) part of an effort to obtain for yourself a higher office that might add to your self-esteem?" Vasconcellos' delighted laugh is his loudest of the day.

While Vasconcellos would be a long shot in a gubernatorial race, merely being questioned about whether he intends to run gratifies him, for he has struggled with self-doubt all his life. Mitch Saunders, a San Jose marriage- and family-counseling intern who is Vasconcellos' best friend, says: "Two years ago we were joking about the notion that ( John) would be struck dead if he let anybody know that he ever entertained thoughts about running for governor. Now he answers questions about where he stands on that quite deftly, with no problem about confidence at all."

Vasconcellos' efforts to soothe his tormented psyche have led him into realms of exploration that few politicians have entered and fewer still will admit to having entered. He began psychotherapy during his first campaign for the assembly, in 1966, and won anyway. Since then he has participated in an array of "human potential movement" therapies, including bioenergetics, psychosynthesis and gestalt, all of which purport to release submerged tensions and fears. During one three-year period he attended workshops once a month at places such as Esalen, the Big Sur center of "New Age" consciousness. Among his workshop leaders were movement luminaries Abraham Maslow and Rollo May; Carl R. Rogers, the father of "self-actualization," became Vasconcellos' mentor and friend. Now Vasconcellos calls his politics "the Carl Rogers insight carried into the public arena." The insight, the assemblyman explains, is that "people are basically decent, and given the right kinds of recognition, nurturance, love, and support, will live in constructive ways."

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