SACRAMENTO — For Steve Peace, it came as a hot flash as he sat in his car.
Until that moment in mid-January, as he was leaving memorial services for Chula Vista Mayor Gayle McCandliss, the likelihood of death had only been a vague possibility. But, with his high school friend dead from cancer, a sense of mortality rolled over him as a sweat-drenching anxiety attack.
"I knew she had died before, but I didn't know she died, that she ain't coming back," Peace said about the middle-age epiphany. "That experience . . . overwhelmingly changed my view of life, just from the standpoint of how incredibly fragile, minute and short-lived it is."
James Stephen Peace is a changed man. Or so he says.
And the 38-year-old Democratic Assemblyman from Rancho San Diego, still widely viewed as the loose cannon of the Legislature, appears to be putting those changes to use as he enjoys a political "rehabilitation."
Over the past two years, Peace has seen himself transformed from Democratic outcast, stemming from his role in the ill-fated "Gang of Five" rebellion against Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), to chairman of a new legislative committee dealing with banking and bonds.
And, earlier this month, Peace emerged as a key player in the state budget war when, with Brown's blessing, he maneuvered a workers' compensation measure through a hostile Legislature to help break the deadlock over the $57.6-billion spending plan.
Meanwhile, the man who once vowed he would quit public office in disgust is now showing interest in how reapportionment plans could be redrawn to send him to Washington from a new South Bay congressional district, sources say.
For most people, the reincarnated Peace is not much different from the old cantankerous model, perhaps best known for giving the world the low-budget cult movie classic, "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."
Peace is still able to ramble during his speeches and deliver a blistering retort. Running his new committee meetings with impatient abandon, he thinks nothing of abruptly cutting off unprepared witnesses or publicly branding a proposal he dislikes an "institutional scam."
"Steve can be very belligerent. He pings off the walls sometimes," said an Assembly Democrat who asked not to be identified.
Added a skeptical lobbyist: "A diplomat, he is not. A bull in a china shop, he is."
Yet there are also some signs that the hard-charging Peace may be changing with the lessons of time, just as he says. The most obvious is a willingness to put aside the bomb-throwing tactics of youth so he can work within the power structure of the Legislature.
As an example, he worked closely with Brown's office to take the political flak and maneuver the workers' compensation bill, which would cut stress-related claims against employers, through a prickly Legislature during the budget fight.
Other signs are more personal: the hot flash of realization he had after McCandliss' death. Or the way he nearly broke down last month when he rose on the Assembly floor to talk about the future of his three sons, ages 11, 9, and 7.
The subject at the time was the 1991-92 educational budget, and an emotional Peace stood up to thank Gov. Pete Wilson for changing his mind about cutting $2 billion from the public schools.
"I want to say thank you, because it meant a lot to me personally," the one-time rebel choked. "I'm concerned about my kids, and I mean it.
"I'm worried. I'm scared. . . ."
Born in 1953 in San Diego, Peace was part of a generation whose dreams took hold in the futility of Vietnam and the cynicism of Watergate, a time when authority figures were suspect but the power to change the world was not.
The wiry, impish Peace brought to those dreams the kind of familial commitment to rightness that once prompted his maternal grandfather to brave a beating rather than keep his mouth shut about some union elections in Iowa.
The idea was reinforced by spirited political debates around the dinner table with his Republican mother and a Kentucky Democrat step-father, Chula Vista dentist G. Gordon Browning. As an adolescent, Peace was an avid Ronald Reagan fan, though he registered as a Democrat in college.
"I had grown up in an environment where confronting someone verbally was encouraged, not discouraged," said Peace. ". . . There was never a thing that you don't talk to your elders, you don't question your dad."
The same held true for anything approaching parental authority. As Bonita Vista High School student body president in 1971, he successfully fought administrator opposition to a rock concert by organizing student leaders.
Peace's seemingly inexhaustible self-confidence came equipped with extras: a quick tongue, a sarcastic wit, a hair-trigger temper and a powerful mind with little use for details. Friends and relatives say he was a high-school debater who couldn't match his clothes, a wisecracking class clown who overpowered teachers with ideas but never bothered with such niceties as spelling.