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Budget Intransigence Dismays an Old Pro

Vasconcellos has been through a lot of battles. But this time, he says, it's different -- no one is willing to bend on either side of the aisle.

June 20, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — John Vasconcellos is in the twilight of his career, a time when many men with gray at the temples are studying the pension plan and searching for a condo on a golf course somewhere.

But Vasconcellos isn't your garden-variety guy on the cusp of retirement. Elected to the Legislature in 1966, he is California's longest-serving lawmaker. And while he may be remembered as a touchy-feely liberal who promoted the value of self-esteem, the state senator also has spent 15 years in the hard business of crafting budget deals.

He has seen the Golden State weather some not-so-golden times. And nothing, he says, comes close to this.

"I have never been so frightened about California's future as I am now," says the Santa Clara Democrat. "The ingredients seem to be here to take the state right over the cliff."

The object of the senator's dismay is the budget crisis, or, more specifically, the evaporation of civility and compromise that has led to the budget crisis. No one, Vasconcellos says -- not his fellow Democrats, not his Republican counterparts -- seems willing to bend and give and come together for the common good any more.

If politics once was the art of compromise, he says, then today's legislators are playing some different game.

"What I'm hearing in the building right now is, it's our way or no way, and I don't respond very well to that," Vasconcellos says. "A time like this calls for all of us to be bigger than our particular biases, for the good of the state. All I'm seeing are lines drawn in the sand."

Few would quarrel with that assessment. The big family under the Capitol dome looks downright dysfunctional these days. Assemblymen are jumping to their feet to swap nasty accusations in their chambers; the governor is calling Republicans do-nothing obstructionists; and the Senate leader recently stomped out of a key budget meeting, punctuating his exit with an expletive. The Legislature could not even agree last week on language to honor Father's Day.

Overshadowing it all is the growing effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis from office, an idea that has ratcheted up the political stakes in the budget debate. Meanwhile, the clock ticks, the deficit grows and compromise looks ever more elusive.

As the middle has collapsed in the Capitol, it has cast a pall across the business of governing. A pervasive mood of anger and gloom now permeates Sacramento. It makes every disagreement more pitched, and it saddens the veteran senator.

"I'm not optimistic," says Vasconcellos, 71. "I don't understand the forces at work. They're too foreign to me."

Vasconcellos is sitting in his fifth-floor office, lights dimmed, his back to a stunning view of Capitol Park. He is a big man -- 6 feet 3, about 200 pounds -- with a boyish haircut, a weary look and running shoes on his feet. He speaks in a rapid mumble that can be hard to follow. He has a famous temper that improved after years of therapy.

His office has the feel of a high-end curio shop, bedecked with inspirational sayings -- "When you open doors, you make it possible for dreams to come true" -- and relics of a statehouse career that began the year Ronald Reagan became governor. A canned weight-loss shake sits beside his computer.

Recalling the time almost 37 years ago when he was first elected to the Assembly, Vasconcellos remarks on how different life was for freshman legislators then. The young Democrat had already worked a year for former Gov. Pat Brown, so he was no political greenhorn. Still, he did what all rookies did: He kept his mouth shut.

"I didn't say a word on the floor for about three years," Vasconcellos remembers. "I listened, learned, voted, figured out who I could trust. We were back-benchers."

Term limits have changed all that, he argues, and not for the better. Today's freshmen -- there are 32 in the 80-member Assembly -- have only a few years to make a mark and plot their next jump up the political ladder. Some see little benefit to weaving lasting alliances.

"Rather than listening," Vasconcellos says, "they start screaming, pontificating. It lacks grace. It's a little pretentious. Not that anybody coming in isn't as good as the rest of us, but there's value in seasoning. And what we have here, this job, is an awesome responsibility."

As chairman of the Assembly's Budget Committee from 1980 to 1995, Vasconcellos mastered the intricacies of state spending and revenue, picking apart governors' budgets, putting them back together and selling them to the Legislature.

There were rugged years -- the lean times after passage of tax-cutting Proposition 13, the recession of the early 1990s -- and there were long, ugly fights between the parties. But through it all, Vasconcellos says, there was a collegiality built over years of common service and a sense that compromise, even when painful, was a noble thing.

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