When he worked as a legislative liaison in 1982 for Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, B.T. Collins -- an unlikely Brown hire, as Collins was a Republican and double-amputee Vietnam War veteran who joked that he threw grenades "like a girl" -- had choice words for the California Legislature. He used to call the Assembly "an adult day care center."
Collins' sister, Maureen Collins Baker, has written a book about her brother, "Outrageous Hero: The B.T. Collins Story." Collins also worked under GOP Gov. Pete Wilson as director of the California Youth Authority in 1991. Collins described the juvenile offenders under his charge as "8,600 of the most vicious people he'd ever seen outside of the state Legislature."
After he was elected to the Assembly in a 1991 special election, Collins view of the institution did not improve. Collins complained, according to his sister's account, that he could no longer talk about the Legislature: "It's downright awful. The rooms are full of ego-driven people who do nothing but talk. The problems are enormous, the phone calls nasty, and nobody is in charge of anything."
Nearly 20 years later, Sacramento seems even worse. There are too few politicians willing to say, as Collins did, "I don't believe in single-issue politics. I have to vote my conscience whether you agree with me or not. I will not tell you what you want to hear. I'm nobody's boy."
If voters tried to pressure him to change his mind, Collins told them, "Hey, I'm not your candidate. You need to sign up for the other guy."
Collins died of a heart attack at age 52 on March 19, 1993. During his memorial service, Brown and Wilson shared the stage as both fought back tears.
I don't think Sacramento will ever see the likes of Collins again.
I am writing this column and plugging Baker's book because B.T. Collins was the greatest man I ever knew.
Part of his genius is that he would give any person -- no matter how exalted -- hell. He had the gift of mixing irreverence with charm.
According to legend, when Brown interviewed Collins, who had gone to law school after losing an arm and a leg during combat, he asked Collins if he had voted for him. Collins responded, "I never vote for short ex-Jesuits." He got the job, moved up in the ranks and, eventually, became Brown's chief of staff.