Paul Jacob

Somewhere a career politician is scheming...

But at least there are four career politicians in California whose schemes are coming to an end. They wanted to get term limits, but term limits got them. They wanted to ride forever on the gravy train, but the ride is over.

The politicians have run out of tricks and term limits are there to stay in our nation's most populous state. In his recent column in The Los Angeles Times, Eric Bailey wrote the swan song for Democratic senators John Burton, Byron Sher and John Vasconcellos and Republican Senator Ross Johnson with the heading, "Term limits are forcing the Legislature's four big veterans to end their careers."

Mind you, these four aren't alone. Another five senators and 18 members of the Assembly are also termed out. But they apparently aren't the "big four."

"There is no doubt that the law, which restricts senators to a pair of four-year terms and Assembly members to a trio of two-year stints, produced a statehouse more diverse in gender, ethnicity and professional background," Bailey admits. But he counters that there is a sense in the capitol "that something important will be lost with the looming exodus of the four big veterans."

What precisely will be lost, Mr. Bailey doesn't tell us. But perhaps we can gain appreciation for the loss by examining their careers and what they have meant to California governance. Though together these four big wheels total over a hundred years of experience, as the odometer turns what one notices is the string of zeros.

Senator John Burton will leave after spending nearly all of the last 40 years in politics. He served in the Assembly for 16 years and in Congress for eight years before he stepped down, admitting (according to Douglas Foster with San Francisco Magazine) "that he was addicted to alcohol, tranquilizers, nitrous oxide, and cocaine."

After treatment, Burton returned to the California Senate, where he remains president until the end of the year.

Bailey calls Burton "a mercurial presence in the Capitol, a walking expletive with no deletion." My free Common Sense e-letter gives no quarter to such bad-boy antics, but I guess some folks deem bad boys endlessly lovable, even in politics. One former legislator was quick to defend Burton's "big, volcanic temper tantrums" as "almost always for real things."

Burton has also had his share of scandals. A strong advocate for Indian gaming, Burton took 2,500 shares of stock from a Wisconsin Indian casino. Once this became news, he said the stock was given to him "in return for political advice." Finally, Burton returned the "payment" ? valued at $3,125 per claimed hour of advice-rendering ? saying the stock had "become a pain."

Republican Senator Ross Johnson claims that his labors to acquire land for a regional park in Orange County was one of his proudest accomplishments in 24 years in the legislature. One has to wonder: once Johnson leaves the legislature, will there ever be another park?

Then there is Senator John Vasconcellos. His work will no doubt continue post-term limits through the John Vasconcellos Legacy Project, a charitable foundation "committed to drawing together and sustaining the Senator's vast body of work." The Senator's introduction on the website states:

John Vasconcellos is a leading visionary in the convergence of psychology and politics. His ground-breaking efforts to promote self-esteem, to reconcile the tension between individuality and community, and to model collaborative civic leadership have distinguished his 38 years in the California Legislature... He is known for personally and publicly integrating the tenets of humanistic psychology as a distinctive approach to human affairs. . . . His major focus has been to forge unity between who he is as a person and who he is politically.

Did I mention he was from California?

Vasconcellos's latest legislative crusade has been to lower the voting age to 14. But even with all his political clout and legendary legislative skill, this prize has eluded him. Now, with his service limited, who will carry on this lofty legislative battle?

Byron Sher will have spent 24 years in the legislature when he leaves at year's end. He is now 76 years old and has yet to work in the private sector. Granted, he is well respected in the environmental movement and hasn't the wild reputation of some California solons.

Still, the notion that Sher and company are super-legislators, indispensable to California's future, without whom state government couldn't survive, is belied by the facts of their tenure. All four of these Senators voted for the energy legislation that led to the state's power crisis, and, according to Bailey, the three Democrats "showed little spending restraint during California's go-go late 1990s."

As political commentator Tony Quinn put it, "Even though they've been around a long time, none of them have shown any particular insight into how to get us out of these problems."

The politicians may never abandon their Chicken Little routine, but voters aren't buying it. That's why California voters crushed a term-limits-diluting measure, Proposition 45, pushed by Senator Burton, the Democratic Party, and a laundry list of special interests in 2002.

State Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), himself termed-out in 2006, fretted to The Los Angeles Times: "Our rearview mirror is foggy now. You can't create a future without a sense of the past. And a big part of that past is heading out the door."

Well, gentlemen, don't let the door hit you on your way out.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.