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Dan Walters: James Mills personified a long-past era
Commentary

Dan Walters: James Mills personified a long-past era

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In this era of ideological polarization and perpetual partisan warfare, it’s difficult to grasp the collegial, bipartisan ambience that once prevailed in California’s Senate.

Democrats usually occupied most of the Senate’s 40 seats, but Republicans were accorded virtually equal opportunities to carry significant legislation and even chaired major committees. Leaders of the two parties maintained the clubby atmosphere with an informal prohibition on partisan challenges of incumbents.

A rebellious Republican senator named H.L. Richardson disliked the no-challenge understanding and sponsored Republican candidates who defeated three Democratic senators in the 1978 and 1980 elections, exploiting California’s rising crime rates.

The defeats unnerved Democratic senators and the blame fell on the Senate’s president pro tem, James Mills, who personified the Senate’s cordial mien. When the Legislature reconvened after the 1980 election, Democrats unceremoniously dumped Mills in favor of David Roberti, a senator from Los Angeles who promised to vigorously defend the Democratic majority.

So it was that the Senate joined the state Assembly as an arena for gamesmanship that relegated policymaking to a secondary or even tertiary status.

By happenstance, Roberti’s elevation to president pro tem coincided with a much-splashier leadership change in the Assembly. Willie Brown, a master political tactician, became Assembly speaker, capping a very bitter, year-long duel between two Democratic factions.

With the leadership changes, a wheeler-dealer atmosphere enveloped the Capitol in the 1980s, especially noticeable in the Senate because to oust Mills, Roberti had cut deals with the Senate’s most unsavory members, three of whom later spent time in federal prison cells.

The three senators, along with quite a few other legislators, legislative staffers and lobbyists, were snared in an FBI sting operation, dubbed Shrimpgate, aimed at ending the Capitol’s pay-to-play ethos. The Shrimpgate scandal also fueled the successful 1990 campaign to impose term limits on legislators.

This recitation of decades-old political history is offered because the central figure in the Senate’s sudden 1980 leadership change, James Mills, died the other day at age 93 in his hometown of San Diego.

Mills was a truly unusual politician — an intellectual who wrote books, often about religious history, and was more interested in issues, such as his passion for mass transit, than political gamesmanship.

“In his 22 years as a state assembly member and state senator, Mills authored legislation that created the local trolley system and Old Town State Park,” the San Diego Union-Tribune noted in its obituary.

“The Mills Act, named after him, has been credited with saving thousands of historic residential and commercial buildings from destruction in California by reducing property taxes for owners who preserve them.”

Before moving to the Senate in 1966, Mills had served in the Assembly during the Legislature’s transformation from a part-time body to a full-time and professional institution in the mid-1960s.

After leaving the Legislature, Mills wrote a book, “A Disorderly House,” about the transformation, drawing on his experiences as a lieutenant to Jesse Unruh, the legendary Assembly speaker of the 1960s. When writing my own book about the Legislature’s cultural evolution in the latter years of the 20th century, I often cited Mills’ book about the critical Unruh era.

The Union-Tribune’s obituary included an quotation from Steve Peace, a former San Diego legislator himself, that accurately portrayed Mills’ approach to politics, one that now seems almost quaint.

“This is a term that maybe has gone out of vogue, but he was a gentleman,” Peace said, “and he was a pretty consistent practitioner of having active disagreements without being actively disagreeable. It wasn’t about you. It was about what you were doing.”

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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