Ross Johnson’s 26 year legislative career began in 1978 – the same year Proposition 13 was approved. He was the leader of both the Assembly Republicans and the Senate Republicans, the first person in state history to be a leader in both houses.
But now, Johnson, who turns 69 in September, has put aside partisan politics.
“Quite literally, I ceased being a player when I took this job,” says the chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission. “I became an umpire.”
Steadfast, honorable and funny, Johnson – whose actual first name is James – was named to the commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Valentine’s Day last year.
As he did with the issues he touched in the Legislature, Johnson takes the non-partisanship of his new job very seriously.
“Anybody who thinks I’m going to fix traffic tickets for my friends not only are dead wrong but they haven’t been paying any attention to me on (campaign reform) issues for the last 30 years,” said Johnson.
“I’ve said repeatedly to the staff here the two things that will not be tolerated on my watch here are our going easy on someone because someone agrees with their politics or going hard on someone because someone disagrees with their politics.”
Over the years, Johnson carried numerous campaign reform bills, including sponsoring two ballot measures — Proposition 40 in 1984 and Proposition 73 — in 1988 to ratchet down spiraling campaign spending.
Proposition 40, Johnson says, was “the most radical proposal that’s been put before the voters anywhere in terms of campaign finance.”
Johnson and his wife Diane sold their house to qualify the measure for the ballot. Johnson laughingly says his proposition created the greatest coalition in California history.
“The Republican Party. The Democratic Party. AFL-CIO, the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, Common Cause, the League of Women voters, the Sierra Club. You name it. The only problem was they were all in opposition.
In a transcript of a September 1984 conversation that can be found at www.tobaccodocuments.org, then Assembly Speaker Willie Brown described Proposition 40 as the “most outrageous offensive piece of stuff that’s come down the pike” — in large emasure because it would have reduced his power.
Proposition 40 sharply limited campaign contributions but not the amount candidates could spend. For each fiscal year, persons were held to giving $1,000 per candidate with $250 the limit per political party and political action committee. One contributor could spend no more than $10,000 per fiscal year.
Johnson canvassed the state, debating Walter Zelman, then head of Common Cause in California.
“Every debate he’d start with the same line and say if the choice were between the present system forever and Prop 40, I would be for Prop 40. But we can do better. That was 1984 and we’re still waiting for better,” Johnson recalled.
Endorsed by only four entities, Proposition 40 went down in flames.
In 1988, voters approved a follow-up campaign reform measure, Proposition 73. Its co-authors were then Sen. Quentin Kopp, an independent, and Sen. Joseph Montoya, a Democrat later snared in the FBI probe of Capitol corruption.
Opponents of the campaign finance measure, like the Democratic Party, hired the late political lawyer, Joe Remcho, who convinced the courts to toss most of the proposition out for free speech reasons.
“I will go to my grave believing that was a constitutional enactment, Johnson said, “but the courts threw it out.”
An ironworker at age 16, a hospital corpsman in the Navy, Johnson is an Orange County native. He was a Prop 13 baby – the term given to the raft of GOP lawmakers swept into office on the property tax measure’s coattails.
Approaching one year as chair of the state’s political watchdog commission, Johnson is trying to simplify the rules and regulations that have been promulgated since the commission was created under Proposition 9, the campaign reform measure championed by then Secretary of State Jerry Brown in 1974.
“I talk a lot around here about the soccer mom. The soccer mom who is coaching her kids’ soccer team and gets upset about the condition of the playing fields in the city park and winds up running for the city council. We shouldn’t be putting roadblocks in the way of her being able to do that,” Johnson said.
“We shouldn’t be laying traps for the unwary. We should make it very clear to her through our forms, our manuals, our regulations what her responsibilities are. We should be encouraging people to participate in the process, not discourage them.”
Under Johnson, there is a new executive director, new head of enforcement, a new general counsel and a new chief of administration. His term expires in 2011. He and the commission’s 76-member staff are whittling down the backlog of complaints.
Johnson allows that the intricacies of civil service were a little daunting at first as were the open meeting act rules governing the commission. But he and other four members of the commission work to reach consensus.
“I don’t know that I want to put the hoodoo on myself by talking about this but virtually every vote has been five to zip.”
During his 26 years in the Legislature Johnson had a penchant for asking probing questions and fit John Burton’s description of himself as a “fair partisan.”
The two men became comrades, meeting for the first time in 1986 at the Earl of Sandwich, a burger joint in downtown Sacramento.
A yardstick often used to measure the worth of lawmaker is the longevity of their staff. The longer the staffer stays; the better the legislator.
Susie Swatt started with Johnson in 1978 – and still works part-time with him at the commission. Linda Brown, who also started with Johnson in 1978, left the Legislature when Johnson did in 2004. A district staffer who began with Johnson in 1979, Bruce Purcilly, logged more than 20 years before retiring.
Johnson, a lover of the poetry of Robert W. Service, could be very quotable. Of a budget issue, Johnson once noted “All our sacred cows have come home to roost.”
And, a classic:
Asked to describe the job of Assembly GOP leader, Johnson replied, “It’s like herding cats through a minefield while juggling hand grenades.”
Another running gag was “blue-ribbon commission,” a phrase Johnson loved to poke fun at.
When Johnson was angry, listeners knew it. He famously described escheat, in which the state rakes off dormant bank accounts, as “ripping off the dead.” As a staunch defender of property rights, he co-authored a bill with Burton to restrict the state’s ability to seize assets without trial.
A common theme running through his floor speeches was his wife, Diane, who he routinely referred to as Mrs. Johnson.
Johnson is a key figure in a piece of Capitol lore involving the late Lou Papan who, early in Johnson’s Assembly career was the chair of the Rules Committee.
Johnson declined to discuss his incident with Papan but it has been described previously as follows:
Around July 4, during a marathon budget lockdown in the early 1980s, the Republican caucus, about 30 strong, was huddled in the Rules Committee room.
To take some of the sting out of the long wait, an Assemblywoman had brought in a blender to make gin fizzes, which were poured, into little paper cups.
Papan then called a meeting of the Rules Committee. Republican hurriedly tried to clean up the signs of their activity. In trying to hide the blender, Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy forgot to unplug it. Cord ended; contents spilled.
Johnson, a member of the Rules Committee, stayed in the room for the hearing and became the target of Papan’s ire. The condition of the room was a disgrace, Papan. “What are you a bunch of drunks? “
Papan continued to berate Johnson, repeatedly calling him, among other things, a drunk.
Finally, as reporters began to enter the room for the committee meeting, Johnson was quoted telling Papan, “No, I am not a drunk but if I were I’d be sober tomorrow and you’d still be an asshole.”
The incident was the only time in his political career Johnson was in Time magazine.
Johnson and Papan’s exchange had at least one positive consequence. Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review was in a hospital, his condition worsening from an unknown malady.
Cousins read about the spat and laughed out loud and realized that he felt better. He asked the hospital staff for Marx Brothers movies, Laurel and hardy, the Three Stooges and laughed his way back to health. The result: A book called Laughter is the Best Medicine.
Does he miss being a lawmaker?
“I enjoyed my time in the Legislature but I pretty much quit cold turkey and didn’t suffer any withdrawal symptoms.”
Catch up with Ross Johnson, who never used a computer during his legislative career, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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