How a 1962 Modesto Snowstorm Shaped Leon Panetta’s Political Career

“By Bill Bagley, Lew Butler and Leon Panetta


Here is how Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh’s 1961 skullduggery and a freak snowstorm in Modesto the following year caused former Republican U.S. Senate aide Leon Panetta to become a Democratic congressman from Monterey and eventually chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

In 1961, Modesto attorney Ralph M. Brown was the Assembly speaker.  Unruh – who had built up a cadre of loyal younger colleagues by contributing to primary campaigns — was chair of Ways and Means and eager to become speaker.

Unruh sponsored a bill to create the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno, a short drive from Modesto. The area’s demographics didn’t warrant a new appeals court. No constituency, other than Unruh, clamored for it. Nonetheless, the bill passed and Unruh made sure Gov. Pat Brown appointed Brown to the bench in October 90 days after the legislative session adjourned.

After Brown’s appointment, a “Committee of the Whole” was called and Unruh became speaker in November 1961. He didn’t want to wait until the following year because in those days even-numbered sessions lasted only a few months and dealt solely with the budget.

The special election to fill Brown’s seat in Stanislaus County was called for February 1962. Pat Brown said it would snow in Modesto before a Republican could be elected from that district. It snowed on Election Day.

In part because of the storm-caused low turnout, young GOP county supervisor named Jack Veneman won.

In 1969, Richard Nixon named Veneman undersecretary of the Health Education and Welfare department. Another undersecretary was San Franciscan Lew Butler, Pete McCloskey’s former law partner.

The cabinet secretary was Bob Finch, another Californian who received more voters in 1966 for lieutenant governor than Reagan did for governor.

Robert Finch


In 1968, Max Rafferty beat California’s moderate U.S. Senator Tom Kuchel in the primary, losing that fall to Alan Cranston. The primary loss left Kuchel aide Leon Panetta out of a job. Veneman hired him to run HEW’s Office of Civil Rights. The two had worked together, along with Bill Bagley on Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 presidential campaign.

Panetta went to work, promptly and appropriately enforcing the then four year old Civil Rights Act. That didn’t fit well with Nixon’s political agenda.

In 1968, Strom Thurmond swung Southern delegates behind Nixon rather than Reagan by telling them Nixon had pledged to go easy on enforcing desegregation laws.

On a Monday the following May, Attorney General john Mitchell, the architect of Nixon’s “southern strategy,” called the president and told him to “fire that prick in the basement of HEW.”**

Nixon called Finch. Panetta handwrote his resignation, inserting the word ”regrettably” to suggest he was pressured to quit.

Finch promised to fight for Panetta to keep his job.

In his book about the experience, Bring Us Together, Panetta talks about how Veneman called him and said, “Leon, I just told the secretary I’ll resign if the White House accepts your resignation.”

Panetta said he was surprised. “Here was a guy who was sympathetic to the most progressive causes but who always operated within the system.”

Panetta decided he should tell Lew Butler, about Veneman’s pledge.

“There’s probably a hundred people who could be director of the Office of Civil Rights. That’s not the point,” Panetta quotes Butler as saying. “For better or for worse, you’ve become a symbol not only on civil rights but for the young guys in the department. I’m with Jack, all the way.”

Despite Veneman and now Butler backing him, Panetta believed the White House capable of firing all of them. The White House referred to the younger more activist elements at HEW as “Finch’s crowd.”

Mike Kahl, an HEW staffer and close friend of Veneman, had “Finch’s Crowd” lapel pins made as a badge of honor. After the first news story about the badges’ existence ran, the badges were no more.

Veneman boycotted HEW until Finch convinced Nixon to rescind the order to fire Panetta. He slept in Bagley’s hotel room and used it as his office until Finch arrived to tell Veneman and Bagley that Nixon had “freed Panetta from Mitchell’s grasp.”

But it was only a temporary reprieve.

In a recent interview, Panetta said that later a story ran in the Washington Post, saying he was resigning. He wasn’t.

Panetta told Finch about it and they agreed to deal with it the same way as other stories falsely reporting his resignation had been handled. But this time a reporter asked Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, if Panetta was resigning. “Yes,” Ziegler said.

“I was basically fired by the White House,” Panetta said. “I didn’t resign.”

Butler describes the HEW civil rights battles as a “helluva fight.”  He recalls:


Lew Butler

“Before he left, Leon and I were making visits to the White House – I was a law school classmate of John Ehrlichman’s and so was Pete McCloskey — and I hoped to use that connection to protect Leon.

“In early 1969 in return for his help at the convention, Thurmond rightfully figured Nixon owed him big time and put pressure on the White House to back off desegregation orders for five Southern school districts.  The White House then pressured all of us at HEW to do that.  We compromised and Leon as head of Civil Rights office gave the districts a little extra time.

“Thurmond then trumpeted that as a great victory and an article ran on the front page of the New York Times saying we had backed down.  By some crazy calculation, I was appointed to call the famous political writer Scotty Reston at the Times to set the record straight.  Reston had no idea who I was but listened patiently and two days later a front-page item appeared under his byline, essentially retracting the original story.

“We thought after that we could at least break even in fights with the White House but eventually they drove Leon out.

“I was in San Francisco when he resigned and I got a call from Finch and Jack Veneman telling me to try to persuade Stan Pottinger, a friend who was in the HEW regional office here, to come to D.C. and take Leon’s job.

“I remember clearly that Stan picked me up after I had made a speech at USF.  We were going downtown on Oak St. and I told him that there were about a dozen synchronized stoplights and by the time we got to the last one he was going to have to decide whether he was interested in taking Leon’s job.  He said he was, would talk to his wife that day, and by the next day was on a plane to Washington.

“Leon was willing to introduce Stan to his staff, with Veneman and me standing there.  It was very emotional.  Leon told them to be as loyal to Stan as they had been to him.

“As it turned out Stan did a great job – after forcing Leon’s resignation the White House had used up most of their bullets — and eventually headed the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department when Eliot Richardson became Attorney General.

“As a side note, Stan and his wife amicably divorced and Stan became Gloria Steinam’s partner for ten years”.

Also, Mike Kahl, the HEW staffer, is the same Mike Kahl who, with his partner, Fred Pownall, built one of Sacramento’s most successful and respected lobbying firms.

Finally, Jack Veneman is the father of Ann Veneman who became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in 2001 and the director of UNICEF in May 2005. She ran the California Department of Food and Agriculture from 1995 through 1999.

Her mentor and fellow Modestan, Richard Lyng, served in the Nixon administration as assistant secretary of agriculture for marketing and consumer services. When Lyng was named by President Reagan to run the agency guess what young woman from Modesto he added to the department’s staff?

Panetta, of course, became a Democrat, who successfully ran for Congress in 1976 and eventually as director of the Office of Management and Budget  and Clinton’s chief of staff helped create the first balanced federal budget in ages.

All because it snowed in Modesto in February 46 years ago.




**From Butler: “I have no knowledge about Mitchell and the ‘prick’ statement but it sounds right.”







Filed under: California History

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