Guest Post: An “Interview” with B.T. Collins


On March 19, 1993, B.T. Collins died in a Sacramento hospital of a heart attack following a prolonged bout with a series of medical conditions.  He was anything but the average 52-year old who died too young. B.T. was an exceptional person, as anyone who knew him will attest. He shouldn’t have lived anywhere near 52 since he lost an arm and a leg laying on a grenade in Vietnam.

Maureen Collins Baker, one of B.T.’s sisters, has written a fantastic, must-read book detailing the life of Brien Thomas aptly titled, Outrageous Hero. 

With the author’s permission, passages from the book have been structured in an “interview.”  Much of what B.T. did and said more than 15 years ago still applies today – both in life and politics.  — Gus 

Q:   What were your thoughts about going through the process of running for elective office? 

B.T.: I have to tell you, it really gets me down. The things they (your opponents) say and do. Unbelievable, unbelievable. After all I’ve done and tried to do. And the money. This costs so much money. I’ve raised almost $2 million. Do you realize the good I could have done with that money?

Q:    Did you find raising money for your campaign deficit difficult? 

B.T.: Here’s a letter I sent to Dick Cunha, my attorney and law school classmate at Santa Clara:

            November 3, 1992

            Dear Richard:

The overwhelming mandate I received in my election leads me to believe that I can solve all the problems of the world. Please call me if you have any. My machine takes calls 24 hours a day. If you will send me $5,000, I will include you in my daily prayers. Although election law states that cash is not to be received, I can fix it. Twenties would be appreciated, and in one lump sum, if you please.

If you can’t come through with the dough, I will take your first-born instead and teach him how to be a politician. God Bless You and God Bless America!

B.T. Collins, Assemblyman, 5th District

A fine American I might add

Q:    Should legislators go without pay if they are late in resolving the state         budget?

B.T.: In 1992, we hadn’t passed a budget and I received a paycheck. I asked how this could happen without any money? I was told we were paid in any event and I refused the check. The clerk said they must issue a check so I told them to issue it with zero funds. They honored my request: A check for zero.

Q:    How did you deal with the “scumbag lobbyists?” 

B.T.: Scruples. When I was elected, I put a sign on my door that read, “Please don’t discuss campaign contributions in front of me or my staff. It will save us both a lot of time in the slammer.”

Q:    What’s your take on how the Legislature is seen by outsiders? 

B.T.: I once said that because I had been on the wagon for a number of years, I could no longer, with impunity, tell racist, sexist or homophobic jokes. What I am telling you is that I can no longer talk about the California 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’s in charge of anything. I don’t know what people in the balconies think. Here they are visiting the Capitol for the first time and they have nothing but bad manners. How do you explain that to sixth graders? It’s the arrogance of power.

Q:    Can the Legislature work? 

B.T.: The inner workings of the Capitol should revolve around the human wide of politics rather than the issues. If you can build a consensus, if you can put your ego at the door, it’s amazing how much you can get done. I believe “bureaucrat” can be an honorable word. This all sounds so self-serving but I firmly believe we’re all in this thing together. We’d get a lot more done if we’d just give the other guy the credit.

Q:     You seem to have plenty of advice. Is there a particular bit of advice that comes to mind?

B.T.: Here’s a letter to that “candy-ass Marine” Pete Wilson:

            October 16, 1991

            Dear Governor:

Stay in touch with the people. Please learn from the Bush debacle. Too often people think Republicans are aloof, insensitive and rich. Best thing to do is return phone calls – even three a day would blow them away. Stop all travel and conferences – symbolic but so important.

Don’t tell a soul but give back the $35,000 (gubernatorial pay) raise. Set the example. Why not contribute it to WEAVE? (Women Escaping A Violent Environment – a favorite B.T. charity) That’s right, all $35K and don’t say a word about it. It will show up on your tax returns in ’92. Otherwise, this money will be a millstone around your neck, especially when you have to start laying off people.

Think about it. The $2K you sent me for the (Vietnam) Memorial has been repaid in speech after speech. I, of course, will receive the credit for your enlightened generosity.

Remember, the best friends are the ones who will tell you the truth. I’m stuck with you, so don’t screw up! 

Q:     That was one of the worse budget years in California history. Did you propose a budget solution to Governor Wilson?

B.T.: Yes. I suggested we could take Reno and Tahoe and all their gaming revenues. It could have been over in a matter of hours.

Q: Annex part of Nevada? 

B.T.: No. Invade. 

Q:    What was the motto you lived by? 

B.T.: Is the world a better place because you are there. Gotta go.


Outrageous Hero, The B.T. Collins Story.   Maureen Collins Baker.  Bryce Hill

Publishing, 2008.   www.brycehillpublishing.com


Filed under: California History


  1. Yup, the good die too young. I will never forget his speech to my high school class about serving in Vietnam while demonstrating the rawness of how his prosthetic arm worked, nor his humanity at my Aunts memorial in Capitol Park, which he also helped create. R.I.P., Sir. Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Lucas.

    Comment by teala — 1.30.2009 @ 5:28 pm

  2. Like so many others, I loved B.T. I had the honor of working with him in Jerry Brown’s office. He was as courageous as he was outrageous. He seemed to be in pain a lot from his wounds, but he was always focused on helping others. He once got a vote for the Governor on a bill by handing a note to Assemblyman McVittie that said something like: “Dear Garbage Mouth, if you vote for this bill, I will kiss your ass at a Tom Hayden rally on the Capitol steps at high noon.”

    I remember the memorial service for him in Capitol Park. Thousands of people, three governors, helicopters flying the missing man formation. Governor Wilson choked up during his eulogy and then looked up and said, “If B.T. were here, he’d call me a candy-assed Marine and tell me to pull myself together.”

    Thanks for the piece. I’m looking forward to the book.

    Comment by Dan Richard — 1.30.2009 @ 5:58 pm

  3. What a WONDERFUL person! BT was a giant in my book, and his sister did him well in her biography. BT: Full of life! Full of love! I could tell stories….so could he.

    Comment by Pat Henning — 2.03.2009 @ 8:43 pm

  4. A MAN of service and greatly missed.

    Comment by Management Slug — 2.04.2009 @ 2:37 pm

  5. Greg – Tonight I finished reading Outrageous Hero and have been noodling around the internet for BT bits since then and found your “interview.” Great stuff.

    I hope Maureen’s book is widely read as it deserves to be. It took me back to 1990 when I had the great privilige to work with BT (and Donna and Tom and Nora) for a very short time.

    The BT I knew was a foul-weather friend and a fair-weather foe.
    We used to meet in his office twice a day so he could load me up with chores: people to call, letters to return, things to research etc.

    At the beginning of each meeting, he would speak of dire consequences of my failing him in any assigned task. I can still see him and hear him as if it was yesterday: “Now Doc…dont let me down on this stuff. Do you have any idea what I could do TO you in this town?”

    As a 25 year old campaigner, not a rookie but not yet a seasoned pro, hearing that from BT was like a laser beam aimed at my head.

    But at the end of each day, as I talked over with him the results of the chores he had given me, he would flash the famous BT grin and say very quietly, “Nice work, Doc…Do you have any idea what I can do FOR you in this town.”

    I will likewise never forget BT’s classic Irish wake and the sight of two dudes staggering drunk down the hallway of the hotel together, arm in arm, each one holding the other upright.

    One was a scruffy bearded vet, with a POW/MIA hat jump boots and cutoff jean jacket loaded with unit patches, and the other wore a $1,500 suit and $500 shoes. Both men were crying their eyes out and laughing heartily at the same time. I thought, “Yup that’s BT in a nutshell right there.”

    I have never forgotten, nor will I ever forget…the small but invaluable amount of time I spent under BT’s alternating yoke and care. I walk past BT’s bench in Capitol Park every day on my way to work, and reading Maureen’s fantastic moving book brought many of my BT memories back to life. We would all do well to carry a little bit of The Hook with us wherever we go and in whatever we do.


    Best to DL.


    Comment by md — 5.23.2010 @ 9:13 pm

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