Jerry Waldie — Congressman, Assembly Majority Leader, Humorist — Dead at 84
Jerry Waldie, the East Bay congressman who introduced Articles of Impeachment in 1973 against President Richard Nixon, carried the 1966 bill creating a full time California Legislature and was an unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1974 is dead. He was 84.
Principled, conscientious and thoughtful, Waldie also wrote one of the funniest – if not the funniest — political books ever written, Fairplay for Frogs.
“He was a wonderful man, a great environmentalist and a great public servant,” said former Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton of San Francisco, a friend for more than five decades. ”My kind of Democrat. Aces high.”
Elected to the state Assembly in 1958 by Pat Brown’s big coattails, Waldie was a liberal Democrat swept into a Republican-leaning East Bay district.
As his son Jon, the chief administrative officer of the Assembly said, his father served in a different political world.
“In his era, there were progressives from both sides of the aisle who felt government could help the average person improve their lives. He was the ultimate optimist. And even with the tragedy of Watergate, Dad felt the country was strong enough to endure and improve.”
When Jerry Waldie came to Sacramento, the Legislature met only one year for seven months and then three months the following year to stitch together a budget. Lawmakers were paid around $500 for their trouble.
Eight years later, Waldie and his roommate, Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh, changed all that.
Jerome Russell Waldie was a professional politician. His answer as to why he ran for the Assembly, then Congress and then governor in 1974 was the same: Each was a “step upward on the political ladder and I wanted to move up when the opportunity arose.”
His friends are quick to point out – he was a guy that deserved to bemoved up.
“The thing I love about him is how very principled he was,” said former Assemblyman John Laird, a Santa Cruz Democrat who got his start in politics through Waldie. “He was fearless about taking positions on anything. He did what he thought was right. And coming from Contra Costa that wasn’t always the easiest thing to do.”
In an interview with California’s Capitol in January 2008, Waldie said during his first Assembly campaign he knocked on the doors of 60 percent of the residents in his eastern Contra Costa County district — Antioch, Oakley, Martinez and Crockett.
He raised $1,500 — $1,000 from his mother — and most of the rest from unions.
“It’s beyond my comprehension now,” he said of current campaign spending.
Waldie helped begin the overhaul of California’s mental hospitals, which concluded with the landmark Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1968.
“Unruh was very moved by the injustices and so was Jerry and Unruh felt he had to do something so he created a subcommittee with Jerry as chair. Jerry went to Congress before the work was finished,” Laird recalled.
Waldie became majority leader in 1961. Because he was running for Congress in a special election in 1966, he was tapped by Unruh to carry the bill that would increase the salaries of state lawmakers and end the part-time Legislature.
“There was an increase in salary of a considerable amount,” Waldie told California’s Capitol over fat-free cookies on the back porch of his Pleasant Valley home. “Part of the reason I was the author is then it would have the appearance it was not a partisan effort since it was done by a fella who was leaving the Legislature and wouldn’t benefit from it. “
The measure, ACA 13, became Proposition 1A and was approved by 73.5 percent of voters at the same November election in which Waldie got sent to Congress.
Among his work in Congress, Waldie tried to create a national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to protect California’s last free-flowing rivers – the Eel, Trinity and Klamath. He failed but encouraged GOP state Sen. Pete Behr of Marin County who succeeded in passing such legislation in 1972.
Without hesitation, Waldie always said his greatest accomplishment in Congress was introducing the Articles of Impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1973.
Outraged by Nixon’s firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignations of Attorney General Elliott L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus – the so-called Friday Night Massacre – the following Monday when Congress returned to work, Waldie put forward the impeachment resolution.
A copy of the resolution signed by his closest colleagues hangs in his home office.
In the intervening years, Waldie gave a lot of thought to the process of impeachment and said this:
“Impeachment is not a legal, judicial process. Impeachment is a combination of legal and political with a large portion of the basis for impeaching the president being that there is a political desire on behalf of the American people that it should happen.”
Spearheading the impeachment was one reason he failed to win the governship in 1974 – most of his time was spent in Washington sitting in hearings rather than campaigning in California.
Waldie had no campaign manager, no professional fundraiser and, thus, little money in his gubernatorial bid.
The Democratic field included then Secretary of State Jerry Brown, San Francisco state Senator George Moscone, former Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti and San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto.
Moscone dropped out early, which, Waldie said, helped his strategy of snagging the liberal vote.
Waldie pledged to canvass California – on foot.
“That was one of the first campaigns I worked on,” said former Assemblyman Paul Koretz, a West Hollywood Democrat. “Jerry spent most of the campaign in the House Judiciary Committee questioning Nixon about his illegal activities, which led to Nixon’s resignation. I walked part of California with him and he will always remain one of my heroes.”
Laird walked with Waldie from Mexico to Santa Barbara. On a beach in Santa Barbara they encountered a 100-year-old man.
“Jerry said he was running for governor and tried to shake this man’s hand,” Laird recalls. “The man told Jerry he was 100 years old and had never touched a politician or allowed a politician to touch him. He attributed his longevity to that.”
Brown easily won the primary. Waldie finished last.
“There was an exact correlation between the amount of money spent in the campaign and the winners and the place they fell,” Waldie said. “Jerry (Brown) spent the most and was elected. I spent the least and was fourth. Everybody says money is the mother’s milk of politics and it is but I’d never seen it demonstrated more dramatically.”
Who won the vote of the 100-year-old man is unknown.
“We were very tight during some real turbulent times,” said Pat Henning who was on the board with Waldie and now is director of the state Employment Development Department.
“When Jerry Brown asked me to come to his office late one night and offered me a position on the board, he went out of his way to tell me that when in doubt, listen to Waldie. He was one of the nicest, smartest persons I ever had the privilege to know and work with on any issue.”
Brown’s successor as governor, George Deukmejian, thought Waldie might seek gainful employ elsewhere.
One of the lasting legacies of Waldie’s eight years in Congress was his close friendship with Pete McCloskey, a friendship that continued until the end of Waldie’s life.
McCloskey’s opposition to Vietnam led him briefly to run against Nixon in 1972 before opting to keep his San Mateo County-based congressional seat for another 15 years. A key reason for that opposition was Waldie.
The two men went on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam sponsored by Businessmen for Peace. As Waldie recalled, both he and McCloskey had a “critical view” of the war before the trip.
The two witnessed the interrogation of a teen-aged Viet Cong soldier who said he and his comrades could be captured but would never surrender. McCloskey, a decorated Korean War vet, was impressed with the kid’s toughness.
Afterwards, Waldie suggested they visit an American field hospital — a stop not included on their itinerary. They saw a young soldier with a bandaged head who, McCloskey recalled, looked like his oldest son. One bullet had turned the GI into a vegetable.
Seeing that soldier tipped the scales for McCloskey and convinced him to publicly oppose the war.
Perhaps most revealing of who Jerry Waldie was is the 14-year laugh-out-loud correspondence between him and one Nestle J. Frobish, chairman of the Worldwide Fairplay for Frogs Committee. The genesis of the correspondence was Waldie’s 1961 legislation allowing frogs to be killed with slingshots.
“We were having fun,” Waldie says of his collaborator, Nestle J. Frobish, the destroyer of Waldie’s gubernatorial campaign, Mo Udall says in the introduction to the 1975 book containing Frobish and Waldie’s delightful missives.
Waldie introduced the bill on behalf of a sports writer at a newspaper in his Assembly district. The sports writer and his son were hunting frogs — with slingshots.
A Parks & Recreation ranger cited them because the law didn’t allow frogs to be killed by slingshots. Frogs could only be killed with fork-like poles called gigs.
What Waldie thought was humane was anathema to frog lovers like Frobish who dubbed Waldie both a “flagitious wretch” and the “Mad Butcher of the Swamps,” among other sobriquets.
“Soon the sportsmen will demand the legalization of flamethrowers, napalm and poison gas. Spare the humble frog the anguish of further aggression,” Frobish wrote in one epistle.
Although Waldie’s slingshot legislation swiftly sailed to interim study and never became law, the running joke ultimately became a page-turning book.
There was even an effort at Laird’s alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, to name a college after Frobish. The needed $1 million — in 1970s dollars — never materialized.
“I suggested we have a frog leg roast to try and raise money but Nestle wouldn’t go along with it,” Waldie says with a twinkle.
Most recently, Waldie was a member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Authority of which he was the state Senate’s appointee by Burton.
There are 15 members: Seven from Nevada, seven from California and an appointee of the president who has no real power. To win approval for a project, four votes from each state are needed.
“Are you one of the four (California) environmental votes?” Waldie was once asked.
“Always,” he said without hesitation.
Waldie is survived by Joanne, his wife of 61 years, his children — Jill, Jon and Jeff — seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, Waldie insists on hefty and continuing donations to the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the United Farm Workers and the Democratic Party.
Filed under: California History
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