Remembering John Quimby

John Phillip Quimby, a craggy Capitol fixture for five decades first as a legislator and then a lobbyist for the Inland Empire, died December 23, 2012 of complications from pneumonia. He was 77.

0A Democratic Assemblyman from 1962 to 1974, he subsequently lobbied for the counties he previously represented, San Bernardino and Riverside. 

“Politics is a game of addition – not subtraction,” Quimby was fond of saying.

Quimby was 28 when he began his first term, becoming the youngest person to win election to the lower house at the time. Previously, he was elected to the San Bernardino City Council at 22, the youngest person to serve on that body.

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve seen all the changes,” Quimby aptly said in a newspaper interview – 38 years before he retired as a lobbyist for Riverside County.

With his barrel chest, bouncer’s shoulders and rumbling baritone that bespoke his early career as a radio and TV announcer, Quimby was a commanding and endearing Capitol presence. 

Quimby was also the first paraplegic to serve in the California Legislature, which was a part time body during his first two terms.

The polio he contracted at age 12 confined him to a wheelchair or kept him braced with his stainless steel “sticks” but the disease never hobbled his zest for life.

Ever quick with a quip, Quimby could “outtalk friend and foe,” to quote the headline of a July 29, 1973 profile by veteran Capitol Press Corps reporter Vic Pollard in the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them do the backstroke,” is one of long-time legislative staffer Peter Detwiler’s favorite Quimbyisms. 

After filing for re-election to the Assembly in San Bernardino in 1970, Quimby gave a luncheon speech in which he railed against Northern California interests trying to choke the flow of water to Southern California.

“The people attempting to stop the State Water Project say that the extra water coming to Southern California would attract more people who would contribute further to the air pollution problems in this part of the state. This is nonsense,” Quimby was quoted as telling the audience in the February 28, 1970 edition of the Ontario Daily Report.

“He then cleared his throat, coughed a couple times, and said, ‘God, the smog is terrible down here,’ ” the paper reported.quimbychair

During a 1973 Assembly Rules Committee discussion of a measure backed by then Secretary of State Jerry Brown restricting lobbying activities that voters approved one year later as Proposition 9, the Sun-Telegram quotes Quimby as saying:

“If this bill had been law when Jerry’s father was in office (Pat Brown) would be so far back in jail we’d have to pump air in to him.”

It was common in the Capitol to happen upon the white-maned, luxuriantly mustached Quimby regaling listeners with a hoary yarn, corny joke or homespun homily – punctuated with a periodic “goddamn,” “by golly” and a pull on a fat cigar.   

His stemwinder about a forgotten imaginary overcoat is a Capitol classic.   

“John Quimby was the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met when it came to the inner workings of the Capitol,” said Jim Wiltshire, deputy director of the California State Association of Counties, who worked for Quimby as a lobbyist from 1999 to 2004.

“From Eddie the shoe shine man on the South Steps to Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, he endeared himself to everyone. There wasn’t an elevator operator or a governor over the past five decades that John didn’t take the time to let them know he cared,” Wiltshire said. “John thrived on the magic of human interaction.”

Although a Democrat, Quimby touched the lives of legislators, staffers and administration officials on both sides of the aisle.

Said Quimby of his approach to lobbying in a 2009 Riverside Press Enterprise interview:

0-1“You need to have a relationship where you can meet a (legislator) on the way up to a hearing and say to them a half-dozen words and they’ll take you on your word. You have to develop that rapport.”

Quimby had decades to develop that rapport. His legislative career began when lawmaking was a part-time job. He was a contemporary and drinking companion of Speaker Jesse Unruh who championed the Legislature becoming a full-time body in 1966. He also served for several years with the brilliant but driven Phil Burton, who Unruh considered a rival.

A “gargantuan presence that dominated everything, the big hog,” was how Quimby described Unruh to John Jacobs in bhis biography of Burton, A Rage for Justice. Burton was “this other thing” who was “really doing things and doing them under Jess’ nose and Jess din’t like him and he was a real threat and Jess was worried.”

In 1963, through low-balling and political legerdermain, Burton won passage and a signature by Gov. Pat Brown of an expansive bill, AB 59, increasing welfare benefits that the Democratic governor intitially said would save counties $21 million but instead, cost them more than five times that amount. 

Quimby became a co-sponsor. Seeing the initially innocuous measure morph into its final form was “like watching Phil Burton weave together a gorgeous tapestry, thread by thread. Only he knew what it looked like,” Quimby told Jacobs.

“Then he gets done with the tapestry, pulls back the curtain, turns on the lights for everyone to see and it’s your mother fucking a rhinoceros.”

By temperament, Quimby was closer to Unruh.

Jesse Unruh

Jesse Unruh

Bill Boyarsky, in an excerpt from  his Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics, quotes Quimby, then a fledgling lawmaker, describing an encounter in a bar with Unruh: 

“I was just depressed,” Quimby said. “My wife and I were having a lot of money troubles. We were paid … $600 a month and my wife was a legal secretary making about that amount. We were strapped. We had five kids and all the expenses thereto…. Jess picked up on this somehow. He just intuitively picked up on it. The guy knew things about you on a personal basis. He said to me, ‘John, what’s happening?’ I said ‘Jess, same old stuff, the wife and the kids and money.’ He said, ‘I want to give you some help.’ “

Unruh, Boyarsky notes, was paid the same as Quimby. And also had five children. Unruh pulled out 15  $100 bills and gave them to Quimby.

“Cash money,” said Quimby. “I just can’t tell you what that meant. He said just: ‘Take this and use it for the best advantage.’ Never mentioned it again.… I am not saying he (just) gave people money. He gave people what they needed that he could come up with even if it was a hug or a kind word or a phone call.… I think that was his secret.”

Part of Quimby’s appeal — a former chair of the San Bernardino March of Dimes — was his “carrying on so cheerfully and indomitably in spite of his own handicap,” writes former Senate President Pro Tempore James Mills in a December 1983 San Diego Magazine article.

“(John) struggled around the marble halls of the Capitol like a lion crippled in its hindquarters,” writes Mills, a San Diego Democrat who was the Senate’s leader from 1971 to 1980 and Quimby’s Assembly colleague from 1963 through 1966.

“His arms, shoulders and neck were majestically proportioned, as a result of his having propelled himself by hand upon his withered steel-braced legs everywhere he had gone since he was a youngster. His head was sculpted on the same leonine scale and design as his forequarters – and it was appropriately framed by a fine, dark mane of hair.”

Echoing the words of others who knew Quimby, Mills says: “A few words with John always improved any day.”

derby - Version 3Says Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard:

“He was a very smart bright man. An effective lobbyist but people just loved having him around. He always had a joke or a way of making people laugh. I never heard him say anything bad about anyone.”

Quimby also considered cursing an art form although one of his oft-usd phrases — “Commie-pinko” — lost some cache after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Quimby’s proudest legislative achievement was a 1965 measure that bears his name, passed in the wake of a rash of development throughout the state.

In one paragraph, the Quimby Act changed how California has grown over the past 45 years:

“The governing body a of a city or county may by ordinance require the dedication of land, the payment of fees in lieu thereof, or a combination of both, for park or recreational purposes as a condition to the approval of a final subdivision map.”

Not only did developers need to set aside land for parks or pay for park improvements but cities and counties were required to create master plans that included parks.

Speaking of his experience on the San Bernardino City Council, Quimby told the Voice of Orange County in 2011:

“We couldn’t get the goddamned developers to budge an inch on dedicating land for public use, including putting in sidewalks,” he said.

Despite strong opposition from developers to his bill, Quimby told the Voice of Orange County, “It turned out that developers liked the bill afterwards, because they found out that (having parks) legitimately increased the value of the houses.”

Said Quimby in the Sun-Telegram, 28 years earlier:

“It was ruled unconstitutional by the Legislative Counsel and then the Attorney General. It was taken to court all the way up to the Supreme Court and now that program is being adopted by most of the cities up and down the state. Now, when a  guy gets a subdivision done, the city can have a park built and the houses are selling and everybody is happy. 

Also among his legislative accomplishments was creation of California’s hotel motel tax, the first measure bringing educational TV into classrooms and the Quimby-Walsh Local Government Control Act.

That act, which can be found at Penal Code Section 318.5, prohibits the state from preempting city and county regulation of topless or bottomless entertainment – except in theaters and concert halls.

Quimby’s legislation didn’t always pass. A 1969 measure requiring all Assembly meetings be public was not embraced by his colleagues.

Then Gov. Ronald Reagan and his Department of Finance, headed by Caspar Weinberger, opposed a Quimby bill allowing taxpayers to deduct utility taxes from state income taxes.

While Reagan championed other tax breaks, the Department of Finance said Quimby’s proposal would cost the state $150,000.

“Someone once said that consistency was the virtue of little minds.  If that’s true, then the governor’s Department of Finance must be loaded with great minds,” said Quimby in a May 15, 1969 Associated Press story.

Quimby once tried to pass a bill allowing public notices and other official “legal” advertising to be allowed on the radio.quimbyatDesk

“Do you really think the people are going to listen to that?” then Assemblyman Craig Biddle, a Riverside Republican (the boss of current Sen. Bill Emmerson, another Riverside Republican) asked Quimby after reading aloud a lengthy and monotonous legal ad from a newspaper.

“If they listen to ads for Preparation H, they’ll listen to anything,” Quimby retorted.

He decried what he called “press release bills” which he defined as those “you put in and hope the paper gets your name right.”

To the Sun-Telegram, Quimby said:

“I don’t try to sponsor a lot of bills. The most important job a legislator can do may be to help kill a lot of the legislation we see around here.”

As a lobbyist, Quimby once forgot to introduce a piece of legislation on behalf of a client.

Asked later in the year by the client how the bill was progressing, Quimby said matter-of-factly, the bill “died in Legislative Counsel, we’ll try again next year.”  

Wiltshire recalls struggling in presenting a bill in Senate Judiciary Committee.

Quimby, in his motorized wheelchair, “shot through the side door of Room 4203 and barked, ‘Move the bill, it’s a good government bill.’ He 0
then motored out the other side of the room and before the sergeant-at-arms could close the door behind him, the bill was moved, seconded and sailed out of committee.”

Quimby credits his election defeat in 1974 with saving his life. The Sun-Telegram profile hints at his alcoholism describing an increase in “off nights” during his legislative tenure and incidents of rambling disjointed speeches. He broke his leg falling down the stairs of his Sacramento condominium.

“Sacramento got the best of him,” said Former Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat and Quimby’s colleague in the Assembly for 10 years. “But he fought it.”

Beaten by fellow Democrat Terry Goggin, Quimby left office and sobered up. 

As the obituary placed by Quimby’s family says, he was a friend of Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, for the final 36 years of his life.

Quimby and fellow recovering addict Burton were often asked to help fellow lawmakers get sober. One such lawmaker was the late Sen. Bill Greene, a Los Angeles Democrat, according to the Los Angeles Times in a 1989 article.

“John saved some lives around the Capitol and a lot of people’s careers,” Burton recalled.

Quimby was born on February 12, 1935, the son of Henrietta and Merle Quimby, in Prescott Arizona. The family moved to California where Quimby was schooled in Banning and Riverside. He worked as a radio announcer for several stations before landing his seat on the San Bernardino City Council.

He is survived by two children — John Quimby, Jr. and Kimberly Quimby, both of Sacramento — three step-children, Kenny, Mary and Virginia George, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren and his brother Merle of Kingman, Arizona.

A memorial service is set for 1 p.m., Jan. 5 at the Mission Oaks Community Center, 4701 Gibbons Drive, in Carmichael.

(*Featured Image originally from the Riverside Press Enterprise.)





  1. Greg. Great job. Nice tribute to a very decent man.

    Comment by bruce allen — 1.04.2013 @ 10:21 pm

  2. I had not thought of him in ages and really liked reading this piece.

    Comment by JoAnn Anglin — 1.04.2013 @ 10:54 pm

  3. Well done, Greg. John was a friend and an associate for over 35 years. I recall the many times when , approached by a street person asking for “spare change”, John would respond with an “Of course” and reach into his wallet for a $5. He was generous, kind, and he served this community well. He will be missed.

    Comment by baxter culver — 1.05.2013 @ 7:56 am

  4. An outstanding and informative tribute to one of the all-time great people of the Capital. John was a “lion of a man”.

    Comment by Tim Treichelt — 1.05.2013 @ 9:22 am

  5. Greg thank you for a wonderful article and tribute to my friend and mentor John Quimby. I too had the honor of sitting for hours listening to John share stories of both the capitol and of the local area he represented. He also told me a couple of stories about his relationship with my former boss the Sheriff of San Bernardino County and how they had a couple of out of the office meetings after 2AM. John welcomed me as part of the lobby corps of San Bernardino and made sure that I could always ask him for advice and counsel. John once told me while I was explaining a bill that he did not read bills. He went on to say that lobbying is not about reading it is about talking and listening to people who can pass bill.

    Comment by Paul Curry — 1.05.2013 @ 11:11 am

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