News & Views from 465 California Street

Citizen Lockyer

Clint Reilly

When Jesse Unruh died in 1987, his New York Times obituary called him a “blunt speaking virtuoso of backroom politics.”

But Unruh was much more than that. As Assembly Speaker, he transformed the body into a professionally staffed, full-time institution. Later in his career, as California’s Treasurer, he oversaw the expenditure of billions of dollars in public funds.

In more ways than one, Unruh earned his name, “Big Daddy.”

If there is a single politician in Sacramento today who can fill Unruh’s shoes, it would be today’s inhabitant of the office Unruh vacated when he passed away in 1987: Bill Lockyer.

Lockyer is winding up his first term as treasurer after a career in the Capitol that began in 1973. His first election came at the young age of 32, after his boss, East Bay Assemblyman Bob Crown, was hit by a car while jogging and killed.

After a distinguished career in the Assembly, Lockyer moved to the State Senate. From 1994 to 1998, he was the most powerful Democrat in Sacramento as Senate majority leader.

In 1998 Lockyer became California’s Attorney General. He served as the state’s top law-enforcer for eight years before he was elected Treasurer in 2006.

His re-election to the office in 2010 is a virtual certainty. By the time he leaves office in 2014, Lockyer will have completed 40 years of service in the Capitol – single handedly defying the era of term limits.

But it isn’t simply his longevity that sets him apart.

Lockyer boldly defies the caricature of the career politician as a burned out, cynical egotist. One of his most remarkable traits is his enthusiasm and passion for public service after so many years in the trenches of California politics.

I have known him well as a State Senate Leader, Attorney General and Treasurer. In fact, Lockyer was a San Leandro School Board member in my home town and graduated from San Leandro High School – a stone’s throw from where I grew up.

I learned a lot about Lockyer’s character during an experience I had as President of the Board of Directors of Catholic Charities CYO for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

I had been approached by a prominent Southern California health foundation to assist them with an issue involving the Attorney General’s office.

Lockyer personally took the time over the course of nearly a year to understand the matter and work with his staff to unravel a very complex problem. In the end, tens of thousands of sick and infirm patients needing financial assistance benefited from Lockyer’s quiet leadership.

As Treasurer, Lockyer has developed a reputation as one of the nation’s leading experts on public finance. A frequent commentator on CNBC, he has was one of the first to ring the alarm about our state’s dismal financial picture.

In recent colorful testimony before the Senate and Assembly Select Committees on Improving State Government, Lockyer’s refreshing candor rocked the halls. Judging from his rhetoric, Bill’s as fed up as the rest of us with the financial gridlock in Sacramento:

“It’s impossible for the legislature to reform the pension system, and if we don’t, we bankrupt the state,” he exhorted. “People like you [legislators] who are supposed to be doing the oversight so that we manage smartly, aren’t.”

Lockyer ratcheted up the heat: “I’m sorry, two-thirds of the bills that come out of the legislature, if they never saw the light of day, God bless it! Just stop it. Just Stop it. Just stop it. They’re junk!”

Offering fiscal advice to fellow Democrats, the Treasurer offered these words of wisdom: “I would say to Democrats, in an era when we are not going to have tax increases, give it up. Figure out how to be more efficient with the money we’ve got.”

Only a veteran secure in his place in the Democratic Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Jesse Unruh could have sounded so much like an angry Howard Jarvis.

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