John Vasconcellos ’54, J.D. ’59, the famously rumpled bear-of-a-man who served 38 entertaining and volatile years in the state Legislature representing the heart of Silicon Valley, died May 24, 2014. He was 82.
Friends said Vasconcellos, whose kidneys had been failing, died at 12:15 p.m. at his Santa Clara condo.
Vasconcellos gained national fame after Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in 1986 signed legislation that created the Democratic Vasconcellos’ pet project: The California Task Force to Promote Self-steem, Personal and Social Responsibility.
A few months later, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau spent three weeks mocking the task force, imagining what went on inside flaky-sounding meetings.
While many politicians might have wilted under such enormous teasing, Vasconcellos — colorful, witty, brilliant, angry, intellectual and elegantly foul of mouth — turned the insults into a spread in People magazine and countless guest spots on TV and radio discussing the serious value of self-steem.
"I’ve gotten more attention in the last several weeks than in the (previous) 20 years," he beamed in a 1987 Los Angeles Times profile.
"He had two sides: the legislator who was masterful of money flowing in and out of the Legislature and masterful in getting bills he wanted passed — even if it took five to six years to get them done," Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political-science professor, said Saturday. Then there "was the humanitarian side. People viewed it as quirky, but he was dead serious.
"This was a person of two interesting, different minds, but both thrived."
Vasconcellos, who retired from politics in 2004 after serving 30 years in the Assembly and eight years in the state Senate, never married or had children but was widely revered and surrounded by friends at the end.
Lee Quarnstrom, a retired San Jose Mercury News journalist and longtime friend of Vasconcellos, said: "His friends knew him as a truly decent man who always based his politics on the notion that humans are basically good and that public policy that stimulates and encourages the good in humankind — he called it the politics of trust — should be the guiding principle for those who make the laws and develop governmental programs and policies."
Many who admired Vasconcellos said he always remained a hard-harging, idealistic liberal who considered himself both a student and teacher of all things political.
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen recalled one vital lesson from the year she was a rookie in the Legislature and was trying to sponsor bill that put legislative information online. Capitol players kept calling meetings about the proposal but strategically did not invite Bowen.
She asked Vasconcellos what she should do about her disrespectful colleagues. His recommendation: Find out when the meetings are planned and just show up.
"I don’t think I would have done that without John’s advice," said Bowen, suggesting she might have resorted to a nasty war in the Capitol’s back halls. "John showed me that I was perfectly entitled to be at those meetings — and showing up forced the others to realize that too."
Bowen said the secrecy halted immediately.
Almost from the day of his 1966 election to the state Assembly, Vasconcellos was a thunderous Capitol presence. He was always searching for ways to salve his tempestuous inner demons. And he publicly employed an array of "human-potential movement" therapies, including psychosynthesis and gestalt, hoping to release rage, tension and fear. He was a devotee of the teachings out of Esalen, the Big Sur center of "New Age" consciousness.
In 1970, Vasconcellos began 13 years of practicing bioenergetics with Stanley Keleman. At one point, the therapist told the politician that if he continued the therapy, his inner rage might end up "blowing your entire political career!" But Vasconcellos would not stop the discovery process.
"It caused such a fallout that the state Assembly created a team of colleagues who rushed to his side when he and his rage erupted," according to a biographical profile by Vasconcellos’ legislative staff. The fellow legislators "held his hands while he blew until he settled down. Eventually, he outgrew both his rage and his need for such support."
John B. Vasconcellos Jr. was born May 11, 1932, in San Jose. His father was Portuguese, his mother German. Family lore has it that his dad was among the early Portuguese men who jumped ship in Hawaii to find work. That is how young John came to cherish Maui and build a large, extended family on the Hawaiian island.
For high school, he boarded at Bellarmine College Preparatory and graduated with top honors. He then trekked minutes up The Alameda to Santa Clara University, where he graduated magna cum laude. After serving two years as an Army lieutenant, he went to law school, also at Santa Clara, graduating in 1959 at the top of his class.
During the one year he spent on Gov. Pat Brown’s campaign staff in the early ’60s, politics were injected into his heart. And from the moment he finally took his first Assembly seat, Vasconcellos was a passionate, quotable and unique character.
"People are basically decent — and given the right kinds of recognition, nurturance, love and support — will live in constructive ways," he once said.
Throughout the 1970s, Vasconcellos actively lobbied for community-based nonviolent conflict resolution projects and university peace-study programs. He also promoted student representation on all the major governing boards in California higher education, according to the enormous cache of Vasconcellos papers, housed in a special collection at UC Santa Barbara.
Vasconcellos left the Assembly in 1996 when he was elected to the state Senate. In 1997, at age 65, he expressed an interest in running for governor, saying: "I’m better prepared than anyone else in terms of knowledge of the issues."
He was unapologetic about wanting a more expansive, generous government — even when he was a budget wonk as chairman of the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee. That expertise, plus his devotion to "human potential," made it easy for him to sell himself as a political unifier.
"Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of Californians on thousands of projects, bringing people together, from the homeless to high-tech executives," he said at the time. "I have a unique record on that."
But perhaps it was all that high self-steem that led him to soon drop out of the race. "I didn’t have the stomach to get on the phone and beg" for money, he admitted after a few months. "My life is too precious."
When term limits ended his Assembly run in 1996, Vasconcellos was also chairman of the ethics committee. After winning the Senate seat, he soon chaired the Public Safety Committee. His "Tough & Smart Public Safety Program" took a preventive approach to public safety, but without making Democrats look soft on crime.
In the Senate, he also chaired committees on K-12 and higher education and the Subcommittee on Aging and Long-Term Care. He was known for guid
ing them both with equal shares of fiscal responsibility, kindness and savvy.
"John was the sort of man whom many, many Californians thought of as a dear friend," Quarnstrom said. "He despaired … about the state Capitol, a place he truly loved. And yet, it was a place that he always knew needed to get better and do better."
Bowen said Vasconcellos taught politicians on both sides of the aisle many important things about doing the job earnestly, while striving for personal growth.
Even when he was done with politics, she said, he humorously laid out a thoughtful plan for a positive retirement.
"I have three requisites," Bowen remembers Vasconcellos telling her. "I don’t want to be cold. I don’t want to have a schedule. And, most of all, I don’t want to deal with assholes!"
Bowen laughed and said, "That answer was just so John."