What a terrible loss. Greg Schmidt, the 18-year Secretary of the Senate, died this week in Sacramento. It’s hard to explain the impact he made through the advice he gave to legislators and the mentorship he gave to staff.
I met Greg in 2007, while I was a Senate Fellow in the office of a member of the Senate Rules Committee. The first time I ever met him, I told him that I was a student of legislative history and a big fan of his work on the 2000 California Blue Book. Immune to flattering words and people claiming to share his interests, he replied; “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
Surprised by his direct manner and not having any idea how to respond, I blurted out, “I found an error.”
“Come with me,” he said, and led me to his office on the 4th floor. Dropping a copy of the massive book on a small table in his office, Greg pointed to it and said “Show me.”
In the years after, we occasionally talked as my research took me into what seemed like dead ends. After getting approval from his gatekeeper, I’d head up the stairs to his office and ask if he had time to talk. He would rarely give me the answer I was looking for, but would frequently point me in a new direction that I hadn’t thought of and send me along on my way.
Educated as a historian, he understood the thrill of diving into old books to learn stories that were forgotten by almost everyone. His training also helped him understand (better than most who work in Capitol) exactly how he fit into the history of the institution that he loved. He knew that the building had stood for a century before he arrived. You don’t even want to know how many legislators his tenure in the legislature overlapped with. It was a lot.
It can be hard for politicians and staffers to understand that, with all of the bustle and racing confusion of the session, this really isn’t the end of the story. Seeing members come and go, Schmidt understood that we get some time to make a difference and then we depart. History is a chain and the people in office now are not the final link. Although we can’t see it, the chain will continue after us and it’s our duty to do the best job we can while we’re here.
In his subtle ways, he left clues throughout the Chambers. In the hallway that runs from the Senate Sergeant-At-Arms office to the back of the Senate Chambers are the photographs of the California Senate’s Presidents pro Tempore. Not just one, but all of them, back to 1849.
On the hall opposite the entrance to the Members’ Lounge are panorama photos of the chamber filled with Senators of different sessions. Even on the Senate Floor itself, he placed a bust of an early Senator on a pedestal. I always enjoyed this quiet symbolism; to this day, every session is watched over by a 41st Senator who ties the modern institution to its humble roots.
Greg Schmidt was a man who, for the time he was able, kept the Senate connected to its roots.