John J. Benoit (1951-2016)

Former State Senator John J. Benoit died Monday at his home in Riverside County. He had been diagnosed with cancer in November. Benoit, a longtime officer with the California Highway Patrol, had a great sense of humor and a lifetime of stories from his career in law enforcement. In his office at the Capitol, he kept a small book filled with traffic tickets that he had written. One ticket, signed by a well-known young socialite and hotel heiress, confirmed that Benoit pulled her over for speeding at more than 100 mph. “It’s my only celebrity autograph” Benoit would joke.

Benoit was also a private pilot who flew regularly between his home and Sacramento. He made his first flight to Sacramento as a legislator in December 2002 to be sworn into office. During the flight, Benoit realized that his route would take him close to airspace that had been closed for the landing of the Space Shuttle Endeavour (finishing up STS-113). According to his telling of the story, he decided to circle just outside the restricted area in the hopes of seeing the landing shuttle. The shuttle came in much faster and at a steeper angle than he had expected and Benoit ended up being much closer to the flightpath than he had any desire to be.

Benoit resigned from the Senate in 2009 after being appointed to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, ending a stay in Sacramento that was far too short. He will be missed by many friends.

Senator John J. Benoit

Senator John J. Benoit

Bob Huff and The Parable of Someone Else’s Car

Banner - HuffThis is a short article that is a little bit about Senator Bob Huff, but mostly not.

I don’t write about every legislator but had been thinking about the soon-to-depart members who will be leaving office in the next few weeks. This evening, I saw a note on Facebook by a friend who thanked his boss, Senator Bob Huff “for a great experience.”

It got me thinking about my observations and handful of conversations with Senator Huff and the lessons that might be learned from his service in the legislature. The basic points of his service were actually pretty standard;

  • Like a lot of term limits-era legislators, he came from local government (serving on a City Council for a decade before arriving in the Assembly);
  • He served in both houses (which is a little more rare) and served 12 years between the two houses (which pretty standard for two-house members).

What made him stand out to me was the way he served. Let’s call this The Parable of Someone Else’s Car.

Term limits (specifically the restricted terms they offer legislators) can tell you a lot about people; how they treat other people’s things. Some politicians treat their elected offices like rental cars. From the way they interact with constituents and treat their staff to the seriousness with which they cast their votes, they clearly communicate “Hey, I’m not keeping this thing forever. It’s a rental! It’s just getting me from Point A to Point B.”

From my observations, that wasn’t Bob Huff. He treated his seat in the legislature like it was his father’s car. For all the downsides we got from the constant churning of legislators that term limits brought, the single best thing we received was the occasional legislator who understood that the seat they held was never really theirs and that someone else would occupy it in eight or fewer years.

Bob Huff didn’t rev the engine to show everyone how cool he was and he generally signalled when he was about to change lanes. He remained appreciative of the gift of public service that his neighbors had given him, he enjoyed the ride, and he returned it with a full tank of gas for whoever would be using it next.

He’s not out of the woods yet; there are always ample opportunities for former legislators to damage their reputations (just ask Assembly Speaker Yule). But as he leaves the Legislature… I think he can be proud of his accomplishments and the fact that he didn’t add any new dents or scratches to the 29th.

Greg Schmidt (1947-2016)

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.

Schmidt

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.