Reflecting on service

Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) speaks to a group of

Popular yet termed-out Assemblyman John Laird has a bit of
advice for whoever wins the 27th District this upcoming Nov. 4.
Popular yet termed-out Assemblyman John Laird has a bit of advice for whoever wins the 27th District this upcoming Nov. 4.

“When you go into a supermarket, get your frozen goods last,” he said. “That’s what I took away from (my) service.”

Laird’s easygoing manner might make him more susceptible to grocery aisle conversations than most politicians in what he calls a “mom-and-pop” district, made up of 12 small cities along the central coast, including portions of Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, squeezing inland just enough to include Morgan Hill.

Before his assembly service, he served two four-year terms on the Santa Cruz City Council, two one-year terms as mayor of Santa Cruz and eight years as a Cabrillo College Trustee.

As Morgan Hill’s first Central Coast-based representative for the seat, Laird’s relationship with the city could have easily gone sour.

But Laird, D-Santa Cruz, says he spent a disproportionate amount of time in Morgan Hill. Between 10 and 12 percent of district voters are in southern Santa Clara County. Thanks to term limits, he’s leaving the office — but with a stream of mushroom city supporters. The friendly, humorous assemblyman served three two-year terms in the assembly.

Laird, 58, was well-suited as Morgan Hill’s representative from the get-go. As he entered the assembly in 2002, he was appointed chairman of the California State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, which fit Morgan Hill’s needs as the city was grappling with perchlorate challenges stemming from the chemical leak that the road flare producer Olin Corporation discovered in 2000.

“I really worked to learn the issues,” Laird said. “I feel at home here, really welcome.”

A testament to Laird’s dedication to serving Morgan Hill is also one of his fondest assembly memories.

“The (California) Department of Health Services would not respond to (the city) about the perchlorate issue, and so I invited two members of the staff (they’d) been trying to meet with, and the Morgan Hill City Council came up and met them in my office,” Laird told the city council at a recent meeting where he was recognized for his service in the Assembly.

“And because there was a quorum present, you had to announce the meeting and post a note on my door, and when (Councilman) Greg Sellers had to leave early, the mayor had to bang the meeting to a close (with a gavel) even though nothing else changed around the table.”

That was 2003.

This spirit of collaboration is visible throughout Laird’s legislative service. A prolific politician, Laird passed more bills than any of his Assembly colleagues during two of the six years he served. Last year, Laird got 15 bills signed under the leadership of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he said.

This bipartisanship is evident in what Laird considers his legacy bill, the Laird-Leslie Sierra Nevada Conservancy Act of 2004. The act established a state agency that protects a 25 million-acre expanse of land stretching from the Oregon border to the southern end of the Sierra in Kern County and includes blue oak woodlands in the western foothills from development. The act secured the protection of the Sierra Nevada for generations to come, Schwarzenegger said at the time.

“People had been trying to do that for 10 years,” Laird said proudly. Laird said that he and then-state Sen. Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, were the latest two of several legislators to try to pass a bill to create the agency. All had fallen to the wayside primarily because of a lack of bipartisan effort, Laird said. So he proposed to Leslie that they work together on a bill, ensuring a reach across party lines. They used Leslie’s Republican-friendly bill as a template, adding amendments to make it palatable to Democrats like Laird.

Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, who was vice chairman of the Budget Committee while Laird was chairman this year, said the two became good friends and he was always impressed with Laird’s willingness to listen.

“Obviously, we came from different places philosophically and certainly disagreed about a lot more than we agreed, from the standpoint of appropriate solutions to our budget program. But we always had very open communication and were able to disagree without being disagreeable,” Niello said. “We had great exchanges about things. I’d have my say, and he would sit there and look at me thoughtfully and would respond to that in a fashion that certainly wasn’t dismissive. John has always been very generous and given me the opportunity to express myself” during budget committee discussions.

Laird’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed outside Sacramento: he was re-elected to the assembly with about 70 percent of the vote in 2004 and 2006.

This career politician need only look back into his ancestry to remember the impact politics have on the general populace. An avid genealogist, Laird has traced his “normal, run-of-the-mill” family back generations, through wars and migrations. He plans to spend his time after Nov. 30 tracing his family history even further.*A personal achievement for the openly gay legislator is expanding California’s civil rights law to “the broadest definition that exists.”

“It was a wonderful achievement,” he said. Laird lives with his partner John Flores in Santa Cruz.

“It’s tough to leave when you’re at the top of your game,” Laird said of being termed out. But, then, with a harried state budget, he’s “never had a break this year” and is looking forward to having a few nights off, too.

Laird said he would likely be appointed by the state to an environmental board that will bring him back to the Central Coast region.

Natalie Everett covers education and city issues for The Times. Reach her at (408) 779-4106, ext. 201, or [email protected]

John Laird:

Age: 58

Party: Democratic

Years of public service: 27

Education: Bachelor of arts degree in political science, dlai Stevenson College in Santa Cruz

Key legislation: Laird-Leslie Sierra Nevada Conservatory Act of 2004

Future: Likely appointment to state environmental board

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