In 1969, I was in my third year of police work for the San Jose Police Department. John Vasconcellos, a newly elected Assemblyman from my district, sent his chief of staff to do a ride along in a police car, and she was assigned to my beat, which was the toughest in the city at the time. When I later met John at a fundraiser, he asked what I did to make such an impression on his chief of staff. I told him I had offered her simple, truthful speak about internal and community issues and problems. We became friends and worked together on educational initiatives and budgets, and I sometimes walked precincts with him.
John was the "go to guy" in the Legislature, in no small part because he learned the inner and outer detailed workings of the budget. John seemed to have the magic of winning over big business interests while moving a progressive agenda that astonished politicians nationwide. It surely helped that he was an intellectual at heart, having graduated Magna Cum Laude from Santa Clara University (SCU) and first in his class from SCU’s School of Law. As a first year student, he managed to convince the president of the university to fire the Dean of the Law School, whom he proclaimed incompetent. He was a trusted friend of Speaker Willie Brown and served as chair of the Education and the Ways and Means Committees.
His contributions to education are second to none. He established the state’s first Legislative Review of California's Educational Master Plan in 1980s. He was the first to move to fruition legislation providing $20 million for low performing schools burdened with violence and truancy. He moved the California community colleges from secondary education clones to a model more like the universities by empowering the academic senates and reversing the trend to rely upon part-time instructors. His arguments were so convincing and persistent that he was able to convince conservative Republican Governor Deukmejian to sign AB 1725 into law.
John was a pioneer of humanistic politics. While his work on self-esteem was the joke of national cartoonists and pundits, that work—including the establishment of a commission on self-esteem and the creation of self-esteem legislation—eventually revealed a clear scientific relationship between substance abuse, educational failure, and violence linked to personal self-esteem or lack thereof. Courage, humility, and a commitment to personal growth were the hallmarks of his pathway, and it was an honor to have had the opportunity to work with him through the years. He will be sorely missed.