Remembering Ross Johnson – The Last Lion

Editor’s Note: Ross Johnson passed away earlier this week. This column originally appeared on CPR in 2004 when he retired from the California Legislature.

Senator Ross Johnson on his last night as a Senator at the Capital in Sacramento, California on Friday August 27, 2004. (Photo by David Paul Morris, For the Register)

Monday, December 6th will mark the end of an illustrious political career and of an era. State Senator Ross Johnson will officially leave the Legislature. He will be the last of the class of 1978 – the “Proposition 13 babies” – to depart.

1978 also marked my first election cycle as director of the Gun Owners PAC, and since virtually all of the Prop. 13 supporters were also strong on the 2nd Amendment, I got to know most of them while supporting their campaigns. There was one supporter of Prop. 13 whose primary race I stayed out of.  Much as I liked what I heard about the candidate, common sense told me he couldn’t win his race against much better known and better financed local elected officials. His name was Ross Johnson.

An attorney at the time, Ross believed in himself and his philosophy enough to mortgage the family house to finance the campaign. Latching onto the coat tails of Prop. 13 and of Bill Dannemeyer (the hugely popular but officially neutral incumbent assemblyman who was running for Congress), Ross routed the local officials and their money. Like most of the Prop. 13 supporters who won that year, Ross outworked the opposition and effectively delivered a message people were aching to hear.

Ross’s victory taught this PAC director the folly of being overly cautious and not following my gut. It was the first of many things I learned from Ross Johnson.

Though derided by liberals as “cavemen,” the Prop. 13 class as a group was in fact much better educated and versed in classical governing theory than most Democrats. They could talk about Jefferson, Friedman and Cicero, and know that they weren’t referring to Sherman Hemsley (look him up!), a local Deli owner and a town in Illinois.

In a class full of exceptionally bright and thoughtful people, Ross stood out as a star. He was better than anyone I’ve ever met at analyzing a problem or situation and coming up – usually on the spot – with the best way to deal with it. His political instincts are as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with. In the interests of modesty and avoiding a laundry list, let’s just say that covers a lot of ground.

Though it would be a decade before he actually became leader of the Assembly Republicans, Ross was always one of the prime movers for the innovative policy ideas, political stratagems and anti-Democrat guerrilla warfare that helped the GOP wield influence far beyond anything their numerical strength would justify. His core principals were sacrosanct and unchanging, and his refusal to support Pete Wilson’s huge tax increase in 1991 cost Ross his post as Assembly GOP leader.

He did not suffer fools lightly, could be a ferocious taskmaster, and had his “blue funk” days when you knew you really didn’t want to approach him. That being said, he made politics fun. He had an infectious sense of humor, a seemingly endless supply of new jokes, and a laugh distinctive enough that I can hear it as I write these words. In announcing on the Assembly floor his opposition to the above mentioned tax hike (which Wilson had tried to camouflage as fee increases), he said “I say it’s a tax increase, and I say to hell with it!” As fiercely partisan as any, his character and humanity was such that he easily made friends across the aisle, and counts many Democrats as friends and admirers.

While during the day there was no doubt who was a legislator and who was staff, after hours he was as warm, approachable and solicitous as anyone’s best friend. The Republican haunt for the decade of the 80s was Eilish’s. This was Cheers before anyone had ever heard of the tv show. Everyone knew your name at Eilish’s, with the eponymous owner – all 5’4” 120 pounds of her – playing waitress, mother hen, bouncer, sooth-sayer (“He’s just filling your mouth with an empty spoon”), peace-maker (Democrats were allowed in), and all around Irish yenta. Ross was the undisputed Mayor and emcee of Eilish’s, asking how your day went, how your family was, “did you hear the one about…” and ensuring that a Hank Williams song (junior or senior would do), was never more than 5 minutes away on the juke box.

Ross is self-effacing enough and sufficiently intolerant of political hokum that he declined the standard “tribute” ceremony in the state Senate and forbade farewell functions in his district. He will surely disapprove of this column. But I could not let him go gentle into that good night without acknowledging his decades of service to causes I cherish. Thank you Ross Johnson. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Happy trails to you, old cowboy.  Happy trails.

Bill Saracino is a member of the Editorial Board of CA Political Review.