Former Marin Assemblyman Bill Bagley is a gregarious and genial man. Those who drive highway 101 just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge might recognize the freeway, named for this Republican, that begins just before the Waldo Tunnel on the Marin side of the structure.
Yes, a Republican once represented the now liberal enclave that is Marin County.
But Bagley’s greatest contribution to our state and to our politics may not be fully realized for a generation. To understand why, you have to know the man, what makes him tick and why the issue is so important to him.
Two of Bagley’s closest friends are Jack Knox, a former Democratic Majority Leader in the state Assembly, and former Democratic Senator John Foran, the former chairman of Transportation in the state Senate. These gentlemen used to be among the most powerful leaders in California.
They would argue by day and party at night. Knox could claim the best office bar in the State Capitol and Foran knows virtually every transportation system in every major city in the world. Not surprisingly, these men also have freeways named after them in the Bay Area.
Even after leaving government service, along with another Republican pal, former minority leader Paul Priolo, Knox and Foran met every Friday for lunch at North Beach Restaurant in San Francisco. The group grew among political insiders, and Sacramento Seminar—an educational 501c4—was formed. Priolo chaired the organization until recently.
Each week the group still meets for off-the-record conversations with newsmakers, media types and others. Currently chaired by radical moderate Dick Spotswood, the group now includes 100 members who range from Ron Smith, Republican Ed Zschau’s former consultant, to Democratic Senator Alan Cranston’s liberal former aide, yours truly.
Every week we argue the merits and substance of current political issues. We question current politicians from both sides of the aisle. But, most importantly, at the end of the day we part friends. We are friends who are able to agree to disagree, understanding that although we hold widely diverse political views, we do not hate each other.
This is the world that Bill Bagley flourished in as a legislator and a time that he chronicles in his book, California’s Golden Years: When Government Worked and Why.
Yes, Bagley disagreed with his Democrat colleagues. But he governed. He made compromises, he moved the ball and he recognized his adversaries as people who loved their state and their country.
Bagley started as a Republican who believed in the institutions of government. Obstruction was unthinkable—vote and win on the merits or lose on the merits. The ultimate goal of government is to govern.
Long disenchanted with a party he no longer recognized as his own, frustrated that moderate Democrat and Republican voices were forced out of government by extremists, and steadfast in his belief that bipartisanship, compromise and governance are essential and not a betrayal of fidelity to principle; Bagley decided to act.
He led the reform created an open primary system. He believed an open primary would lead to more moderate elected officials over time. He is right. The primary system only allowed partisans on both sides to be successful.
Former Congressman Pete Stark was the first casualty of the new system, and he will not be the last. Democrats and Republicans in formerly “safe” districts will compete against their own party. The swing voters who decide the election will be from the other party. No longer can a politician afford to engage in the mindless vitriol of denouncing the opposition party, because come November their votes will be needed to win an election.
The result is more moderate elected officials from both parties. For partisans it is a nightmare.
For leaders like Bill Bagley, it is the solution to bring back bipartisan solutions. Now, if he can just get rid of Proposition 9. Why? You should read his book.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.