San Jose isn’t notorious for teens killing teens. But recently there have been two such slayings: one on Halloween night, and the Nov. 10 homicide of a Santa Teresa High School student. The accused could face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole because the U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding if that is legal.
These two events were of interest to state Sen. John Vasconcellos, who represented Silicon Valley in the California Legislature for 38 years. While chairing virtually every important Assembly committee, and then for five years in the state Senate, Vasconcellos focused on youth in crisis. He championed higher education, mental health initiatives, community-based conflict resolution projects and funding for California’s poorest performing public schools.
Vasconcellos was born in San Jose. His father taught public school at Mission San Jose and his grandfather ran the Casa Grande theater, which used to be in Santa Clara’s historic downtown. He attended Bellarmine College Preparatory, then Santa Clara University and its law school after serving two years in the Army.
Vasconcellos became nationally known when cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury character Boopsie joined “The California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility,” lampooning a program that Vasconcellos’ legislation actually created in 1986.
Retired five years this month and now spearheading a new project called “The Politics of Trust,” Vasconcellos sat down with reporter Diane Solomon to talk about the role of self-esteem in the administration of justice and California’s budget crisis.
How did the Self-Esteem Task Force come about, and what did it actually achieve?
The year I was elected I began doing psychotherapy with a priest at Santa Clara University named Leo Rock. I studied with humanist psychologists Carl Rogers, Abe Maslow and Rollo May, and I read a lot of books that talked about self-esteem.
I saw there was a pattern—we had to find out how self-esteem operated to help society prevent drug abuse, child abuse, teen pregnancy and so forth. So I worked with my friend Jack Canfield, who later became the author of the Chicken Soup books, and we put together the legislation that in 1986 created the Self-Esteem Task Force. Members were Republicans, Democrats, cops, housewives, gay therapists and fundamentalist Christians. It was a real mix of Californians who met faithfully for three years and released a report in January 1990 that said self-esteem is a social vaccine. So now all over the world the role of self-esteem is widely recognized and valued. I think it’s really proven to be all we thought it was and more.
As the author of the legislation that created the California Commission on Crime Control and Violence Prevention, what are you’re your thoughts about the accused teenage killers, who could be sentenced to life without parole?
First our society should get serious about understanding the root causes of violence. Second, for a young person or anyone who’s dangerous, they should be kept off the streets and put in programs that enable them to grow healthy and cure themselves. I don’t believe in the death penalty. I never have morally or intellectually. I once witnessed an execution of a client of mine. It was grotesque to see a life and suddenly no life.
California’s criminal justice system sends young people to the California Youth Authority. Does it help them?
It’s a school for crime. The California prison system is an abomination. Federal courts are about to take it over. It’s operated by people who are cynical, who don’t believe in any good to start with and believe if you cross the law you ought to be treated like scum, which of course means you become more and more angry and enraged and more dangerous.
During your tenure in the Legislature you saw the growth of California’s prison industrial complex.
Oh, I saw it and I opposed it every step of the way. There are better ways to deal with people who are outside the law and are dangerous. Prisons ought to be humane places where people learn how to get better. To leave them to wallow in a violent system that gets them more sick and more rageful is to me about as dumb a thing as we could do. Our system is an abomination. We’re working with an old paradigm that doesn’t fit people anymore, and California’s future is in peril unless the people of California tell the government to shape up, to wise up and to grow up. It’s time for profound reform, and it will take people with some courage to put a bill on the governor’s desk.
You were considered a skillful fiscal manager and chaired the Committee on Ways and Means. Can California’s budget crisis be fixed?
A governor’s job is to get people who don’t agree to come together and solve things. But [Gov. Schwarzenegger] has no idea how to negotiate and get people who don’t believe in the same things to build something together. The majority party spent too much money taking care of their friends who helped them get elected. We have a minority party that doesn’t believe in government except for cops and prisons and the more cops, prisons and penalties, they’re happy. And there’s no majority rule in California; it’s a two-thirds vote rule and it’s paralyzing.
Nobody can serve more than six years in the Assembly or eight years in the Senate, so by the time you learn where the bathroom is and how to make things happen you’re sent home. It’s chaos; it’s like a bunch of freshman all of the time. There’s no memory, there’s no mentoring, no camaraderie and no perspective. All these things together contribute to a state that probably can’t be fixed except by really courageous leaders, and those seem to be lacking, I’m sad to say.
What are you working on?
We created a nonprofit called the Vasconcellos Legacy Project. The Assembly gets 30 new members every two years. We’ve persuaded 85 former legislators to coach newcomers so they learn how to collaborate and govern together. We’re hoping to be part of a major orientation program next year for new legislators.
What’s ahead for California?
I can’t even imagine what it is, it’s so desperate. I’m not a negative guy but I can’t see a way through this one. I’m afraid about the college cuts. We’ve always been the leading state for universal access to higher education, but this fall we turned away 300,000 people who should be in college. Next year it could be 2 million. While the rest of the world is increasing its educational output, we’re reducing ours. In a global economy that emphasizes technology this is self-defeating and stupid. And the public sits by and says, “Too bad I don’t know what to do.”
What can they do?
If I were a student I’d take my sleeping bag to the Capitol and sit in the governor’s office and say, “I’m staying here until you open the doors of the university again for me.” If I was a parent of kids in public schools, I’d take my sleeping bag to the Capitol and tell the governor, “We’re staying here until you fund our schools. “This governor is very thin-skinned. If enough students and parents made it clear that they’re not kowtowed by his bravado, I think California might be saved. Absent that I think California is going to collapse and I don’t know how to prevent that other than to urge Californians to wake up, join up and make your wishes known in effective nonviolent ways.
Seriously consider what you’d like California to be for your children and grandchildren and yourself and then find a place to involve yourself to see that it happens.
Visit www.politicsoftrust.net to find resources to help make yourself politically effective in the time of California’s greatest ever peril. There’s a role and responsibility for every Californian with a heart.