Former Senate Leader Jim Mills, an erudite historian with passion for rail
travel and writing, is happily ensconced in Coronado– a far cry from the
hubbub of the Capitol, where he spent 22 years in the Legislature.
Mills, 78, started out as a school teacher and was a member of Phi Beta
Kappa at San Diego State University, and something of the academic always
clung to Mills as he navigated the ferocious political shoals of the
Capitol. Journalists who covered Mills in the Senate recall him passing by
the reporters’ desks at the rear of the chamber, pencil in hand, asking for
help with crosswords. Visitors thought he was carefully counting votes–and
sometimes he was. But he was just as likely to be looking for a crossword
solution, such as, “What’s an 11-letter word that means “thunderous verbal
Mills, a Democrat, served from 1960 to 1982, including a decade as Senate
leader, a colorful stretch that straddled the governorships of Pat Brown,
Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, and the speakerships of Jesse Unruh–Mills was
a close friend and top lieutenant of Unruh–and Willie Brown.
In Mills’ recollection, today’s Legislature seems relatively staid compared
with the houses of the 1960s and 1970s, especially when lawmakers gathered
at after-hours watering holes. At Frank Fat’s, Mills remembers Republican
Bill Bagley once setting fire to the hair on his chest. Bagley–the only
other Phi Beta Kappa member at the time–also used to bet patrons that he
could take his shirt off without taking his coat off. “He did it, too. He
just ripped it off himself from under his coat. If he was wearing a $20
shirt, he’d bet $25; if he was wearing a $25 shirt, he’d bet $30,” Mills
What’s he think of the Legislature now?
“The biggest problem is term limits,” says Mills, the author of the
Constitutional amendment that gave California a full-time Legislature. “Term
limits are catastrophic, of course, the worst possible thing that could
happen to the Legislature, but the public doesn’t understand that. It’s
astonishingly stupid that people voted for it. Pete Schabarum authored it,
and he hated the Legislature. He was just pissed off and mad at the people
in the Legislature.
“Unruh couldn’t stand him. You know, Pete was a football player, and Jess
used to say he had gone through the line too many times without a helmet.”
Although liked in the Senate, many in his own caucus viewed him as
insufficiently partisan–one of the factors that ultimately led to his ouster
as Senate leader and his replacement by David Roberti, a Los Angeles
Democrat. Another reason: Mills refused to back certain Democrats for
leadership positions, including Joe Montoya, Alan Robbins and Paul
Carpenter, who backed Roberti in return for plum committee assignments. The
three, who used their official offices to enrich themselves, later went to
prison for corruption in connection with the FBI’s undercover probe of the
Capitol–which many saw as a vindication of Mills’ judgment.
Since leaving the Legislature, Mills has championed rail travel as an
alternative to building more freeways. He’s a high-profile member of
TRAC–Train Riders Association of California. “You build freeways, and all
you get is more congestion,” Mills said.
Mills fancies himself a wordsmith–and he is. He authored “A Disorderly
House,” an account of the Pat Brown-Jesse Unruh years in the Capitol, and
the “Memoirs of Pontius Pilate,” a novel examining Pilate during the first
decades of Christianity. Mills is at work on a second fictional novel. “It’s
a Don Quixote-type story,” Mills says, “about an old gentleman who puts on a
white hat, puts on a black mask, straps on a six gun and climbs onto a white
horse. He’s a Lone Ranger figure who goes off to find evil doers and
eventually bring them to justice.”
“He’s a little crazy, but he’s not as crazy as Don Quixote,” Mills adds.