Political dynasties are nothing new in California: There are eight current legislators who are children of former legislators.
It’s been 15 years since Gene Mullin arrived in Sacramento, and his son Kevin is now serving his third term in the state Assembly. The Holden and Berryhill families each arrived more than 40 years ago, and it has been more than 50 years since Assemblywoman Yvonne Burke’s mother was sworn into the Assembly.
On the first floor of the Capitol, another newcomer was Ronald Reagan, who started his first term as Governor on the same day that Dunlap was sworn into office.
The California Legislature’s longest-lived political dynasty was the Coombs-Dunlap family, which included four generations and stretched over 120 years.
The last legislator from the family was Sen. John F. Dunlap, who at nearly 95 is currently the fifth-oldest living former California state legislator. It’s been a half-century since he was first elected, and while Dunlap insists that he’s no longer politically active, he still follows current events closely. “I’m politically interested but not active,” he insisted during a recent conversation.
His great-grandfather, Nathan Coombs, came to California during the Gold Rush and served two terms in the state Assembly, including the bloody session of 1860 that saw Assemblyman John C. Bell stabbed to death on the Assembly floor by a rival legislator.
Dunlap’s grandfather, Frank L. Coombs, had a fifty-year political career that included local, state and federal offices. In addition to 18 years in the Assembly (including two separate terms as Speaker), Coombs served as California State Librarian, U.S. Attorney, and Ambassador to Japan. Frank’s son,Nathan F. Coombs, served three terms in the state Senate between 1949 and 1960.
With a family like this, it’s probably not surprising that Dunlap started his political career early.
In an autobiography that he published online in 2003, Dunlap noted that one of the most painful experiences a lawmaker can have is to over promise.
After serving in the Army during World War II, he ran for the Mt. George Union School District Board of Trustees in 1950 and was elected easily. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court required state legislatures to redraw legislative boundaries to provide for equal populations. In California, this caused a massive shift in the Senate, which opened a number of seats in the Assembly. Seeing an opportunity, Dunlap ran for Assembly in 1966, winning with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
Arriving in Sacramento in early 1967, Dunlap found himself a member of unique freshman class. Other new arrivals included Assemblyman Pete Wilson and state Sen. George R. Moscone, who resigned in 1976 to become mayor of San Francisco. On the first floor of the Capitol, another newcomer was Ronald Reagan, who started his first term as governor on the same day that Dunlap was sworn into office.
Dunlap served in the Assembly for eight years before moving up to the Senate. During those years he saw the end of the Unruh speakership and the brief Republican control of both houses. Having experienced life as a member of both the majority and minority, Dunlap had an interesting perspective on the Legislature.
In an autobiography that he published online in 2003, Dunlap noted that one of the most painful experiences a lawmaker can have is to over promise. “The worst aspect of over-promising is that it results in public disillusionment when your solutions fall short of their mark and with disillusion comes an unwillingness to keep trying,” he wrote.
Finishing his first term in the Senate, Dunlap, who was based in Napa, appeared headed appeared headed for an easy reelection. He had the fundraising advantages of an incumbent, a recognizable name in his community, and a district with a comfortable Democratic majority.
His most recent campaign work was on the Barack Obama for President campaign in 2008. Unlike most volunteers in their mid-80s, he didn’t just stay close to home phone-banking.
Things were looking even better when the Republicans nominated a young farmer from rural the northern edge of the district to challenge him. However, the campaign began to shift as the year wore on. Public safety and property taxes became the primary issues of the campaign and the young Republican farmer, Jim Nielsen, received endorsements from former Democratic legislators. After a tough fight, Nielsen defeated Dunlap by about 7%.
Shortly after his term ended, Dunlap was appointed to the Worker’s Compensation Appeals Board by Gov. Jerry Brown, a position he held for six years. Unlike most former legislators, Dunlap actively discourages the use of his former title.
During a recent conversation, I asked to speak with the senator. “Well,” he said, “You’re talking to the man who used to be Senator John Dunlap.” In his autobiography, he explains that while “some people who’ve been senators keep the title for the rest of their lives and that might sound or feel good, but I’m not a senator anymore; that title belongs to the guy that currently holds the office.”
In 2003, he started a website (SenatorFromNapa.com) to share the story of his experiences in the Legislature. Over the years, this autobiography has grown as he added content, with new pictures and stories of his years in the Legislature. Occasionally he adds a new chapter, like “Chapter 7.5” about what it was like to serve in the Assembly with Willie Brown and John Vasconcellos in the early years.
One Sunday each month, he joins the group on a street corner in downtown Napa to spend the afternoon advocating for peace.
His most recent campaign work was on the Barack Obama for President campaign in 2008. Unlike most volunteers in their mid-80s, he didn’t just stay close to home phone-banking. Instead, a few days before the election, he and a friend drove to Nevada to walk precincts. They were assigned to Mineral County, three hours south-east of Reno. “It’s sort of halfway down the state,” Dunlap explained. “We worked there for one night and one day.”
Although he hasn’t actively campaigned since then, Dunlap stays informed about current events and was positive in his evaluation of the current crop of legislators; “It seems to me like the California Legislature, with Jerry Brown pushing and guiding, is doing pretty well.”
Janet Dunlap, who John married in 1947 and raised four children with, died in 2007 just weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. After nearly a decade as a widower, Dunlap remarried last September and says the new marriage has been wonderful.
Dunlap remains active in the local community, playing on a bocce ball league and staying connected to a Unitarian church group that works to, as he explains it, “promote liberal causes”. One Sunday each month, he joins the group on a street corner in downtown Napa to spend the afternoon advocating for peace. “We’re there from 2 to 4,” he says.
Today he stays active with frequent walks around Napa and regular participation on a bocce ball team. The walks allow him to see the city that his great-grandfather founded as it continues to grow. Asked about his family connection to the history of his hometown, he says that “Most people don’t think much about that now but I have some pride in it. Napa County has changed a lot during my lifetime.”
Dunlap noted that when he graduated from high school in 1940, the county had 28,000 residents and a close community. During the years since, its population has grown by more than 100,000 and, as Dunlap explained it “has become a fancy wine-celebrated area,” although there’s nowhere he’d rather live.
Ed’s Note: Alex Vassar, often referred to as the “unofficial historian of the Legislature,” is a state worker and the author of “California Lawmaker.” His “Where are they now?” feature appears monthly.