Of all the committees and offices available in the California Assembly, few give a better perspective on the daily operations of the house than that of Assembly Speaker pro Tem. Sally Lieber, who served as Speaker pro Tem from 2006 to 2008, describes it as a combination of the location and the limitation that the role places on the officeholder.
While all 79 other members are assigned to desks that uniformly face the front of the chamber, the Speaker’s Rostrum faces to the rear. This, combined with a few feet of additional elevation, allowed Lieber to see everything happening in the room. This serves the important purpose of allowing the presiding officer to quickly recognize members seeking recognition to speak, or rising to make procedural motions.
Her vacation plans were overshadowed by news of a humanitarian crisis: The Syrian civil war was escalating and refugees were fleeing the country in growing numbers.
A less noticed feature is that it also gives the Speaker pro Tem the ability to watch conversations between members as they discuss bills, agonize over decisions and eventually make the choices that will quickly become history.
Reflecting on her time in the Assembly, Lieber noted that one of the most memorable moments came as the floor vote got under way for a hotly debated bill. After the debate ended, Lieber opened the roll. After the first few seconds, it was obvious that the bill had stalled and would fall a few votes short of a majority. Then came the moment she described as “when the room began to turn.” First came one vote, then another. Support began to build and by the time the roll closed, the bill had passed easily.
Lieber is quick to explain that having this perspective comes with a cost — the Speaker pro Tem doesn’t get to chair a committee. For her, it was the small moments that made it worth it; being the first in the room to see the first indications that the tide was shifting was completely worth the cost.
It was during her transition from office in 2008, that Lieber received wise advice from a former state legislator. Jackie Speier, who had recently been elected to Congress, encouraged her to find a new challenge and continue use the skills that she had built while in office.
It took a while, but Lieber found new ways to serve many of the same communities that she had as a legislator; marginalized parts of society who face uphill battles; homeless, prisoners and returning veterans.
In late 2015, Lieber’s life changed as she prepared for a vacation to Europe. Having accumulated enough frequent-flyer points to qualify for a free flight to Paris, she was looking forward to spending time in the City of Lights.
But as she got ready to leave, her vacation plans were overshadowed by news of a humanitarian crisis: The Syrian civil war was escalating and refugees were fleeing the country in growing numbers. The nightly news was filled with images of refugees becoming so desperate that they were risking everything to cross the Aegean to arrive in Greece.
Lieber quickly called a friend and asked if she should cancel her Paris trip and instead fly to Greece to meet the refugees as they arrived on the beach. Her friend, a former district office staffer who had known Lieber for years, encouraged her to go where the need was. She went.
Landing on the island of Lesvos, where refugees have arrived by the thousand, Lieber looked for a contribution that she could make. The shore was littered with luggage and clothes abandoned by refugees as they made their way ashore. Seeing her opportunity to help, Lieber began collecting the clothes, washing and delivering them to the camps.
Her short stay convinced Lieber that this service needed to continue. Studying the situation in the camps, she found out that the blankets distributed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are used only once (until they become dirty) before being discarded. Her solution was to collect the soiled blankets, clean them and return them to the refugees. This would combine two of her passions by not only helping the UN in their mission to serve the refugees (by reducing the need to purchase new blankets), but also lengthening the life of the blankets.
“Otherwise they would have ended up in a landfill,” Lieber explains, “This allows me to serve the needy and take care of the environment.”
The refugees’ need was large and she continued making trips to Greece. Eventually, the effort became large enough that Lieber worked to start an NGO to continue the work that she had started.
“It’s called Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island,” Lieber laughs. It doesn’t appear that the effort will be ending soon, with more than a million refugees having passed through Greece in the past few years and more than 50,000 remaining in camps today.
California is still a large part of her life. Lieber remains involved in Santa Clara County policymaking and occasionally testifies at meetings of the Board of Supervisors. She keeps an eye on Sacramento politics, too, staying in touch with her colleagues who remain in the Legislature and paying close attention at the end of session. Watching floor sessions on CalChannel, Lieber can quickly fire off comments to friends as they cast votes; “I stay in contact with legislators,” she says, “Some get praise and some get questions.”
In the nine years since leaving office, some things about Sally Lieber have changed. Famously a cat-lover while in office, she has seen the light and now has a dog (Full Disclosure: she still has a cat too). Her horizons have grown from the local and state to international humanitarian efforts. But some things have remained the same: She still lives in Mountain View, where she served as mayor and on the city council from 1998 to 2002, and she still works to ensure that the marginalized are seen, heard and served. Sally Lieber is definitely still Sally Lieber.
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.”