Freshman brings diverse background to Sacramento

Meet Assemblyman Jerry Hill. Former County Supervisor, Air Board Member, Professor, Pool Cleaner, Magician, licensed pilot, and practitioner of Goju Kan Karate – not the typical resume for a new member of the state Assembly.

But the freshman San Mateo Democrat says all of the things in his personal and professional background have helped prepare him for his new job as a California legislator.

Hill survived a bruising three-way primary to win the Democratic nomination in the 19th Assembly District, in a race that attracted some familiar political names and big-time interest group money. Hill ran against consumer advocate Richard Holober and Gina Papan, daughter of the late Assemblyman Lou Papan who had run for the seat six years earlier.

The Chamber of Commerce spent money trying to defeat Holober, while a coalition of HMOs and doctors came in for Papan, to the tune of nearly $400,000. Hill survived the barrage of outside money, and some attacks on him from the California Nurses Association, to secure his party's nomination and coasted to election in November.

When asked about how the election altered his perception of politics, Hill says the primary "gave me a sickened feeling. It showed just how strong of a player Sacramento money can be in an election. And our polling indicated it was working."

In the end, Hill held on to defeat Papan by just 1,200 votes, winning the three-way race with just 37 percent of the Democratic vote. Holober finished third with about 30 percent of the vote, 3,600 votes behind Hill.

Hill was born and raised in San Francisco, and attended UC Berkeley in the 1960s. But he says he was not an active member in the free-speech movement that was enveloping the campus, and the country. Somehow, Hill managed to avoid being caught up Berkeley's emerging radicalism, but as a member of the National Guard, he also avoided being sent to Vietnam.

"I kept waiting for it to happen," Hill says about Vietnam. "I was a member of the National Guard from 1966-1972. But that was also the time of Watts and all the activism and they wanted to keep the guard close to home. It's not like today, where the National Guard" are the first soldiers to be deployed.

But Hill says he was against the war in Vietnam. In fact, he registered as a Republican to support Rep. Pete McCloskey's anti-war challenge to Richard Nixon in 1972. Hill didn't change his registration back to the Democratic Party until 2003, and it was one of the things that was used against him during his Assembly campaign in a safe Democratic district.

Hill served on the San Mateo City Council in 1991, and was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in 1998. During his time on the board, he also served on the California Air Resources Board, which has emerged as one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in the country since the passage of AB 32 in 2006.

Hill says he supports the implementation of AB 32, and credits ARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols as "an extraordinary leader. We have just begun to see the work the board will be doing in the future."

He acknowledges that the economic slowdown may affect the implementation of AB 32. "We have to be cognoscent of the economic realities, but the ARB does that," he says.

The experience on the ARB has also informed some of Hill's legislative priorities and bill package for the year. He has introduced bills dealing with the implementation of the California Environmental Quality Act (AB 499), increasing payments to people who retire high-polluting vehicles (AB 823), and a bill to limit smoking in hospitals (AB 574).

Hill's bill portfolio is proving do be as varied and wide-ranging as his background. He has introduced 22 bills so far dealing with everything from podiatrists to tissue donation to horse racing.

Health care in another policy focus for Hill, who served on the county hospital board in San Mateo. His interest in health care was one of the reasons Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, tapped Hill to chair the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.

Universal health care is a priority for Hill. But at the very least, he says, the state should be able to guarantee health care coverage for children. And he supports using tobacco tax money from Proposition 10 to expand health care coverage for kids.

"We did that in our county," he said "We used Proposition 10 money for a children's health initiative. The money has to go to early childhood development, and health care is an important part of that."

His work in health care and with children also helps Hill keep up on one of his hobbies – magic. "I got interested in magic in 1975," Hill explains. "I was watching TV and I came across Marshall Brodine's magic kit."

Brodine was better known as Wizzo the Wizard, a magician clown on Bozo's Circus and The Bozo Show from 1968 through the early 1990s.

Hill says he bought Brodine's magic kit back in the mid-1970s, and has been dabbling in magic ever since.

"I still do tricks for friends, kids' birthdays, things like that," he says. "And at the Ronald McDonald House Christmas show for kids."

Hill says he still orders new tricks, but doesn't have any in his Capitol office – yet.

But Hill seemed less than impress with some of the early sleight-of-hand he saw during the state budget negotiations, especially when compared to his time in local government.

"County government is more methodical and open," he says. "And I've been a bit surprised about just how partisan state government can be."

Hill says the Big 5 process during the recent budget negotiations may have been "a necessary evil," but praised the Speaker for keeping Assembly Democrats abreast of the latest budget developments.

In the end, Hill said he was "pleasantly surprised about how non-Draconian it was. It balanced the need of the state with the fiscal realities we face. The Medi-Cal cuts and CalWORKS cuts are hard, but the federal stimulus could reinstall some of those cuts."

Like other newly elected freshmen, Hill says he's optimistic that the legislative class of 2008 may form some lasting post-partisan bonds, in part because of the budget process new lawmakers just experienced. Hill says that many lawmakers in both parties were struck with how little time there was to actually read the last-minute budget bills once a deal was reached.

"I'm encouraged by the freshman class," he says. "There seems to be a real commitment and desire and willingness to work together."

Hill cited Brian Nestande, R- Riverside, and Connie Conway, R-Tulare, as Republican freshmen he has clicked with early on.

Hill says his experience in local government continues to influence and motivate his work in the Assembly. "A big friend of mine is Connie Conway," he says of the Republican Assembly freshman who was a Tulare County Supervisor. "We've talked about forming a county caucus" in the Legislature, to focus on issues that are important to counties.

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