Longtime state-Senate power Al Alquist dies at 97

Al Alquist, once one of California’s most powerful lawmakers whose 34 years
in the Legislature included 15 years as head of the budget-writing finance
committee, died this week at a Sacramento nursing home of complications
arising from pneumonia. He was 97.

Among his survivors are his widow, Sen. Elaine K. Alquist of Santa Clara, a
former Assembly member who, like her husband, now serves in the Senate
representing a San Jose-area district.

A veteran of the Army Air Force in World War II, the crusty, blunt-spoken,
white-haired Alquist ruled the Senate Finance Committee with an iron hand.
He also routinely chaired the two-house conference committee that wrote the
final version of the state budget that went to the floors of the Assembly
and Senate. He rose to power and held it in the years before voter-approved
term limits finally forced him out in 1996–30 years nearly to the day when
he first joined the Senate following two terms in the Assembly. When he left
office, he was the Legislature’s ranking member. He was perhaps the last of
the Legislature’s great committee chairmen–Randy Collier, the “Silver-Haired
Fox of the Siskiyous” who chaired the transportation committee and defined
California’s freeway system, was another–who exerted profound influence over
the state’s political and fiscal landscape.

In legislation, he was perhaps best known for his co-authorship of the
landmark 1974 law, a national model, which created the California Energy
Commission. Former Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who headed the Assembly
Ways and Means Committee, described Alquist as a “fierce warrior.”

Alquist’s feuds in the Capitol were legendary. He once angrily ordered
Senate sergeants to escort then-Assemblyman Bill Lockyer from his hearing
room after Lockyer tried to take a bill up before Alquist’s committee out of
turn, and on another occasion he traded insults in a Capitol hearing room
with former lawmaker Steve Peace.

But behind the tough demeanor was a committed liberal who championed the
rights of the downtrodden.

“I’ve never met anybody more committed to public service,” Alquist’s
longtime aide Steve Larson, now the executive director of the California
Public Utilities Commission, told the San Jose Mercury News. “He was an old
New Deal Democrat, very close to the unions.”

Alfred Ernest Alquist was born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1908, the son of a
Swedish immigrant who came to the United States “with a tag around his neck
saying, ‘indentured to the railroad,'” Elaine Alquist said.

He was barely a teenager when he started carrying water to railroad work
crews, according to a Mercury News account. He became a timekeeper,
switchman, brakeman and conductor before World War II duty with the Army Air
Forces. He was a yardmaster for the Southern Pacific Railroad when he and
his first wife, Mai, moved to San Jose in 1947.

Alquist is survived by his wife, Elaine White Alquist, of Santa Clara; son
Alan Alquist; stepsons Peter and Bryan White; grandchildren Ron, Ann and Jan
Alquist, and Jasmine and Logan White.

Sen. Elaine Alquist’s office announced that a memorial and celebration
service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, at the Cathedral of Faith, 2315
Canoas Garden Ave., San Jose.

A Senate memorial and reception is scheduled for Monday, April 24, in the
Senate Chambers at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

“He reminded me of one of the good-natured tough-as-nails old railroaders,”
said Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute
at San Jose State, who shares Alquist’s railroad family background and
devotion to rail transit. “When he was happy, you knew it, and when he was
unhappy, you better run for the hills,” he told the Mercury News.

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