Mark DeSaulnier: Personal tragedy and public service

The unexpected tragedy in the life of a Massachusetts family many years ago ultimately led to California’s gain.


The shock and pain of that tragedy prompted state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier to leave his native state, relocate to California, build a successful business and then dedicate his life to public service, a journey he’s never regretted.


DeSaulnier’s father, Edward, was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature at age 27, to the State Senate at 32, and became a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge at 37. But he was accused of involvement in a stock swindle case, disbarred, and he resigned from office. Although Edward was never formally charged with a crime, he subsequently took his life — an act that shattered his son.


“I came to California to get away from politics. I’ve been very affected by my father’s journey,” DeSaulnier told Capitol Weekly. “I was actually living with him when he was accused by Senator McClelland’s Congressional Committee of being one of two judges in the northeast with Mafia connections. So for me to be in politics?  I love politics now but had planned to stay away from them.  I had successful restaurants in Concord, Berkeley, San Francisco and Palo Alto, and had been on the Planning Commission in Concord.  And then one day the President of the Chamber of Commerce came by my office and asked me to run for the City Council. It was quite emotional.”


From 1991 to 1993, he served as a Concord City Council Member and Mayor, and with the Concord Planning Commission and the University of California Toxic Substances Research and Teaching Program Advisory Committee.  In 1994, DeSaulnier was appointed to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors where he served four terms.


In 2006, DeSaunier was elected to the State Assembly where he became the first freshman in history to chair the Assembly Transportation Committee.  He also chaired the Select Committees on Growth Management and Air Quality.  In his one term in the Assembly, he authored and co-authored more than 60 bills while championing several local issues including the development of a fourth bore to the Caldecott Tunnel, which materially aided traffic flow between San Francisco and the East Bay, and the extension of BART to eastern Contra Costa County.  In 2008, he was elected to the state Senate.


In his Senate role, DeSaulnier has made greater accountability and oversight in state government his top legislative priority and has been a strong voice for reform through his efforts to increase government accessibility and transparency.  He also introduced legislation to support underserved, homeless and foster youth, the protection of homeowners against foreclosure, and the safeguarding of corporate sale tax giveaways.


The transplanted Massachusetts native has now been a Bay Area public servant for more than 20 years but none of his successes make him prouder than his championing of drug abuse legislation.  His bill will improve California’s prescription drug monitoring program known as CURES. “The issue was brought to me by my predecessor and my dad had drug abuse problems so the problem was close to my heart.”


The bill was the last in a broad array of legislative reforms that are directed at combating increasing drug abuse and overdose deaths in California and are the result of a series of investigative stories by Los Angeles Times reporters Scott Glover and Lisa Girion.  The reforms will help authorities track painkiller and other narcotic abusing patients as well as doctors who over prescribe them.  They will also give the State Medical Board the right to immediately suspend their prescription privileges if they are suspected of putting patients at risk.


Another priority for DeSaulnier is the seemingly endless series of misadventures surrounding the Bay Bridge project.  As chairman of the Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee, he oversees issues related to it.


“Part of my interest comes from the fact that I’ve been involved with it for a long time,” he says. “When I was in local government I was on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and most of the people who go over that bridge come from Contra Costa County and Alameda, about 70 percent of the traffic.  So those are the people who put their lives at risk because the old bridge is unsafe and they’re the ones who paid for it.  So when I voted for this bridge it was supposed to be 1.2 something billion dollars and be done by 2003 and the standard for seismic safety in the world.  So it’s now 6.4 billion dollars and its ten years late.


“It really upsets me that it’s not what I voted for. There’s some understanding that on big projects there are things that will come up but this is so over budget and so past completion time.”


He pauses. “And probably the most important thing is that we’ve put people at risk for so long because this is a huge seismic safety issue.  It’s the second busiest bridge in the United States except for the George Washington Bridge and it’s currently at risk for a seismic disaster.  So I get frustrated sometimes when public agencies don’t perform well and I think that if you’re in the public sector you should be expected to have excellent performance.  It’s a big responsibility.  So the bridge has become a symbol to me personally.”


Another transportation issue is the bullet train – a critical topic for DeSaulnier.


“I voted against it, one of the four Democrats who voted against it, as chairman of the policy committee” he said. “Many European countries did it the opposite of the way we’re doing it. We are the most car-culture place on the earth and … if you look at projected growth, we can’t be car dependent.  For instance, 405 in Southern California is one of the most congested highways in the United States so you need the best passenger rail system.”


“To me the best model is Japan which is a very different culture from ours with much higher densities.  They started by building their inner city rail, then their commuter rail and then when they went to high speed rail on top of inner city rail, they did Tokyo to Osaka. So they moved out from where the ridership was and kept expanding based on where the ridership is and you generate a fair amount of revenue. And the reason they did that is that the private sector would then come in to securitize some of it. In Japan the secure lines are all publicly traded companies.”


“If you look at that model, it works.  My criticism of the way we’re doing it is that we’re building it different from anywhere else and that it doesn’t work like Japan, Spain, France, and China. They go where the demand is and then build out.  The second part is that I just don’t believe in the governing structure.  It’s gotten better since Governor Brown brought it into the Transportation Agency but these public authorities by their nature tend to be insular.  With the big mega-projects, that’s part of the thing that leads to poor performance and cost overruns.”


And what has he learned in politics? What is the most important thing?


“Honesty, you need to be honest with the public,” DeSaulnier said. “They’ll forgive you for being human but they’re not very forgiving when you’re clever or cute or not telling the truth.”

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