‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’–on a 10-speed

With a shoulder rubbed raw, a gash in his thigh and blood caked onto his
body, Tom Torlakson crossed the finish line. It had been about three hours
since the wheels of his bike had skidded out from under him. He was midway
through a Half Ironman triathlon, a grueling 1.2 mile swim, followed by 56
mile bike, and 13.5 mile run–most of which he completed while bleeding.

“Take that same experience of him riding a bike and take that as a
campaigner, as a legislator and you have Tom,” said Andrew Acosta, a
Democratic political consultant who managed Torlakson’s 2000 Senate

With a body and attitude built for distance sports, Torlakson still retains
a boyish charm, speaking with an earnestness that is as disarming as it is
rare in elected politics. And Senate insiders say the affable East Bay
senator is in line for a Senate leadership position.

On October 13, I joined the Antioch lawmaker for a bike ride–whizzing
through the streets of Sacramento at 25 miles per hour.
About five minutes in, he pointed out a pothole in the road. “I meant to
call about that last time,” muses the senator, who is also the chair of the
transportation committee.

Torlakson has a Mr. Smith goes to Washington air about him (Smith, one might
recall, was also a fan of the outdoors). Besides calling about potholes,
Torlakson’s cycling group, to which lobbyists, staffers, legislators and
journalists are all invited–often avoids long distances on bike paths, lest
they exceed the 15-mile per hour speed limit. After nine years in
Sacramento, Torlakson still very much remains the bright-eyed believer who
introduced the maximum-allowed 40 bills in his first two-year term in the

But beneath that Boy Scout exterior is a ferocious competitor.
In 2000, then-Assemblyman Torlakson challenged incumbent Republican Sen.
Richard Rainey, in what was then one of the most expensive legislative races
in California history.

Several months into the campaign, Torlakson’s strategists organized a focus
group to test the effectiveness of the campaign’s messaging, determining
what resonated–and what didn’t–with East Bay voters. Ten residents were
invited. Half had already met Torlakson at their door.

“We live in an age when most voters have no idea who their representative
is,” said Acosta. “So to have a focus group where half of the room had
actually had a conversation with the candidate–in the part of the district
he did not represent–is pretty amazing.”

When thinking back on the focus group, Torlakson smiles. He had spent 12
months knocking on doors, developing tendonitis and plantar fasciitis along
the way (he still wears inserts in his shoes as a result). The Democratic
Party helped him raise millions for the race, including some $2 million from
various Senate Democratic caucus funds, but Torlakson still credits his more
than 10-point victory to precinct-walking.
It was the only legislative race an incumbent lost in 2000.

“I like competition,” says Torlakson. “I knew I could outwalk, outprecinct

Torlakson, like almost every other current state legislator, is a term
limits baby who has come to dislike the very system that vaunted him into
state government. For 16 years he served on the Contra Costa county Board of
Supervisors, until he ran for state Assembly in 1996.

A veteran of Contra Costa politics, Torlakson would normally have been an
overwhelming favorite. But he was running against George Miller IV, son of
popular East Bay Congressman George Miller III, and grandson of George
Miller Jr., a powerful state senator in the 1950s.

Miller ran on his family’s name, campaigning on the theme, “The Third
Generation of Democratic Idealism.” Torlakson countered with the pointed
slogan “His own name. His own record”– and squeaked through the primary,
winning by 1000 votes.

Once in Sacramento, Torlakson did not stray far from his local government
roots. In 1997, his first full year in the Legislature, he voted against the
state budget because the Legislature raided property tax revenues from local
government to balance the state’s books.

At the time, critics derided Torlakson’s vote as a pithy protest from a
freshman lawmaker not yet acclimatized to the ways of Sacramento. But the
vote was only the beginning of Torlakson’s determined defense of local
government revenue.

The man who once dressed as Paul Revere and rode his bike (dressed as a
horse) to the Capitol to protest the local property tax shifts went on to
found the Assembly Local Government Caucus. And last year he authored
Proposition 1A, the ballot measure designed to protect local government from
what had become routine state raids of local property tax revenues.
The measure passed with nearly 84 percent of the vote.

When a Republican legislator wants a Democratic co-sponsor on a bill,
Torlakson is often the first stop on what is increasingly a very short
shopping list. One Republican staffer calls him “a realist”; everyone agrees
he is a consensus builder–though he usually winds up voting the Democratic
Party line.

“I have never heard any criticism and I have never heard of any problems
with Tom,” said Republican Senate leader Dick Ackerman, who said he often
meets with Torlakson–over a good bottle of wine–to discuss policy issues.
“He is a consensus-builder. He has a good reputation with Republicans and

Despite his popularity, Torlakson has never been the seat of power in the
Legislature. During last year’s fight to be President Pro Tem of the Senate,
Torlakson briefly offered himself up as a “consensus” candidate.

There were no takers.

“Sometimes you need a leader to come into caucus and just say this is how it
is and this is how we are voting,” said one senior Senate staffer, wishing
to remain anonymous. “Tom is just not like that.”

Some say Torlakson labors for consensus to a fault.

“He’s like a lot of hard-working members who don’t know when to let the deal
stop simmering,” adds another senior Capitol staffer. “Sometimes it is just
time to take it off the stove.”

Though Torlakson supported Martha Escutia in her run against Don Perata for
President Pro Tem of the Senate, Perata still appointed him chair of the
transportation committee. It was the most plum appointment given to an
Escutia supporter.

As transportation chair, Torlakson served as point man for Perata on what
was arguably his biggest legislative deal this year: the Bay Bridge. Next
year, Perata has announced that his top legislative priority is passing a
multi-billion dollar transportation and infrastructure bond. And before
long, Senate sources intimate that Torlakson will hold a leadership role.

Back on the bike ride–Allen Davenport is just happy it isn’t 105 degrees.
That’s how hot it was on a sweltering August day for the group’s first
official ride. Davenport, who is the director of government relations for
SEIU, makes sure he talks with Torlakson early in the ride, before Davenport
falls behind or is out of breath–or both.

The ride is the rare opportunity to speak with a legislator free from
phones, staffers, and the usual hubbub of the Capitol. But there’s a catch –
you have to be able to keep pace.

On our ride, James Gross, a lobbyist whose firm counts Contra Costa county
as a client, bends Torlakson’s ear about the race to replace Assemblyman Joe
Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, and the Bay Delta Trail–an ambitious Torlakson
proposal to create 1000-mile loop of trails around the delta.

Every Torlakson colleague, past or present, when told of my “ride along”
with the senator responded with a wry smile–the kind of look someone gives
you when they know an almost 60-year man is about to put a twenty-something
in his place.

were right, of course. I couldn’t quite hang with Torlakson, falling
off the back of his whirling wheels at the end of the ride as we chased down
two riders–competitive athletes–who had broken from our pack.

“Give me another 25 miles, and I’d have caught them,” says a smarting
Torlakson, hours later. It was the first time since Torlakson began
organizing the Capitol community rides in August that anyone had broken

The 56-year old Torlakson shows little sign of slowing down–politically or
athletically. After the ride, our group gathered for dinner, where
discussion turned on speed golf–a running version of the traditional
sport–and “double centuries,” epic 200-mile bike rides. The weekend before
the end of session Torlakson climbed Mt. Whitney–the highest peak in North
America–before driving down to Fresno for a political event and back to
Sacramento for four days of marathon floor sessions.

The Antioch lawmaker is termed out of the Senate in 2008, but says has no
interest running for Congress, though he remains committed to electoral
politics. But a potential statewide run in 2010 is not the only tough race
in Torlakson’s future.

“The toughest part of getting old is deciding whether to compete in 5 or 10k
races, or something longer,” bemoans Torlakson.

In true Torlakson form, he may do both. This Saturday he will compete in a
4.5-mile footrace, followed by a 50-mile bike ride on Sunday and a 5-mile
run in the afternoon. Next weekend he is running a 15-mile race in Stinson
Beach. And after that, it is back to precinct walking for the special

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