Elisabeth Kersten served as the director of the Senate Office of Research for 20 years. Now retired, she currently works as a clinical professor at the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning and Development.
You spent many years at the Capitol working in a variety of positions, serving as a top aide to Willie Brown. How would you characterize the change in the Legislature since the inception of term limits?
There have been many changes in the Capitol as a result of term limits—both good and bad. First of all, the Legislature today is more representative of the diversity of California than when I arrived in 1971 as an Assembly fellow. Back then there were no women in the Senate and only one woman in the Assembly. Term limits accelerated the increased ethnic and gender diversity of both houses and created a “career ladder” for local elected officials to come to Sacramento. Further, it has prompted many experienced California legislators to run for Congress, who might otherwise have stayed in Sacramento.
On the downside, term limits has increased the speed and impatience of the elected officials in the Capitol; members have less time to listen and consult with staff since they are in perpetual campaign mode, preparing for their next political adventure. It’s also reduced collegiality among the members because there are more races where members run against each other in contested primaries or general elections.
What was Speaker Brown like? Why did he have such a legendary reputation?
I worked for Willie Brown three times in my career.
His legendary reputation is due to his extraordinary leadership abilities to think strategically, by-pass conventional wisdom, build strong and loyal staff teams, and always do his homework. Finally, he was willing to ask questions and listen to the answer, even if it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
He prided himself on knowing the bills in his committees better than the authors and advocates did. He read what staff gave him and always had a humorous line to make the committee laugh. Finally, he knew the importance of working with the other party, building personal relationships with Republican members as well as with the third house.
Willie Brown—especially in the early years– also cared about the people around him; he was scarce with his praise, but when he did give out a compliment it meant a great deal. I still treasure the handwritten note he sent me when my father died, the staff dinners he hosted for the holidays and his many expressions of kindness.
You helped create the Senate Office of Research and served as its director for 20 years. Why was the office created and how has it evolved?
The Senate Office of Research was created more than 30 years ago by Senate leaders who wanted a policy development staff. In fact, it was originally going to be called the Office of Policy Development, but became the Senate Office of Research, perhaps because the former Speaker Jess Unruh had created an Assembly Office of Research. Further, SOR serves as the policy staff to the Senate Rules Committee in the confirmation process, a somewhat quiet support role that helps the Senate in his advice-and-consent role in approving governor’s appointments.
When you retired from state service, did you think about, say…retiring? What made you decide to direct your energies into teaching?
I retired in January 2004 and for three years I was really retired—volunteering, mentoring, serving on nonprofit boards, walking the dog to the river, traveling and taking art and writing classes. My goal was to spend my time in equal parts of service, leisure and learning.
Who is the goofiest legislator?
Hmm…when I think of the meaning of the word goofy, I think of someone a bit awkward and offbeat. If you accept that definition, I would have to say that former President Pro Tem John Burton is both the best and the goofiest of the Legislators I have encountered. His colorful language, offbeat outfits, and casual demeanor could be disarming and deceiving: what lurks inside this goofy exterior is the incisive and decisive mind of a master.
John is the most result-oriented legislator I ever worked for; he wanted answers right away and he always knew what to do with what you gave him. He always wanted the facts—unvarnished, straight. “You tell me the facts, and I will figure out the politics,” he would say. And we could always count on him to tell the truth. I shared his values, too, which made it a privilege to work with him: he cared for trees and the environment, the poor and the disabled. He stuck up for those who had no voice, not just those who knew how to play the game.
He was also a master of the political game, but he demonstrated that the purpose of politics is to make a difference and get results.