Remembering Leo McCarthy

In December 2005, 30 people took time off from holiday madness and fought through San Francisco traffic just so they could squeeze into the back room of Tommy’s Mexican restaurant to have lunch with Leo McCarthy.

We had come in from Sacramento, the Bay Area, the North Coast and even Los Angeles, and the only thing we had in common was that we had worked for Leo when he was lieutenant governor, the office he had left 11 years before.

It was a fairly typical reunion. We would get together every couple of years either at Leo and Jackie’s house, or a restaurant or a staffer’s place. Once he surprised us by buying out a couple of rows at Phantom of the Opera. Another time he rented a bus and gave us a personal tour of the city he loved so much.

If you read the thoughtful obituaries that ran earlier this week you’ve seen some of the basic statistics on Leo Tarcisius McCarthy: Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at 33. Six-and-a-half years as Assembly speaker, where he instituted reforms like floor analyses, public-conference committees and recorded committee votes. He also gave up some of his own power by changing the Democratic Party structure to increase the number of directly elected central-committee members.

As lieutenant governor, Leo tackled diverse projects like nursing-home reform, breast-cancer awareness, toxic contamination and helping California companies find markets overseas. He helped make the State Lands Commission an environmental-protection agency and used his position as a UC Regent to fight for lower student fees, the divestiture of investments in apartheid South Africa and to try and limit the university’s management of Star Wars-era projects like the “nuclear bomb-pumped X-ray laser.”

One of the highlights of our last reunion was Leo’s excitement at the new internship program his foundation, the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, was starting in the Capitol. His joy was evident in, as he liked to put it, “being useful to people”–and in the opportunity he was providing for the students.

Opening doors was a McCarthy hallmark. Some staffers who worked for Leo as speaker went on to their own elected offices, including Art Agnos, Anna Eshoo and Vic Fazio.

Leo liked to take chances on talent. When he was speaker, the person he picked to run the L.A. operation was a third-grade schoolteacher who had been a standout campaign volunteer. His scheduler had been Chet Huntley’s secretary at CBS. Our staff in the lieutenant governor’s office included a former model, a PhD from Yale, a couple of self-described “sandal-wearing activists,” the first woman ironworker on the East Coast and a liaison to the senior community who would tell appointments “you can’t miss me, I’ll be the one as wide as I am tall.”

There were also lawyers and ex-lobbyists and longtime Capitol hands, a former priest, and his wife. Several of us started out as college interns whom Leo gave a ridiculously generous amount of responsibility and respect. In return all of us, the seemingly mismatched “Breakfast Club” he organized into a staff, gave him years of loyalty, hard work and affection.

Every March, Leo would hold a St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser in San Francisco. Willie Brown once told the crowd, “When you’re lieutenant governor and all you can offer is good government and you can still fill the ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel, that says something about you.”

It certainly does.

And so does being able to fill the back room at Tommy’s.

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