Just over an hour south of Sacramento on Highway 99 is the small farming town of Ripon. East of town are miles after miles of almond groves. Driving past rows of trees on a nearly empty road, you may come to a small clearing with a sign noting that you’ve arrived at “Fonz’s Place.” And it literally is.
This is the home of former Assemblyman Adrian Fondse, who has lived in this house almost continuously since his father built it in 1943. Fondse is not a name that most in the Capitol remember these days. He is California’s shortest-serving state legislator in nearly a century and the only legislator in the full-time era (since 1967) who never had a single bill chaptered into law.
“I came home from boot camp, for ten days leave before going overseas, and I got married in ten days.”
Adrian C. Fondse was born in Hanford in 1929, the son of a dairy farmer. When he was in second grade, the family moved to San Joaquin where his father planned to start a dairy. Instead, the plans quickly changed as the family switched products. “My dad moved here and we had a dairy,” Fondse explained, as we sit in his dining room, “We were here a year or two and he started planting almonds.”
Over the years, the dairy has been replaced with peaches and almond groves. Today, the cows are long gone. The business has also changed; when he started, harvesting almonds was done by hand. “How we used to harvest them was all labor,” Fondse explained. “I’ve climbed a lot of trees,” he laughed.
In 1951, Fondse enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent away to boot camp. Returning for a ten day leave before deploying to Naval Air Station Atsugi in Japan, Fondse married Ruth, who had grown up just a few miles away. “I came home from boot camp, for ten days leave before going overseas, and I got married in ten days.” he explains, “Married, honeymooned and back in Japan three weeks later.”
After two years in Japan, Fondse was transferred aboard a destroyed (the USS Colahan (DD-658) which took him to Korea for the war. In 1955, he finished his commitment and returned to Ripon. With his brother Lee, Adrian started their own small dairy which they ran until it sold in 1958. In 1959, the brothers planted 90 acres of peaches and almonds, which eventually grew to 230 acres.
Fondse also played an important part in creating the county’s Department of Aging, making San Joaquin the first county to have an independent department with that focus
Fondse enjoyed the work and became involved in various agricultural industry groups. Over the years, Fondse has served as Chairman of the Cling Peach Advisory Board, a member of the California Almond Growers Exchange and President of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau. He was also active in the local veteran community, and has served as Commander of the Ripon chapters of both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (the later for five terms).
It was this combination of community involvement that led friends to suggest in the early 1970s that he run for County Supervisor. Agreeing to run, he was elected to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors in 1972.
It was a busy eight years on the Board. Although the position was officially part-time, Fondse found so much to work on that it quickly became a fulltime job. He worked to restructure the county’s poorly-functioning hospital, eliminating $40 million in debt and building up a $20 million reserve. Fondse also played an important part in creating the county’s Department of Aging, making San Joaquin the first county to have an independent department with that focus.
He was happy on the board and initially, running for the State Assembly wasn’t even the plan. “I wanted to wait another four years and run for Senator,” Fondse explained, but he got inside information that a local State Senator, unhappy with the local Assemblyman, was recruiting a primary challenger; “Garamendi didn’t like [Assemblyman Carmen] Perino and recruited Patrick Johnston to run against him.”
Fondse took the leap, filing to run for the Assembly and giving up a third term on the Board of Supervisors. He did well, winning the Republican nomination, while Patrick Johnson easily beat Perino in the Democratic primary.
“When they went for the recount, I didn’t think it was a big deal. They waited all this time, until [December] to do the recount.”
After a long campaign, the November election arrived, giving former Governor Reagan the presidency and 19 new members to the State Assembly. These 11 Republicans and eight Democrats included six future members of Congress, including Sam Farr and Bill Baker. With all of the precincts reporting, Fondse won the election by less than a hundred votes, a narrow but solid lead.
The following month, on December 1st, 1980, Fondse was sworn into office. “It’s exciting, of course”, he says, “It was an experience that I never forgot.”
One of the first decisions that new members had to make in the new session was the selection of a new Assembly Speaker. Assemblymen Howard Berman and Willie Brown had fought for most of the year to build support in the Assembly. So how would the freshman Republican vote? He went to an unlikely source for advice.
“I asked John Thurmond,” said Fondse, speaking of a longtime friend who was a Democratic Assemblyman from Modesto, “I didn’t go to the Republicans and ask. I went to Thurmond and asked him who to vote for. He said ‘Vote for Willie Brown.”
That settled it for Fondse. I liked him, he did a good job.” Fondse says. In the end, the Republicans sided with Brown, but he had his mind made up well in advance of the negotiations by Republican Leader Carol Hallett.
That day, as the votes were cast, Willie Brown was elected Speaker and Adrian Fondse was the 8th Republican vote that put him there. Speaker Brown appointed Fondse as the Chair of the Labor Committee but gave this freshman legislator a stern warning; “All you’ve got is your respect and your word. Break your word one time and you’re done.”
It was a fair warning, but the new Labor Chairman wouldn’t be there long enough to find out. Back in Ripon, as Assemblyman Fondse waited for the session to resume in January, he found out that the election wasn’t quite done yet.
In late December, after the votes had been counted and Fondse was issued his certificate of election, Johnston asked the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters for a recount.
Initially, Fondse wasn’t terribly concerned; “When they went for the recount, I didn’t think it was a big deal. They waited all this time, until [December] to do the recount.”
In such a close election, it eventually came down to marked ballots. In an unusual twist, a significant number of ballots that hadn’t been identified as marked in the first count were tossed in the second. “Any ballot that had lipstick on it, anything that fouled it, it was out… that first precinct just about did it in.” said Fondse. “And then it’s over. And now they have to go through the whole rest of the district, and they know what they’re doing. We’re dead. It was a bad, bad scene as far as I’m concerned.”
When the legislature reconvened in the new year, it was settled. On January 5th, with a party-line vote, the Assembly voted to accept the updated election results and Patrick Johnston was sworn in. Slightly over a month after assuming office, Fondse had become a former legislator.
So what has Adrian Fondse been up to since then?
In 1982, he ran for an open Congressional seat in a safe Democratic district. It was a long-shot, which Fondse described as an attempt to divert campaign resources from a more competitive seat in Fresno. It wasn’t close.
After that, he decided that his political career was done. After spending nearly a decade working in government, he decided to refocus his efforts on farming. How would he describe the past thirty-six years? “I’ve been busy,” Fondse said with a laugh, “mostly with almonds.”
In 1985, Fondse accepted an appointment to the 2nd District Agricultural Association Board, which oversees the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds and marketing the agricultural industry of the county. He enjoyed the work as well as the ability to stay close to the farm.
Today, at 87 years old, Adrian Fondse still lives surrounded by his life’s work. Trees stretch out it all directions and Fondse Brothers trucks fill a nearby parking lot. They are a connection to both the past and the future. His sons now farm the land that he and his father worked, and he remains involved in that operation as a partner in the family almond hulling and drying business.
Serving in the Legislature turned out to be only a short chapter in his life, but it remains a proud memory for Assemblyman Adrian Fondse.
Ed’s Note: Alex Vassar, often referred to as the “unofficial historian of the Legislature,” is a state worker and the author of “California Lawmaker.”