For 12 years, it was as if Walter Matthau had invaded the Senate chamber–not
in appearance, but in sound.
But Quentin Kopp is no Oscar Madison, although their voices seemed
identical. Lanky, balding, a fast-thinker but slow-talker, Kopp stalked the
Senate floor from 1987 to 1999, with a sort of sinister, vaguely
intimidating grace. The tart-tongued, New York-born Kopp, a product of
Dartmouth’s Class of 1949 and the Harvard Law School, delighted in verbal
combat–something that his friends prized, his critics detested and everyone
For his part, Kopp didn’t seem to mind one way or another, and didn’t
hesitate to criticize the debating skills of his colleagues.
“The consistency of their linguistic banality forever emblematizes the
deficiencies of their vocabulary, and it has always been one of my foremost
motivations to encourage an improvement in the quality of their elucidation,
with the hope that it will improve the quality of their political
discourse,” Kopp once told a San Francisco reporter. Such comments didn’t
endear him to his legislative colleagues.
Kopp, a stickler for detail and the mechanics of governance, also had few
kind words to say about fellow San Franciscan Willie Brown, who served
nearly 15 years as Assembly Speaker, and then served as mayor of San
Francisco. Kopp felt Brown was heavy on flash and light on substance. “He’s
meant little of enduring substance because he is oblivious to details and he
desires attention and publicity, and obtains it,” he once said. “He aspires
to glamour, aspires to an aura of the spectacular and has little [taste] for
the nuts and bolts of government.”
Kopp, a practicing attorney in San Francisco since 1961, was elected to the
Board of Supervisors in 1971 and served four terms. He lost a 1979 bid for
mayor of San Francisco. In 1986, Kopp became the first non-incumbent
independent to be elected to the Senate since 1878.
Kopp himself came in for his own full measure of criticism when he was the
deciding vote against confirming Dan Lungren as state treasurer to replace
the deceased Jesse Unruh. Lungren’s Republican supporters said Kopp had
reneged on a deal. After the vote, Kopp received a committee chairmanship.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Kopp to the Superior Court in San Mateo in
1999. Kopp’s schedule is busy: In a single day he handles dozens of
arraignments, and routinely presides over preliminary hearings as well as
civil and criminal trials. He formally retired last year, but remains
working under the Assigned Judges Program and, in effect, has a full-time
Did he like serving in the Legislature?
It’s different now, he says. “Term limits have spawned such a turnover in
staff and in the composition of the houses. Secondly, it spawned ambition.
Every Assembly member immediately upon election is preparing for a state
Senate seat, often against another Assembly member. It results in such
But Kopp enjoyed the lawmaking.
“I liked best crafting a law which filled a vaccuum, I liked best such bills
as those revising the Brown Act, almost from stem to stern