Former Senate Republican leader Jim Nielsen, a courtly conservative who
seems most comfortable in cowboy boots and string ties, spent 12 years in
the state Senate and seven more on California’s parole board before
returning to the place he liked best: Yolo County. He didn’t leave the
Capitol voluntarily and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t forced
out by term limits. Instead, Nielsen departed in 1990 the old-fashioned
way–through a redrawing of his Senate district’s boundaries engineered by
majority Democrats that enabled Democrat Mike Thompson to take the seat.
Serving in the Senate can be tough, but serving on the parole board can be
much, much tougher. The Board of Prison Terms–which, in 2005, was
consolidated into the corrections department–decides release dates for
prison inmates who have been sentenced to life with the possibility of
parole. Except in the highest profile cases–such as Sirhan Sirhan or the
Manson family members–the board members toil in obscurity. They travel
constantly, but not to California’s garden spots. They go from prison to
prison to hold tribunals that determine the fates of hundreds of inmates
convicted of society’s most horrific crimes. It is a grueling job, and the
burnout rate is high.
“That was the most arduous, stressful job I’ve ever done in my entire life,
and at the same time it was the most rewarding, because I was involved in
due process and protecting the public safety,” said Nielsen, 61.
But his life outside government is equally busy. He and his wife
Marilyn–she’s deputy director of the California Arts Council–have three
teenage boys, and he runs a small cattle operation with interests in Fresno.
He leads a group called the California Alliance to Protect Private Property
Rights that was formed to contest what it sees as abusive eminent-domain
proceedings, and he served as an informal consultant to Governor
Schwarzenegger’s transition team. He also serves on a county redistricting
advisory committee. He remains a regular columnist for the Woodland Daily
Democrat, a role he’s filled for more than three decades. “I’ve written that
column since 1974, and during my Senate years, that column was distributed
to quite a few newspapers,” he said.
It is the dispute over the sanctity of private property, however, that has
most engaged his interest, prompted in part by Yolo County’s eminent-domain
proceedings involving the 17,000-acre Conaway Ranch and the U.S. Supreme
Court’s 5-4 ruling last year affirming the right of a city to force property
owners to sell to make way for private development.
Nielsen misses state politics, but not the increasingly partisan nature of
the state Capitol. “I’m vicariously involved in politics, helping the
governor on his campaign and certain projects in the community–that’s
sufficient for me. I enjoy going to the (Capitol) building, and I miss the
people. I miss Al Alquist; I miss Ken Maddy. I miss those relationships. But
life goes on.”