Last year, when California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer was angling to become chancellor of the massive California State University system, Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee found the gambit “too weird to take seriously.” Lockyer may have been “one of the shrewdest politicians ever to set foot in the Capitol, and he is a very smart guy. But he is hardly an academic,” wrote Morain. “Maybe he should serve out his time as treasurer and step off the stage.” Lockyer has taken those words to heart: instead of running for state controller next year, the 72-year-old announced that he would retire from elected office when his current term expires in early 2015. “I don’t know what it means next,” he told reporters, “but I expect to be a public citizen and active, and we’ll just see.” Lockyer’s departure offers Californians the chance to reflect on a long career in the political spotlight.
A lifelong Democrat and graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Lockyer has held one elected office or another since 1968, when Ronald Reagan was California’s governor and Richard Nixon won the presidency. Lockyer started his career in classic Democratic fashion, winning a seat on the board of the San Leandro Unified School District. In 1973, he moved up to the state assembly. He earned a degree from the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law and went on to spend 15 years in the state senate, including four years as president pro tem. Over a quarter-century in the legislature, he racked up a series of liberal policy triumphs, notably sponsoring California’s landmark 1984 “hate-crimes” legislation, expanding the state’s health-care bureaucracy, and pushing a number of environmental laws at the Sierra Club’s behest.
With an eye on statewide office, Lockyer would sometimes move toward the center to appeal for votes outside the solidly liberal confines of his Bay Area district. He shepherded the state’s welfare-reform law as well as tax-cut legislation in the mid-1990s, and he famously outlined a sweeping 1987 tort-reform bill on a cocktail napkin. He also supported the nomination of Ward Connerly to the University of California Board of Regents. Connerly went on to lead the 1996 campaign to pass Proposition 209, which amended California’s constitution to forbid preferences in state hiring, contracts, and college admissions.
California’s term-limit law cut short Lockyer’s career in the state legislature. In 1998, he won his first race for attorney general and cruised to reelection four years later. Termed out once again, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger basically secure in the governor’s office, Lockyer settled for the consolation prize of state treasurer. When he ran for reelection in 2010, his campaign slogan was—no joke—“Straight Talk, No Bull#*+!”
In truth, Lockyer could be demagogic when it suited him. As attorney general, he said of former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay: “I would love to personally escort [him] to an eight-by-ten cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.”’ Observers couldn’t help but note that Lockyer, the state’s chief law-enforcement officer and author of its aforementioned hate-crimes legislation, seemingly was endorsing prison rape. Lockyer later wrote to the Los Angeles Times: “My anger over the activities of energy barons doesn’t come close to my lifelong outrage at the crime of rape. . . . I guess I let my anger get the better of me.”
Lockyer also used his office to demonize other politically disfavored industries and individuals, such as law-abiding gun owners and gun-show attendees. In 2010, he told fellow Democrats, “We are the true patriots who are going to start putting what the people of California need ahead of selfish, scare-mongering, silly and stupid right-wing ideology.” And at last year’s state Democratic Party convention, he said, “Rick Perry’s lean and fit model of state bureaucracy is actually a flabby couch potato compared to California. So where’s the evidence that California has an overspending problem? The same place you’ll find Mitt Romney’s compassion, Newt Gingrich’s humility, Rick Santorum’s tolerance, and Ron Paul’s chances—nowhere.”
Well, not quite “nowhere”—for, as the state treasurer dutifully informed his colleagues in the state legislature in 2008, the state was indeed going broke, thanks to its spendthrift ways. He urged lawmakers to “adopt an honest, balanced budget, very soon: no gimmicks, no phony accounting, no borrowing that merely postpones the day of reckoning—those cupboards are bare. Stop relying on the tooth fairy and other fantasies.” The next year, he told legislators to “just stop it, just stop it, just stop it.” He even quoted Nancy Reagan: “Just say no.”
Recent personal drama nearly eclipsed Lockyer’s long public career. As the San Jose Mercury News noted, “Lockyer’s final few years in office might be remembered more for his domestic strife than for the decades of work that preceded it.” In April 2003, he wed Nadia Davis, a woman some 30 years his junior. Their son was born three months later. In 2010, he transferred $1.5 million of his own campaign funds to her campaign for Alameda County supervisor, which she won handily (incredibly, the funds transfer was legal). But Nadia Lockyer resigned from the county board last year amid controversies over methamphetamine abuse and infidelity. Her husband filed for divorce but earlier this year told reporters he was trying to reconcile with his wife.
Now the career politician will step off stage, perhaps a decade or two late. He never lost an election, but the big prize always eluded him. “There was never an opening for me, and I wish I could have been governor, but I understand . . . everybody doesn’t get their wish,” he told a Sacramento Bee reporter. One doubts that his exit will inspire other aging state politicos to hang it up, and California’s ruling class will surely find Lockyer a soft landing spot. After all, former state senator and Democratic Party boss Art Torres had no medical-research experience but duly became co–vice chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, at $225,000 per year—more than what the governor earns. Lockyer, for his part, has a campaign war chest of $2.2 million that he can spend just about any way he likes. In California, old politicians are more likely to die before they fade away.