It’s a quiet early morning on the weekend before Election Day. In a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Merced, one of the most powerful members of the California State Legislature—Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, who represents Santa Cruz and the Central Coast—is engaging voters on behalf of his friend and longtime political ally, Anna Caballero, a candidate for the sprawling State Senate District 12 seat.
A clear cerulean sky stretches out in all directions as Monning treks along the nondescript series of tract homes seeking out voters in support of Caballero. It’s a surprisingly hot day for early November, and temperatures will climb into the high 80s later in the afternoon. Dressed in blue jeans, a short-sleeved blue polo shirt and a well-worn University of California baseball cap (Monning is a proud Cal alum), the sandy-haired senator walks from house to house.
What he discovers is a fascinating cross-section of California—one family from El Salvador, a young single mother and waitress raised in nearby Ceres, three generations of a Vietnamese family in the midst of celebrating an ornate ceremony welcoming a newborn baby into their home.
Precincts like this one represent the deep trenches of California politics. The party or candidate with the best field operation generally has an edge in any given election. But it’s hard to get a sense of the political landscape in this neighborhood. There’s not a single campaign yard sign anywhere in sight, and the residents who answer the doors seem, for the most part, disengaged from the process.
In certain respects, the 12th State Senate district represents Ground Zero in California legislative politics. A cadre of state senators—including Nancy Skinner (Berkeley), Steve Glazer (Orinda), Henry Stern (Los Angeles), Bob Wieckowski (Fremont) and Senate President pro tempore Toni Atkins (San Diego)—joined Monning on a three-day bus tour to rustle up votes for targeted Democratic Party candidates. Their goal: to secure so-called “supermajorities” in both houses of the California Legislature.
The work in the trenches paid off for Monning and his Democratic Senate colleagues. Caballero—a popular former mayor of Salinas—eked out a narrow win in the 12th Senate District, as did Melissa Hurtado in the bordering 14th, giving Dems a supermajority in the Senate, 29 to 11, reflecting the blue tidal wave that quietly but surely swept the country on Election Day last month.
For those of us in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, it’s easy to forget how close those bright red pockets of Trumpism are to us. The precinct in which Monning is walking is little more than two hours away.
As the sun climbs over the San Joaquin Valley, Monning beats on into the neighborhood. He’s warm and genuine with everyone he encounters. It seems there might be a better way for someone at his station in life to spend a golden weekend. I can’t help but ask him why he does it.
“I have a defective gene,” he jokes with a wry smile. A few steps later, he clarifies, as if to make sure his humor is not misinterpreted: “You know, I’ve been walking precincts my entire adult life, all the way back to my days with the farm workers’ movement [in the 1970s]. You meet people, connect with people, you take them out of their political isolation. It’s a real and practical way to stem the tide of all the corporate money that’s being pumped into these races. I tell people, ‘Don’t be demoralized. Vote, get engaged.’”
Ever since he was elected to represent the Central Coast in the California legislature—first as a member of the Assembly in 2008, then as a State Senator beginning in 2012—Monning has waged a steady war in Sacramento on behalf of progressive causes: a soda tax or warning labels to support public health, farm worker protections, clean water, sustainable seafood, the End of Life Option Act, an economic assessment for the shutdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, financial protections for the victims of domestic violence, eliminating plastic refuse in the oceans.
In each of these battles, Monning has taken on big-money interests that he believes warp California’s democratic institutions. For him, California politics has a David-versus-Goliath dynamic, and he refuses to give ground to insurance companies, the soft drink industry, the gas and oil lobby, agribusiness, the trucking industry, energy giants, or polluters.
“One of the most admirable elements about Bill is his willingness to tackle large issues, even in the face of strong opposition,” says Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend. “That is missing too much in politics today, and we could use more people like him that are guided by what’s right rather than what’s expedient.”
The legendary California Assembly Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh once famously proclaimed that “money is the mother’s milk of California politics.” Ever since its founding in the aftermath of the Gold Rush, California has been dominated by special interest money. The “Big Four” railroad magnates of the Central Pacific Railroad (Stanford, Hopkins, Crocker and Huntington) essentially owned the legislature in Sacramento for the latter half of the 19th century.
“It was true then, and it’s still true today,” Monning declares. “In fact, the lobby money today is on steroids.”
As an example, he points to this year’s battle in San Luis Obispo County to pass Measure G, which would have prohibited fracking and further oil exploration in the county. “Chevron alone spent $4 million-plus to defeat the measure,” Monning notes. The measure went down in defeat, 56 to 44 percent.
Near the end of Monning’s walk, he meets up with his colleague, Toni Atkins of San Diego. There is a clear warmth between them. She and I chat a while about her district, and then she explains why, as president of the State Senate, she has appointed Monning to top leadership roles.
“Bill has a real calming effect on most of us,” she says. “He is very principled and trustworthy. He’s passionate about his beliefs, but he also has a practical approach to this work.”
Born in Culver City in 1951, William “Bill” Wheeler Monning grew up largely in Pasadena, where he was a star athlete at Flintridge Prep, participating in football, basketball, baseball and swimming.
Monning acknowledges that he was sheltered from the poverty and social turbulence during those post-war years of economic growth and tension in Southern California—in particular, the Watts Riots of 1965—but recalls an incident during his childhood that he says shaped his mindset.
It was during the Christmas season that he saw a beat-up station wagon pull into a parking lot. The driver, a Mexican immigrant with what appeared to be his entire family and all of their belongings in tow, rolled down his window and said to Monning’s father, an engineer for the city of Los Angeles, that he didn’t have money for gas. Without drawing attention to himself, Monning’s dad walked over to the station wagon and handed the driver a $20 bill.
“Not everybody has the same good fortune that we do,” Monning recalls his father telling him. Those words left a profound, lifelong impression on his son. “My family had a deep commitment to public service—you give to others—and watching how my father handled that situation had a huge impact on my life.”
After graduating from Flintridge in 1969 (his father had died from a heart attack when Monning was still in high school), Monning headed off to Berkeley, where the free speech movement was on fire and radical activism defined the times.
One of his mentors at Berkeley was Tom Hayden—the famed author of the Port Huron Statement (the 1962 manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society), a Freedom Rider in the Deep South, a member of the Chicago Seven, and later, like Monning, elected to both houses of the California Legislature. During the early ’70s, Hayden lived in Berkeley as a member of the so-called Red Family, a brand of political activism to which Monning found himself attracted.
By the time he graduated from Berkeley, Monning had been fully radicalized. He entered law school at the University of San Francisco and came out committed to working on behalf of migrant workers. His first job as an attorney was for the United Farm Workers union; he later worked for the Migrant Farm Worker Project at California Rural Legal Assistance, the Salvadoran Medical Relief Fund, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. It was a legal career steeped in progressive causes, working on behalf of the disenfranchised and dispossessed.
While working for the UFW in 1976, Monning met a young graduate from Radcliffe, Dana Kent, who had worked for the union as an organizer in Delano, then as a clinic worker and a paralegal. They married soon thereafter and raised two daughters.
Kent became a bilingual teacher’s aide in San Juan Bautista, then went into the medical profession as a nurse before enrolling at Harvard Medical School, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1991. She currently serves as a practicing physician and medical director for health promotion and education at the Natividad Foundation, where she focuses on diabetes among the underserved in Monterey County.
It’s easy to see why a good deal of Monning’s work in Sacramento has focused on public health. “Dana and I work as a team,” Monning says. “She’s played a critical role in my political career, but more importantly, my sense of activism.”
READY TO RUN
It was in 1993 that Monning decided to jump with both feet into the political arena. With the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency and the ascendance of Monterey congressmember Leon Panetta to Clinton’s cabinet (first as Director of the Office of Management and Budget), Monning decided to seek what had been Panetta’s congressional seat since the mid-1970s.
Monning’s decision to run irked more than a few members of the regional Democratic party establishment who had already lined up behind Carmel-based Assemblymember Sam Farr. Monning bristles at the longstanding narrative (that still exists to this day) that he ran against Farr.
“Remember, this was an open seat,” Monning says. “Sam wasn’t an incumbent. This was a special election. I was running on a progressive agenda—campaign finance reform, single-payer health insurance and opposition to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). We disagreed on the first two issues, but Sam said he was against NAFTA, too.”
Monning’s candidacy brought together a large grassroots campaign in Santa Cruz, which included a remarkable group of progressive elders who brought a unique spirit and energy to the primary campaign that included 25 candidates.
When the first dust settled in the April 1993 primary, Farr garnered 25 percent of the vote, while Monning surprised many local pundits by coming in a strong second, with 18 percent. In a runoff, Farr beat his Republican opponent, Bill McCampbell, 52 to 43 percent.
The next year, Monning decided to take on then-incumbent Bruce McPherson for the State Assembly. It was a historic race in California history. The Democratic Party establishment—most notably the late State Sen. Henry Mello of Watsonville—sabotaged Monning’s campaign. Dan Walters, the longtime Sacramento columnist for McClatchy News Service, published an exposé of how Mello, who Walters described as “an autocratic, old-style politician who … fancies himself the political boss of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties,” iced Monning because he had beaten Mello’s longtime aide Cathy O’Boyle in the Democratic primary for the Assembly.
Mello and Monning were polar opposites. Mello had PAC money running through his veins; he had long favored Salinas and Pajaro Valley agribusiness interests over Cesar Chavez and the UFW.
Mello refused to endorse Monning for Assembly, and Democratic kingpin Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown waited until the last second to offer Monning some campaign crumbs. It was too little, too late. McPherson (who has since left the Republican Party) squeaked by in the race by just 2,500 votes (51 to 49 percent), and went on to a lengthy career in the State Senate, served as Secretary of State, and now serves as a Santa Cruz County supervisor.
Monning had been outspent by $500,000 in the race, in a district that had been considered a Democratic lock. While he was “frustrated” and “disappointed” by the outcome, he had not compromised his principles, refusing special interest money. He had fought the good fight—and had lost a legislative bid for the second time in two years.
Cut to a decade-and-a-half later. By 2008, a lot of water had flowed under many a political bridge on the Central Coast. When John Laird, the popular Democratic Assemblyman from Santa Cruz (now secretary of the California Resources Agency), termed out in the 27th District, Monning—then teaching law in Monterey—decided to make another run for it.
“I had been a recovering politician for nearly 15 years,” he muses. “I felt like there was some unfinished business. I didn’t want to have any regrets.”
Monning suited up for another electoral battle. He ran on the same progressive platform that had defined his previous campaigns—health care, campaign finance reform, workers’ rights, environmental protection. This time around, he won the race with a whopping 67 percent of the vote, defeating Republican Robert Murray and Libertarian Mark Hinkle.
“I have great gratitude and respect for all those who have worked in my campaign teams over the years,” Monning says. “It’s all about love and respect for each other, and the shared vision of what we want for each other and our communities.”
Monning ran for and won re-election in 2010, and then for State Senate in 2012 and 2016. In each instance, he won with roughly two-thirds of the vote. Monning hadn’t changed since his losses in the 1990s, when many Democrats refused to back his candidacies. Rather, the State Democratic Party had come around on embracing Monning’s principled, non-transactional brand of politics.
In 2014, Monning’s longtime ally, State Senate president pro tempore Kevin de León (who lost his U.S. Senate bid last month to Dianne Feinstein) selected Monning to serve as Senate Majority Leader, elevating him to one of the most prominent roles in California government.
There is no small amount of irony that Monning has assumed the position—and, indeed, the actual office—that his antagonist Henry Mello had once held. I was a bit surprised to discover that Monning, who is a trained mediator, never patched things up with Mello, who died in 2004.
“I called him once to schedule a meeting,” Monning recalls. “I went over to his office in the hope of making peace, to unify. It was a vicious, insulting exchange.” Monning says he walked out of that meeting and never looked back.
When Monning ran for office the second time around, there was skepticism among local Democrats about how well Monning might fare in the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of Sacramento. Monning’s late friend and mentor Hayden—who served nearly two decades in the Legislature—died in 2016 at the age of 76. I once asked Hayden how he thought Monning would handle the state capital; he was a little skeptical. “I’m not sure he’s going to like it there,” Hayden told me. He thought there might be too much horse-trading, too much money influence for his friend’s high ethical standards.
ABOVE THE MUCK
Shortly after the November election, I told Monning about Hayden’s prognostication. He says he’s not surprised. “Yeah, it’s been a mixed bag,” he says. “But when I look at what you can do when you grit your teeth, the trade-off is being able to accomplish important policy. I’ve been able to maintain my integrity and moral compass and not get sucked into the sludge.”
Monning recalled his first trip to Sacramento, when he was working for the United Farm Workers. “It’s alluring, the fancy architecture and the glitter and gold, and all the power,” Monning remembers, “but I was also turned off by it, and couldn’t wait to get away. I developed a love-hate relationship with it then, and I still have it. I don’t think you’re really grounded unless you have a love-hate relationship with the place. I still feel the tug both ways.”
There was speculation that Monning would run again for Congress when Sam Farr retired in 2016—the same seat he’d run for and lost 22 years earlier—and Monning made news when he announced that he was instead going to stick with his leadership role in Sacramento.
Monning, now 67, will be termed out of office in 2020. With his two daughters now grown (and with three grandchildren), he says he’s looking forward to his final two years in the Senate, where he remains Majority Leader.
“I’m hooked on it,” he says. “I thrive on engaging the art of the possible. Yes, there are disappointments and much that disappoints. But it all makes the victories that much sweeter when you’ve navigated through all the muck.”
Once the legislative session opens in 2019, he says he’s going to work on getting his Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund legislation passed. He has been in negotiations with various agribusiness organizations and environmental justice groups (totaling 90 in all) and says he will refocus his efforts with a handful of legislators who were afraid of voting for a tax bill in advance of the 2018 election.
And he will continue to wage battle against the soft drink industry. After three unsuccessful attempts at levying taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (twice in the Assembly and once in the Senate), Monning is hoping that the supermajorities garnered in both houses last month will enable him to push through his proposed tax in the next legislative session.
Monning views the End of Life Option Act passed in 2015, which allows an adult diagnosed with a terminal disease to request aid-in-dying drugs from their attending physician, as one of his greatest legislative achievements. The process was especially moving for him. Many people confronting terminal illnesses at the time came to Sacramento to testify and lobby on behalf of the trailblazing legislation.
“They knew that they weren’t going to be able to benefit from it,” Monning says. “And yet they still came, facing their terminal conditions, making sure that those who followed them would have options that they didn’t have. These are life and death issues. Sure, you see people at times only acting in their own self-interest, but you also see the best in people, too—people who are strong, who are there for others. Their courage was very moving. When it’s all said and done, those will be the lasting memories.”