Friday, September 19, 2008

A biographical sketch of Albert S. Rodda

The Rodda Project: Biographical sketch

Albert Stanley Rodda's political career did not begin with his election to the California State Senate in the Democratic landslide year of 1958, nor did it end with his upset defeat for re-election in the Reagan landslide year of 1980. While his 22 years in the State Senate marked the apogee of his power and influence, they also fit neatly into the context of interests and activities that both preceded and followed his time in the State Capitol.

More than anything else, Albert Rodda was an educator. He held an earned doctorate in history and economics from Stanford University. At the time of his initial election to the Legislature, Rodda was a faculty member at Sacramento City College, teaching history and economics. He retained his teaching position (going on leave during semesters when the Legislature was in session) until the Legislature became a full-time job in 1966, at which point he retired from the college. Later, after leaving the State Senate, he became an adjunct professor at Sacramento State University, teaching his students from the perspective of an experienced and practical politician.

He was back in elective office soon after his departure from the Legislature, taking a seat in 1983 as a representative on the Los Rios Community College District board of trustees. The Los Rios district included Sacramento City College, which in 1980 had dedicated its big new administrative and classroom complex in his honor. He served two terms on the board, lending his deep knowledge of state education policy and school finance to the deliberations of the college trustees.

Rodda's focus on education had been reflected in his legislative career, during which he spent several years as chair of the Senate Education Committee. While over six hundred of his bills were enacted into law, for most knowledgeable people the words “Rodda Act” refer to the landmark measure (SB 160) that established the right of public school teachers to collective bargaining. SB 160 was born of the Senator's personal knowledge of the stark imbalance between the rights of teachers and the authority of administrators and school boards. Both he and his wife, Clarice Horgan Rodda, had been teachers in Sacramento high schools.

A generally quiet and introspective gentleman, Albert Rodda departed from many of the stereotypes we associate with politicians. He cared more about getting things done than getting credit, so many times he deferred to colleagues who were eager to take leading roles in addressing the popular issues of the day. When rival bills were introduced in the Legislature, the authors would jockey for position as they sought to get their proposals to the Governor's desk. Sometimes they'd find that Rodda was willing to drop his own bill so long as his particular concerns were addressed to his satisfaction in the rival legislation. Thus a colleague's name would appear as lead author on a senate bill presented to the Governor for his signature, but many of the words in it would have been crafted by Al Rodda.

Early life

Albert S. Rodda, Jr., was born in Sacramento on July 23, 1912. He and his older brother, Richard Rodda, lost their mother in the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918. Their father remarried and the boys were raised by a devoted stepmother. The Rodda brothers both ended up dedicating their long lives to the service of the people and institutions of Sacramento, Richard in journalism and Albert in politics and education.

An alumnus of Sacramento High School (Class of 1929) and Stanford University (Class of 1933), Albert became a high school teacher himself. It was at Grant Union High School that he met Clarice Horgan, whom he married in 1941. The entry of the U.S. into World War II after Pearl Harbor prompted Albert to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he became a gunnery officer (lieutenant, junior grade). The Senator used to reminisce about his military service, humorously describing his gunnery assignment as the great secret scandal of his life.

From the scuttlebutt of the time, Albert had heard that the Navy was assigning to the Atlantic theater those enlistees who had the highest scores on the mathematics portion of the officer candidate exams. Those who passed with lower scores were going to the Pacific instead. As a newlywed with a young wife in California, Albert much preferred to serve his country in the Pacific theater of war, where it might be possible for him to see Clarice during occasional shore leaves. He pulled some of his punches on the math problems and did not score quite as high as he was capable. [The Senator used to tease me that, as a math teacher, I must be horrified that he had underachieved on a math test. —TB] Whatever the reason, Albert soon found himself serving as a gunnery officer in the Pacific.

Mustered out of the Naval Reserve in 1946, Albert Rodda became a faculty member at what was then known as Sacramento Junior College. He and his family lived in a home in Curtis Park, right around the corner from the college campus. He returned to Stanford University for graduate studies, completing his Ph.D. in history and economics in 1951. (His dissertation was on the economic mind of the 18th century colonial American, and the Senator used to joke that he should never have given a copy to Ronald Reagan.)

Entering politics

Though a Republican in the forties, Rodda became active in Democratic politics and the labor movement during the fifties and began to contemplate running for the Legislature. He had already been elected president of Local 31 of the California Federation of Teachers and was confident in his leadership abilities. Rodda wondered whether he should seek a seat in the Assembly or Senate. His high profile in Sacramento Democratic circles, where he served on the central committee (part of the time as its chair), was a mixed blessing, since it led him into conflict with the biggest Democratic name in the county, conservative incumbent state Senator Earl Desmond. Sen. Desmond made no secret of his opposition to any Rodda candidacy, certain that Albert would upset the old-boy network in which Desmond was comfortably ensconced.

It was ironic, therefore, that it was Desmond's death in office that opened the way for Albert Rodda to succeed him in the Legislature. Rodda defeated Desmond's son in the 1958 special election to fill the remainder of the late senator's term. It was a good year for Democrats, Edmund G. Brown, Sr., winning the Governor's office for the first of two terms that transformed California public education, water policy, and infrastructure. Albert Rodda entered the Legislature just in time to participate in a dynamic new era in California politics.

Because Rodda was elected to a vacant seat, he was sworn into office immediately after his victory was confirmed. Two years later, in 1960, he was elected to a full four-year term in his own right, a feat he repeated in 1964. That term, however, was truncated. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the then-existing apportionment of the State Senate's 40 seats by counties (or groups of counties). The one-man/one-vote decision required the new districts to be essentially equal in population. All forty senators were forced to run in 1966. To restore the tradition whereby only half of the Senate came up for election in even-numbered years, half of the senators ran for two-year terms and the other half for the customary four-year terms. Albert ended up with another two-year term.

At the same time, the California legislature went from a part-time institution to a full-time governmental body. The Senator had to make a difficult decision. He decided to continue his legislative career, now a full-time job, and to step down from his faculty position at Sacramento City College. Albert was re-elected to his Sacramento-area district in 1968, 1972, and 1976. As his seniority grew, he attained the position of dean of the Senate (he was senior to Walter Stiern of Bakersfield by several weeks, having taken office in 1958 just before Stiern took his own seat).


The Senator was approached at one point and asked to consider taking the position of president pro tempore of the Senate, but he was not interested in the top leadership position in the upper house. He knew that he had been approached as a compromise candidate, an acceptable alternative to more ambitious Democrats who had divided the house in their efforts to secure the leadership. (The position eventually went to James Mills of San Diego.)

Albert did, however, accept the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee under similar circumstances, again coming to the attention of his colleagues as an acceptable alternative to two powerful rivals. He picked up the gavel of Senate Finance with some reluctance because it required him to step down as chair of Senate Education, but he presided with panache over his new committee during his last four-year term of office.

Much of the Senator's effectiveness stemmed from the respect his fellow senators had for him. No one regarded Sen. Rodda as ambitious for personal political advancement, making him more widely trusted than senators who were actively positioning themselves for future statewide campaigns, judgeships, or post-elective jobs in the private sector. The Senator knew how to draw on his colleagues' trust in crafting successful legislation.


As noted, when people refer to “the Rodda Act” they are usually talking about SB 160, the Senator's landmark 1975 legislation that gave collective bargaining rights to public school teachers. There are, however, over six hundred other measures authored by Sen. Rodda that were enacted into state law. These ran the gamut of his constituents' concerns, but major areas of focus were education policy and fiscal policy. The Senator was a long-time member of the Senate Education Committee and was its chair for ten years. During his four years as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Rodda was the lead author of the Senate version of the state budget bill and a member of each year's two-house conference committee that settled areas of disagreement between the Senate and Assembly versions of the budget.

Proposition 13 in 1978 was the big landmark in what many people called a "tax revolt." Sen. Rodda worked with his colleagues to soften the impact of 13's enormous reduction in property tax revenue. Their success, however, opened the way for 13's sponsors to argue that more tax reductions were needed. The follow-up was Proposition 9 in June 1980 to slash the personal income tax. Sen. Rodda worked diligently to analyze the impact of enactment of Proposition 9 and demonstrated that it would be disastrous, especially in the absence of a state surplus to cushion its effects. Rodda's analyses (issued in two separate documents) were a crucial weapon in the successful campaign to defeat Proposition 9. Although the June balloting was a great vindication of the Senator's position, with Proposition 9 losing by 61% to 39%, it also drew attention to him as an opponent of the tax-revolt leaders in the state. The political right drew a bead on him, and ammunition was plentiful. Some critics began to point to the number of votes Rodda missed during absences from the floor of the Senate; they neglected to point out that there was no way he could be present during the sessions that the Senate held concurrently with meetings of Senate Finance or the budget conference committee. Ironically, his success and seniority as a legislator would be used against him.

The election of 1980

Sen. Rodda was aware that many local politicians were hoping that he would retire in 1980 and create an opportunity for their advancement. Upon due consideration, Albert decided to run for another term. He did not want to set off a major primary battle among Democratic Party members, particularly in a census year. The new U.S. census would be followed by redistricting, making it important that the Democrats maintain their majorities and thus control the new district lines. Rodda was considered a sure bet for re-election by most observers (the nonpartisan California Journal rated his race “Safe Democratic”), although his district's demographics were moving in a more conservative direction.

The Senator himself was more concerned than most of his allies. He reluctantly approved a bigger campaign budget than in previous contests, sensing that 1980 might prove to be a difficult year for Democrats. He also drew a maverick Democrat as an opponent in the June primary. That was unusual. While Rodda beat him handily, he worried about the minority of Democrats who had declined to vote for him. In addition, the Republican nominee elected to oppose him was a young legislative assistant from Senator H. L. Richardson's office. Richardson was California's right-wing guru and an early pioneer of computer-generated campaign fund-raising and targeted mass mailing. Was Richardson's aide a sacrificial lamb, or did Richardson think they had a genuine chance at a major upset?

Just before the election, when Rodda was beginning to feel that his campaign had done enough to secure one more term, the Republican's secret weapon was unveiled. It seemed (to those of us on Rodda's staff, anyway) that Richardson had a political ally in the person of the Sacramento county district attorney. The DA indicted a state senator on charges of lewd and lascivious conduct with minors. The criminal charges were among the biggest local news stories in the days immediately preceding the election. The indicted legislator was Senator Alan Robbins of Van Nuys, but some thought the timing of the indictment indicated that the real target was Senator Albert Rodda of Sacramento. We received phone calls in the Senator's office denouncing him as a dirty old man. People were easily confused by the similarity of the names Alan Robbins and Albert Rodda. We also heard reports of a door-to-door whispering campaign in which people expressed concern about re-electing an accused sex criminal to the State Senate.

Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Jimmy Carter sealed Albert Rodda's fate. Many good Democrats were swept out of office as the GOP turned out in force for the presidential election. The media's early call of a Reagan victory and Carter's immediate concession were depressing to West Coast candidates, who decried the president's acknowledgment of defeat while the polls were still open. On top of the local smear campaign, Carter's premature concession statement was probably the last straw. We noticed that Sen. Rodda had carried the absentee vote, a traditionally Republican portion of the electorate. Rodda's defeat was caused by last-minute events, because he won the early balloting. The final tally went against him by 123,844 to 115,795, a margin of barely 8,000 votes (3.4% of the total vote).

Enter Unruh

The shock waves from Rodda's defeat reverberated through the State Capitol. Many Democrats worried that a nasty new era of political campaigning had begun. (As we know now, they were right.) Soon, however, major political figures came courting. Governor Jerry Brown offered Rodda a seat on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Although the legislation establishing the ALRB bore another senator's name as lead author, Rodda had been deeply involved in the details of establishing collective bargaining rights for state farmworkers. Farm labor unionization was controversial and Gov. Brown decided that Albert could be a calming influence, as well as certain to obtain Senate confirmation from his erstwhile colleagues.

State Treasurer Jesse M. Unruh, however, had other ideas. The former Assembly Speaker had built the constitutional post of State Treasurer into a major state power center. Unruh was the statutory chairman of the new Commission on State Finance, the latest agency to be created within the Treasurer's Office. The new commission was charged with tracking and forecasting state revenues and expenditures. Its creation was evidence of Unruh's continuing influence over state government, since Gov. Brown signed the legislative measure despite the reservations of his Department of Finance (which correctly recognized the Commission on State Finance as an indication that neither the Legislature nor the State Treasurer was content to trust the budget numbers coming out of the Administration or the Legislative Analyst's Office). The new commission needed an executive officer who could put the agency on the map of state government. Unruh offered the position to Albert Rodda.

Rodda quickly recognized that he was likely to find much more job satisfaction in the Treasurer's Office than at the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. He tendered his regrets to the Governor and accepted the State Treasurer's offer to become executive secretary of the Commission on State Finance.

Albert's presence as chief officer of the commission enabled Unruh to fully staff the infant agency. The commission began to issue quarterly reports on state revenues and expenditures, as well as long-range forecasts. The staff tracked legislation with fiscal impact and forecast the general fund cost of servicing general obligation bonds. The Governor's Department of Finance was not delighted with the existence of the State Treasurer's Commission on State Finance (several years later, in fact, Gov. Pete Wilson used his line-item veto to abolish it), but a fairly high level of cooperation was established between the two state agencies during Rodda's tenure. Unruh's plan for an independent check on the Governor's Department of Finance was in place.

Rodda stayed at the Commission on State Finance until 1983, when the Los Rios board of trustees beckoned. People in Area 5, the college district where Albert and Clarice resided, came to the Senator with a request that he chair a search committee to recruit a new trustee to represent them. Each person he approached said the same thing: “Why don't you run, Al?” No naïf, Albert soon realized that those who had approached him had had him in mind in the first place. They just wanted him to discover the degree of support for him within the district. Soon he was on the campaign trail and Area 5 voters swept him into office by a gratifyingly large majority.

Later years

Albert Rodda enjoyed relatively robust good health for many decades. No one, however, could have maintained the high standard he had set indefinitely. He gradually slowed down after retiring from the Los Rios board at the age of 80. The Senator continued to enjoy meeting friends for lunch, but he gradually withdrew from discussions of the day's political issues. Albert had high standards; when he no longer had the time and energy to keep up on the details of California and national politics, he preferred to reserve judgment rather than pontificate without information. (How many politicians do you know with that kind of fundamental honesty or restraint?) The Senator increasingly devoted himself to telling jokes and stories at meetings of his lunch group. His penchant for repeating his favorites became a running gag (including inspiring a contest at his 90th birthday party, in which people competed in their recollection of the jokes when given only the punch lines).

The Senator's greatest loss came with the passing of Clarice, who had been his steadfast partner and helpmate for so long. Albert eventually gave up on living alone and tried a retirement community, but he wasn't happy there. After a serious illness left him an invalid, his children arranged for Albert to move back home with live-in companions to care for him. In familiar and comfortable surroundings, the Senator eased into a quiet and tranquil life. He liked to receive visitors, but would tire quickly and no longer cared to converse at length. Albert died at home on April 3, 2010, at the age of 97.


In addition to his many enacted legislative measures, Albert Rodda's legacy consists of family, friends, and schools. The Los Rios district continues to deliver Albert's dream of open access to higher education, Rodda Hall at the Sacramento City College campus serving as a visible reminder of his impact. His children have distinguished themselves in public school classrooms, on the state bench, and in the state attorney general's office, continuing their parents' accomplishments in education and law. Albert's many students and legislative staffers are an extension of his legacy, and we are everywhere.

No comments: