Labor - And A Whole Lot More

John O'Connell Was in It for Us
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Become cynical about politicians? Think they're all in the deep pockets of those who bankroll their campaigns and that they give only lip service to helping ordinary people? I don't blame you. But there have been genuinely inspiring exceptions.

John O'Connell, the former San Francisco Assemblyman who died six years ago this month at 80, was unquestionably one of them.

You may not remember him, but you should. He was a true liberal who saw his mission as protecting and furthering the civil liberties, civil rights and economic and political interests of all citizens, particularly the needy and downtrodden.

His wife, Patricia Moore O'Connell, said it best: "He really wanted to make people's lives better. He felt the government should do that and he set about doing it."

O'Connell, a big bear of a man with unmistakably Irish features, fought hard and long for what he believed, often in the face of fierce opposition.

And working closely with two other San Francisco Democrats of Irish ancestry in Sacramento during the 1950s and 60s -- fellow Assemblyman and law school classmate Phil Burton and Gov. Pat Brown -- he often prevailed.

O'Connell played a key role in improving and extending the legal protections and state-financed benefits of injured, disabled and jobless workers, for instance. His was an important voice in broadening the union rights of all workers. He won repeal of the vagrancy law that had been invoked since 1872 to harass the poor. He helped increase financial aid for needy children and liberalize welfare programs generally.

Gov. Brown got important help from O'Connell in winning legislative support for his program of "responsible liberalism." That included the state's first law against racial discrimination in employment and housing, health care for the poor, a consumer protection agency and massive expansion of the education system.

O'Connell's most significant work came as chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Criminal Procedure, which was created at his urging.

Thanks to the committee, California's booksellers were granted the greatest protection against censorship of any in the country -- legislation holding that nothing could be found legally obscene unless it was "utterly without redeeming social importance."

O'Connell, Burton and other members of the committee's Democratic majority even managed to win repeal of the law that required all state employees, including University of California faculty members, to sign "loyalty oaths" declaring they were not then and never had been Communist Party members.

That was no mean feat, given the hysterical Cold War temper of the times. The crucial role of the committee was not in passing legislation, however, but in killing bills proposed by the Legislature's rigidly conservative Republican minority.

Typical of the GOP proposals voted down was a bill that would have applied the death penalty to anyone selling any amount of illegal substances. It specifically called for the execution of people convicted of selling as little as a single marijuana cigarette. Bills curtailing free speech in the guise of combating obscenity and communism was as popular with the right-wingers as get-tough-on-crime measures.

As a wire service and magazine reporter and radio commentator in Sacramento at the time, I can assure you the committee's hearings were noisy, heated and frequently quite entertaining.

One Republican member, for example, insisted on belligerently asking every witness from the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups, "Are you a communist?"

I recall another assemblyman's angry response to the cheers of some 300 UC faculty members for O'Connell's denunciation of the loyalty oath. The GOP lawmaker railed against "the rabble in this room," declaring that "this little example of clapping is typical of communist tactics."

O'Connell was uncompromising in his defense of free speech and boldly unafraid of the possible consequences.

At a time when the House Un-American Activities Committee was conducting a witchhunt that destroyed many who dared stand up for the rights of political dissidents, O'Connell took the podium at a rally in San Francisco to declare that "a communist has a right to hold his political view and say it aloud in public." Then he and Burton led a march of protestors who circled City Hall, where the Un-American Activities Committee was holding a hearing.

O'Connell was red-baited, of course, but it wasn't red-baiting that removed him from political office in 1963. He left the Assembly after four terms to run for Congress, only to lose to long-time Republican Rep. William Mailliard.

O'Connell nevertheless remained in the service of the people he had championed for so long, as a member of the state board that decided the appeals of injured workers who had been denied benefits and as a lawyer representing injured workers.

In private as in public life, John O'Connell knew which side he was on. Our side.

Copyright 2006 Dick Meister