Sen. Fran Pavley participating in a committee meeting IMAGE BY Carl Costas for CALmatters

Sen. Fran Pavley: A quiet force in the climate storm


In a small hearing room decorated with paintings of birds and flowers, Sen. Fran Pavley – the great-granddaughter of a three-time presidential candidate – sat down to present the bill that will likely cement her legacy as the California Legislature’s most accomplished environmentalist.

As usual, her tone was understated, and her style more patient schoolmarm than zealous politician.

“It’s needed to be done based on the science, the impacts to California, nationally and the world,” Pavley, 66, told the panel of lawmakers, making eye contact over the glasses perched at the end of her nose.

Nearly a decade after pushing Assembly Bill 32 – California’s landmark climate change law that led to the cap and trade system – Pavley is back. This time, with a proposal to even further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Her Senate Bill 32 – the number neatly echoes the earlier bill – calls for California to look 35 years into the future to make enormous cuts to the kind of pollution responsible for global warming.

Pavley with then-Speaker Fabian Núñez on the day AB 32 passed in 2006 (AP file photo by Rich Pedroncelli)

Next year will be Pavley’s last in the Legislature, as term limits force her to move on. Typical of many bills she has championed during her legislative career, this one has generated pushback from the business community. Cutting emissions is costly, businesses argue, and the state hasn’t done enough to determine the impacts her earlier bill has had on California’s economy.

“Before we move ahead we need to take a look, seriously, at where we are today. What are the costs and benefits of what’s already happened?” Michael Shaw, a lobbyist for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, asked at the hearing, while Pavley sat beside him taking notes.

A Democrat from the Los Angeles County town of Agoura Hills, Pavley came to the Legislature in 2000 after spending 28 years as a schoolteacher – first in a Northern California farmworker community, later near the Southern California coast. A history teacher who loved nature, Pavley developed outdoor education programs to bring children to forests, lakes and mountains.

“Kids will come to me today, in their 30s and 40s, (and say) that was the part of their educational experience they remember the most,” Pavley told a group of state parks advocates visiting her office, where a black and white portrait hangs above the senator’s desk.

The image shows Pavley’s great-grandfather, William Jennings Bryan, who was a U.S. Congressman from Nebraska and Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. He was the grand orator for the populist movement at the time and a proponent of women’s rights to vote. Like Pavley, Bryan was a Democrat.

But unlike Pavley, who has pushed for science in public policy, many best remember Bryan for doing just the opposite. He was a key figure in the famous 1925 “Scopes trial,” prosecuting a Tennessee teacher who taught evolution in his classroom after it had been banned from the state’s schools.

“I believe what the Bible says,” Bryan, a devout Presbyterian, said during the trial, according to “Summer for the Gods” by historian Edward L. Lawson. 

Bryan wanted students to learn that God created mankind. Pavley, by contrast, carried a bill that expands the science curriculum in California schools to include principles of climate change.

“I married a science teacher, so that’s just a full circle,” she said.

Her continual focus on global warming has put Pavley head-to-head with major sectors of the economy: carmakers, oil companies and chemical manufacturers among them.

Pavley chats with colleague Sen. Bob Hertzberg at a hearing in June (Carl Costas for CALmatters)

In 2002, Pavley carried a bill that set new emissions standards for cars. The auto industry sued over the law, but Pavley’s bill ended up becoming a model for the entire country. She was a guest at the White House in 2009 when President Barack Obama announced new national fuel economy standards, based on Pavley’s plan for California.

After tackling greenhouse gas emissions from cars, Pavley moved on in 2006 to address the issue more broadly, working closely with former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez on AB 32. Pavley had the idea for the bill and did a lot of the work on it, but in the official record the name Núñez comes first. That’s because she asked him to join in a strategic move to help assure its passage, Núñez recalled during a recent interview.

“She didn’t really care (about getting credit), she just wanted the issue to get done,” Núñez said.

He described her as a skilled policymaker who doesn’t engage in political gamesmanship, a focus that has allowed her to take on powerful interests.

“In politics, one of the fundamental rules of survival is don’t upset the apple cart too much if you want to get re-elected,” Núñez said. “In Fran’s case she didn’t really care… about how much money she raised for her re-election. She just figures, look I represent a liberal district where people care about the environment.”

At home in Agoura Hills, Pavley said her family does a lot to go gentle on the planet. To reduce water use, drought-tolerant plants instead of lawns surround the house. To reduce energy consumption, the Pavleys use a clothesline instead of a dryer; hand wash dishes instead of running a dishwasher; and strategically placed trees to shade the house because they don’t have air conditioning. And she drives a hybrid.

“So as far as walking the walk, yes,” Pavley said.

The senator’s green reputation hit a rough patch in 2013. She disappointed some environmentalists with a bill to regulate the oil extraction method known as fracking, a process that involves injecting water and chemicals deep into the earth. Some green activists wanted to ban fracking. Pavley’s bill focused on regulating the practice and requiring new disclosures from oil companies.

“The ban couldn’t pass in either house. You had a variety of problems, and you had a governor that wasn’t going to sign it,” Pavley said.

“So I’m also pragmatic. Who rather should carry a regulatory bill? I was going to be as tough as I could and at least get the transparency the public was demanding.”

Though she is most well known for her work on the environment, Pavley leaves a track record in another area as well: services for people with developmental disabilities, such as her 36-year-old son David. Last year, she invoked his name as she stood on the Senate floor to explain why she wouldn’t vote for a resolution urging Congress to change a federal work program for disabled adults.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Pavley said, noting her son’s job in a cafeteria.

“Thirty years ago these adults would just be staying home in front of their television. Today they’re out in the community… David never misses a day of work, he enjoys it.”

In 2012, Pavley carried a bill that deleted all references to “mental retardation” in state law, replacing the term with “intellectual disability.” She’s been a quiet force in expanding funding and respect for Californians with special needs, said Carl London, a lobbyist for the California Disabilities Services Association.

“She is very private about this normally, and only really jumps into the fray on this stuff when she feels like there’s a real wrong going on,” he said.

Pavley has “made a huge imprint during her time in Sacramento,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who signed Pavley’s clean cars bill in 2002. “She’s always taken on difficult challenges. These have not been easy fights.”

Asked whom he thinks will be the Legislature’s next Fran Pavley, Davis didn’t hesitate to put her in the environmental hall of fame.

“That’s like saying, ‘Who’s going to be the next Babe Ruth or the next Steve Jobs?’” he said. “We’re talking Olympian stature here with Fran.”