Notwithstanding the maxim about not speaking ill of the dead, sometimes it’s necessary, as historians often do, to complete the record and teach a lesson about human behavior.
That brings us to two major figures in the California Legislature three decades ago, both since deceased, John Vasconcellos and Lou Papan.
Both were Democratic legislators from the San Francisco Bay Area who wielded immense authority, Vasconcellos as chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee and Papan as chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee, which controls the flow of legislation and internal business such as office space and staff.
Within the Capitol, and sometimes in the media, both had less-than-stellar reputations.
Vasconcellos preached human kindness and the value of self-esteem, but was known for harshly browbeating both those who appeared before his committee and staff members.
Papan, a burly former FBI agent, was considered a bully who could be verbally intimidating, as well as physically, toward just about anyone who crossed his path.
By happenstance, their traits are confirmed in two new published accounts, demonstrating how political power can be misused.
The Guardian, a venerable British newspaper, published an article about Vasconcellos’ pet “self-esteem” project, adapted from a chapter of “Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us,” a book by veteran journalist Will Storr.
Using his power over the state budget, in 1986 Vasconcellos obtained an appropriation for a commission to promote self-esteem as an antidote to educational failure, crime, unemployment and other social ills. One component was a study by a University of California academic team.
Two years later, the study’s results were given to Vasconcellos privately and a few months thereafter a public report was issued, concluding that promoting self-esteem would, in fact, have a positive effect. It was a powerful spur for adoption of self-esteem programs in schools and other institutions.
However, Storr tracked down those involved and learned that the study team’s true findings were not positive, quoting a never-published summary that “the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent.”
What had happened? Storr learned from members of the team he interviewed that under pressure from Vasconcellos, who constantly hectored the University of California over its budget, the report was rewritten to have the positive slant he sought.
Storr accurately terms it “the great self-esteem con.”
The revelation about Papan comes from Paula Treat, a Sacramento lobbyist for decades who was motivated by the sexual harassment scandal that has rocked the Capitol in recent months to tell her story in a Sacramento Bee article.
Simply put, Treat says that in 1983, Papan demanded that she have sex with him or see her bills die, during a dinner at a white napkin restaurant.
“ ‘You will sleep with me or all your bills will die,’ Papan said.
“Sure enough, for the next year, the bills I was handling failed. Papan and I would see each other in the Capitol, and he’d bully me more. During one committee, he came in, saw me and said loudly: ‘You don’t belong in here.’
“I know how to stand up for myself. But I was a young lobbyist in a business dominated by men, and Papan could ruin my career.
“As Rules Committee chair, he decided who was hired and fired and which committees would hear my bills. He also oversaw what passed for the Assembly’s human resources department. When the Rules Committee chair harasses you, there is no place to appeal.”
So there you have it – two politicians who abused their power for personal gratification decades ago. And judging from recent revelations, it’s still happening.