The Portuguese in Politics
Debonair and diplomatic, he was one of the first people I met after joining the staff of the California State Senate. He regularly visited the office of my boss on the fifth floor of the State Capitol annex, making his rounds with the confidence of someone who knew where he was going.
He did know. Joe Gonsalves was a respected Sacramento lobbyist who had already served with distinction as a member of the State Assembly. With his son Anthony frequently by his side, Gonsalves worked the Capitol on behalf of his clients and made their case to state legislators and legislative staff. As a brand-new Senate Fellow, I had neither seniority nor authority, but Gonsalves believed in treating people as peers. He was a small-d democrat as well as a big-D Democrat.
Of course, I had the added advantage of being one of the Capitol workers likely to greet his appearances with a cheery “Boa tarde, Senhor!” Gonsalves quickly discerned that I was a fellow Azorean-American. (Even better, I was descended from Terceiran stock, as was he.) Watching Joe Gonsalves in action was a lesson in the value of a solid reputation for straightforward honesty and the usefulness of maintaining personal contacts. Though I was never an important factor in the work of Gonsalves at the State Capitol, I was nevertheless pleased to be recognized and greeted as a friendly acquaintance. While there were many hard-working lobbyists in the halls of the Capitol, only a very few could also be considered statesmen. Joe Gonsalves was at the top of that short list.
Thanks to the remarkable work of Alvin Ray Graves, people who were nowhere near the State Capitol in the sixties, seventies, and eighties can get acquainted with Joe Gonsalves and his fascinating story. Already held in high regard for The Portuguese Californians, published in 2004 by Portuguese Heritage Publications, Dr. Graves has now favored us with the release of California’s Portuguese Politicians: A Century of Legislative Service. It was an ambitious undertaking. After setting the stage with a pair of chapters on Portuguese America and California’s pioneering Luso-American politicians, Graves begins his discussion of modern-era legislators of Portuguese descent with a wonderfully detailed account of the career of Joe “Landslide” Gonsalves. Then his chapter on “The Portuguese Caucus” casts a wide net that brings in Frank Vicencia (seriously considered during the McCarthy-Berman internecine battles as a compromise candidate for Speaker of the Assembly), Henry Mello, Rusty Areias, Jim Costa, and John Vasconcellos. Graves treats each politician in turn, sketching the highlights of their careers and the particular issues with which they were concerned.
When he gets to John Vasconcellos, however, who served four decades in California’s State Assembly and State Senate, Graves needs to begin a new chapter. It was the only way to do justice to the legislator’s amazing career. “Vasco” was a newly-minted attorney when he joined Governor Pat Brown’s staff. Later he was elected to the State Assembly and set a record for service as chair of the Ways and Means Committee; the adjective “powerful” was (and is) almost always attached to Ways and Means because it was the institution that doled out appropriations and produced the Assembly version of the annual state budget.
I can share an anecdote about Vasconcellos that I heard from my boss, State Senator Albert Rodda, who was chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the upper-house counterpart to Ways and Means. As a young staffer in Pat Brown’s office, Vasco was notable for his well-groomed appearance and tailored suits. As an elected legislator, however, he grew into a rumpled bear of a man with unruly locks and an indifferent attitude toward his wardrobe. It was mostly a shift in priorities for Vasconcellos, but it was also calculated for effect. Senator Rodda recalled an occasion when he and Vasco were loitering outside a hearing room, waiting to address a meeting of the University of California’s Board of Regents on issues concerning the state budget. Shortly before entering the committee chamber, Vasco decided he was looking too tidy, so he paused to pull out a shirt-tail before he followed Rodda into the room. He was a showman as well as a politician.
Graves has his hands full in dealing with the careers of so diverse a collection of politicians. Their common Portuguese heritage does not in any way impose a common political philosophy on Graves’s subjects, as they range from old-style liberal Democrat to modern Tea-Party Republican. Since the author is interested principally in serving as a faithful reporter of our extended community’s many contributions to California’s public sector, he even-handedly avoids playing favorites and conveys the viewpoints of his subjects in their own words. Ultimately, California’s Portuguese Politicians is a celebration of Luso-American involvement in a key aspect of state life. It’s a story with deep roots and it’s a story without an ending. Graves brings us up to the modern era with profiles of the Golden State’s current Portuguese Congressmen, who celebrate their mutual heritage even as they battle on opposite sides of the House of Representatives.
Graves has skilfully penned a readable and engaging account of Luso-Americans in California’s State Assembly, State Senate, and congressional delegation. Our people are everywhere!
California’s Portuguese Politicians is available from Portuguese Heritage Publications of California, www.PortugueseBooks.org.
NOTE: This review also appears in the Yolo Cabrillo Civic Club #26 newsletter, Vol. 48, No. 3 (March 2014)]