Longtime OC GOP Legislator Ross Johnson Finds New Life As a Campaign-Finance Watchdog in Sacramento

The Reformer
Longtime OC GOP legislator Ross Johnson finds new life as a campaign-finance watchdog in Sacramento

Ross Johnson once famously remarked that leading Republicans in the California Assembly was “like herding cats through a minefield while juggling hand grenades.” He wasn’t doing either this hot October day in the 1920s-era Sacramento office he occupies as the full-time chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), but he was shaking a little after an exchange of pleasantries, a reflection perhaps of nerves, his 69 years or his air conditioner being cranked up to 11. His shoulders also appeared too close to his ears as he slumped into his chair, like Humphrey Bogart’s Captain Queeg. But in no time, the shaking ceased, and Johnson was slamming his palms on the conference table to punctuate a point, changing his voice to reflect different characters in a story he was telling, and guffawing over the sights and slights his eyes have seen in his 26 years under the Capitol dome.

Elected out of Fullerton to the state Assembly in 1978, he was among the Republican “Proposition 13 babies” who rode the property-tax measure’s coattails into office. The pride of Anaheim High School’s Class of 1957 served in three different Orange County Assembly districts through 1995, and then served in the state Senate through 2004 until term limits finally did him in. No friend of progressives, Johnson fought term limits, public financing of elections, taxes and regulations on business; he backed the death penalty, property rights, smaller class sizes, a longer school year and lower spending on social programs. He led the statewide campaign to remove Rose Bird from the California Supreme Court in 1986, co-authored the Three Strikes and You’re Out law in 1994, and was the first legislator in history to serve as a party leader in both houses of the California legislature.

Kenn Minter
Kenn Minter

An ironworker at age 16, a hospital corpsman in the Navy, a Cal State Fullerton graduate and the holder of a jurist doctorate from Western State College of Law, Johnson sold his Orange County residence and was enjoying a nice retirement with his wife, Diane, in Gold River, east of Sacramento, when the governor came calling last year.

“Without a doubt, this is the single best appointment Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger could have made to head this troubled agency,” state Senator Jim Battin (R-Palm Desert) wrote on OC Republican political junkie Jon Fleischman’s “Flash Report” blog shortly after Johnson was named to head the FPPC on Valentine’s Day 2007.

Concerns over an entrenched Sacramento politico being charged with policing his former colleagues have been dashed in his first 21 months at the FPPC.

“Ross Johnson is one of my favorite people these days,” says Bob Stern, general counsel of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “I think he’s doing a terrific job. It’s somewhat of a surprise because he came from the legislature. Usually when you think of a legislator coming to the FPPC, you think they are going to be a lap dog monitoring what the legislature is doing. But he is continuing the tradition of being a watchdog instead of a lap dog.”

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Political reform, Johnson says, has always been “a fundamental issue” to him, something he traces back to his childhood. “My aunt passed away when she was well into her 80s. She said from the time I was a little boy, fairness mattered to me,” Johnson says. “I was always a member of the minority in the legislature my entire career. I didn’t like to lose, but I didn’t mind if I felt I was being treated fairly.”

He confides that his jones for campaign-finance reform often put him at odds with fellow conservatives who consider any such restrictions to be a violation of free speech. “There was a tendency on the part of my colleagues to pat me on the head and say, ‘That’s just Ross being Ross,’ and then go on to talk about some other issue,” he says. It was also difficult making inroads with many officeholders. “Whether you answer that the existing system is good or bad, it’s working for the people in office. They won.”

The first Assembly bill he authored concerned campaign reform. He and his wife sold their home to raise the funds to get Proposition 40 on the 1984 ballot; at the time, Johnson called it “the most radical proposal that’s been put before the voters anywhere in terms of campaign finance.” The measure went on to generate the largest political coalition in the history of California, including the GOP, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club, the Democratic Party, the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women voters. “Unfortunately for me, they were all opposed to the initiative,” says Johnson. “We were literally, in the end, only supported by four groups in the entire state. There was a group of churches that sponsored it, the California Grange endorsed it, Shirley Grindle’s group TINCUP [Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics] in Orange County, and I can’t recall the fourth. A couple of newspapers endorsed it. It was an ignominious defeat.”

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