Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nicholas C. Petris, Old-School Democrat (1923 - 2013)

“‘Politics’ is not some strange activity conducted by ‘them’ rather than ‘us.’ The fruits of democracy are best seen through the lens of ‘everyday politics,’ in the schools and the hospitals, in the roads and the trains, in the courts and the shops, in community groups and social protests, in bars and sports clubs, in work and play, and in most of all the freedom to question and challenge. From the nursery to the nursing home ‘everyday politics’ improves people’s lives.”
“Democracy revolves around the possibility of collective decision making about collective action for the common good but we have allowed it to become redefined as the freedom of individuals to pursue their own selfish interests and decide upon their own actions. The real failing of politics [in societies like ours] is therefore the manner in which it has cultivated societies in which everyone believes they have a divine right to ever-rising living standards irrespective of their own personal endeavor, and if life fails to deliver then it must be those loathsome politicians who are to blame. No politician has the magic to satisfy a world of greater expectations, and the world does not have the resources to satisfy those expectations. Demonizing politicians might contribute to the myth of collective innocence but at the end of the day we are all complicit.”
 “Politics is, at base, a moral activity and therefore a lack of trust in the capacity of political institutions, political processes, and politicians reflects a much deeper lack of faith in ourselves and in each other. This is because the nature of politics defines the nature of any society. [….] We might also understand that politics delivers rights and responsibilities and from this reflect just a little on whether we have all become a little too good at taking and demanding but possibly less good at giving and offering. ‘Politics’ does not simply involve the conduct and decisions of politicians but also creates a set of expectations regarding the behaviour and decisions of the public. [….] The reduction of everything to financial value or a market-like relationship has arguably shaped our sense of entitlement while dulling our sense of belonging to a broader political community.”—Matthew Flinders, Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press, 2012).

With the above by way of backdrop, I’d like to draw your attention to the recent death of what was—for want of a better expression—an old-school politician from the Democratic Party from my home state, Nicholas C. Petris (February 25, 1923 - March 20, 2013). As noted in his Wikipedia entry, Petris “was a California State Senator from 1966 until 1996. A Democrat, he represented the 11th district from 1966 to 1976 and the 9th district from 1976 until he was termed out in 1996. He was previously in the California State Assembly, representing the 15th district from 1958 until 1966.”

And now, from his obituary notice in the Los Angeles Times:

“Nicholas C. Petris, who was a leading liberal voice for nearly four decades as a California state senator and assemblyman representing his hometown of Oakland and other East Bay cities, has died. He was 90. [….] A Greek American known for his eloquence from the floor of the state Senate, Petris championed a host of liberal causes during his career, offering legislation on behalf of the poor, the sick and the elderly. A Democrat, he also wrote laws that increased environmental protections and expanded the rights of farmworkers and tenants.

‘He was the last of the real giants of the old Senate,’ former state Sen. John Burton, now chairman of the California Democratic Party, said Thursday. ‘He never compromised his principles and was true in what he believed — a real intellectual liberal.’

Legislation that bears Petris’ name, the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, bars the involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals of most people with mental illness. He also wrote laws that required redevelopment agencies to build housing for low- and moderate-income residents, and prohibited smoking on airplanes, trains and buses in the state. As an assemblyman, he was also the co-author of legislation that was credited with saving San Francisco Bay from overdevelopment.

‘He felt that government was for people who needed help, that the wealthy are good on their own,’ said [Felice] Zensius, who worked for Petris for 25 years, the last 10 as his chief of staff. ‘So when crowds of lobbyists came to our office, it was people advocating for the mentally ill, the farmworkers, the elderly. That’s what he cared about.’ [….]

Nicholas Christos Petris was born in Oakland on Feb. 25, 1923, the son of Chris and Mary Petris, who were both Greek immigrants. He spoke mainly Greek until he started school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and a law degree from Stanford University. He served with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, then worked as a lawyer before he was elected to the Assembly in 1959 and to the state Senate in 1967.

Petris was known for his oratory and for peppering his Senate speeches with quotations from Greek philosophers and politicians. ‘For Christ’s sake, Nicky, you’re doing Pericles,’ Burton said he would tease Petris, a reference to the great statesman of ancient Athens.

In 1991, Petris was among the many who lost their homes in the Oakland Hills to a devastating wildfire that destroyed more than 2,700 residences. The blaze also claimed his beloved personal library, filled with volumes of Greek philosophy, Greek history and English literature. Soon after, his colleagues in the Senate lined up and one by one presented him with books to help fill the bookshelves in his new library. ‘I was in tears the whole time,’ he told the Modesto Bee several years later.” [….]

I hope we might one day soon once again deserve politicians of such integrity and stature.

Addendum: There’s a wonderful oral interview conducted by Gabrielle Morris (Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley) and transcribed for the State Government Oral History Program available (in different formats) in the California State Archives here (or here).


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