Susan Bonilla admits to some wonderment at the meteoric rise of her political career.

Ten years ago, she was an English literature teacher at Concord High and a long-shot candidate to win a Concord City Council seat.

"I was a complete grass-roots outsider. The newspaper even printed that Bill Shinn, the retired deputy sheriff, was the likely winner," she said. "I won by 350 votes."

Today, she is completing her first term in the state Assembly and running unopposed for a second. Her résumé includes four years on the council, including a term as mayor, four years as a Contra Costa County supervisor and experience on the Assembly's budget, health and transportation committees.

The former teacher has traveled quite a learning curve. What's surprised her most about state government?

"The high quality of fellow legislators I work with," she said. "I've really been impressed with the people who've been elected in California."

She sensed an air of disbelief, perhaps because my eyebrows were raised.

"I know when we (legislators) are singled out as a group, we have really low approval ratings," she conceded, "but I've gotten to know the individuals, and I have a lot of respect for them. They care deeply about health care, the disabled, education and single moms who need help."


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She said the partisan divide separating Democrats and Republicans is not as bitter or intractable as it seems. Even after spirited floor debates, members talk over coffee in the lounge. She thinks relaxed term limits -- Assembly members now can serve 12 years, rather than six -- will lead to even better relations.

"I came in as one of 27 new members," she said, "and this year we'll have 40 new legislators. When you see that churning, it's hard to build across-the-aisle friendships."

The transition from supervisor has been among her biggest adjustments.

"At the county level," she said, "you're elected as one of five. You have quite a bit of authority on that board. What you find at the state is you have the governor and his vision, then the pro tem of the Senate, then the speaker of the Assembly. Individual members have to function within those realities, so our impact is far more constrained."

Still, every representative can leave a mark: Witness the 44 bills she's sponsored. Her proudest accomplishment came on the education budget committee, where she fought to limit cuts to the Cal Grants program for private nonprofit universities. That includes schools such as Saint Mary's College that make "better use of our taxpayer dollars than the UC or Cal State systems." Those grants are matched by private dollars rather than taxpayers'.

Frustration, she said, comes from the inability to make a bigger difference more quickly.

"Sometimes when I don't see concrete results, I console myself with the fact that I'm still able to influence my colleagues and some of the dialogue around an issue. Gradually, we'll see some good outcomes from it."

That's the whole point of seeking political power, she said, citing a lesson learned in "Macbeth."

"One of the main themes of Shakespeare's play is whether ambition is bad. Or are there different kinds of ambition? As elected officials our ambition has to remain for our constituency."

The English lit teacher has come a long way in 10 years.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/tombarnidge.