Sen. Mark DeSaulnier's strengths remain his liabilities. He's a nice guy who likes to carefully ponder policy choices and find solutions that unify disparate factions without offending anyone.
Laudable attributes. But certainly not those of recent state Senate leaders. Over the past 15 years, the Legislature's upper house has been run by an irascible, foul-mouthed recovering drug addict, a wannabe Mafia don and a Machiavellian autocrat.
Now, as behind-the-scenes maneuvering begins for a successor to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who will be forced out by term limits at the end of 2014, DeSaulnier's name has surfaced as the Northern California option.
For better or worse, the East Bay Democrat would be a different sort of leader. Through his 22-year political evolution, DeSaulnier, 61, a voracious reader and keen student of history, has maintained his quiet persona, appreciation for the complexity of legislating and disdain for the Legislature's last-minute, backroom deal-making.
Like the other Jesuit-educated politician in Sacramento, DeSaulnier's career has been greatly influenced by his father. But unlike Gov. Jerry Brown, the senator does not strive to match his dad's legacy. Quite the opposite.
Edward DeSaulnier was a gambling- and alcohol-addicted Massachusetts judge disbarred for his role in a sentence-fixing scheme and subsequently forced to resign from the bench. The memory haunts the senator, who witnessed praise and power corrupt his politician father.
"In a lot of things in life," Mark DeSaulnier, then a Contra Costa County supervisor, said in 1999, "there is a seduction process where people on different levels will tell you how great you are. If you always accept that on face value, you allow yourself to be seduced."
While trying to work within the special interest-dominated Sacramento system, DeSaulnier often talks about how to change it. Yet since his arrival in the Capitol in 2006, he has yet to muster needed support for his global reforms.
A former restaurateur whose establishment, TR's, was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, DeSaulnier was a Republican when he launched his political career by winning a Concord City Council seat in 1991. In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed him to a vacancy on the county Board of Supervisors, where he served until his 2006 Assembly election and 2008 ascension to the Senate.
His party switch in 2000, like most of his decisions, was long and ponderous. But once he went, he did so with a vengeance, transforming from a centrist Republican into a liberal, pro-labor Democrat.
Before leaving Contra Costa, he joined his fellow supervisors in approving a sweet pension deal for which the county is now deeply in debt. In Sacramento, he supported labor bills sometimes at the expense of local governments like the ones he once helped lead.
In 2010, he co-authored legislation purporting to be pension reform that actually contained provisions exacerbating some of the worse spiking practices. DeSaulnier, like many of his colleagues, didn't understand the bill, or the intricacies of public employee pensions, and had been duped by labor leaders who helped craft the legislation. But, to his credit, DeSaulnier then educated himself and pushed for amendments to close the loopholes.
His relations with labor have been strained ever since. His recent suggestion, in the midst of the tense BART contract negotiations, to ban public transit workers from striking won't help. And he didn't bolster his relations with the governor by opposing his high-speed rail plan.
Whether his occasional displays of independence prove an asset or liability is uncertain. The campaign for Senate leader will come down to who can muster a majority in the Democratic caucus.
With the Assembly speaker likely to remain from Southern Californian, tradition, for what it's worth, suggests the upper house leader will again be a northerner. So far, DeSaulnier is the only one mentioned.
There's a certain irony in his bid for leadership of the very institution he has so roundly criticized. But if he wins, the next question will be whether he changes the institution or the power changes him.