Brash idealist at bat; Lawmaker tackles issues, even at risk of striking out

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Sacramento Bee (California)

Dave Jones‘ wife laughs at the memory.

Their daughter, Isabelle, had just been born, and Jones was ecstatic.

“I’ll always remember coming home from the hospital,” Kim Flores said. “And Dave walking around, holding Isa, saying, ‘This is great — let’s have 10 of them!’ ”

That moment, a decade ago, would not be the first time Jones would think big, propose the unlikely or risk getting his hands soiled.

Jones, a former Sacramento city councilman now serving as assemblyman, no longer dabbles in diapers. But he continues to display the same combination of brashness and exuberance.

Just as he ended up with two children, not 10, the Democrat sometimes is forced to accept practicality over idealism, but not meekly.

“You’ve got to really fight to make things happen,” said Jones, 45. “If that sometimes rubs people the wrong way, that’s unfortunate. But if your goal is just to make everybody happy, you’re never going to get anything done.”

Jones is a former child trombone player, junior high school wrestler, “Brady Bunch” viewer, heavy-metal music fan, Harvard Law School graduate, legal aid attorney, state Capitol staffer and counsel to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

But the Philadelphia native is best known, perhaps, for leading a successful campaign last year against a proposed tax for a new Sacramento Kings arena in the downtown railyard. He recently raised concerns at a public hearing, but did not specifically oppose, a new concept to construct an arena at Cal Expo without hiking taxes.

As a state lawmaker, Jones fought unsuccessfully this year to require state approval of increases in health-care insurance premiums, ensure preschool access for every low-income child and mandate development of a state plan to eliminate childhood poverty by 2027.

Small in stature, just 5 feet 8, Jones plays a large role as chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which fine-tunes and helps determine the fate of key legislation from gay marriage to doctor-assisted suicide.

Last year, Jones won passage of measures to overhaul the state’s conservatorship system for fragile Californians unable to handle their own affairs. Recently, a Jones proposal to ban the drinking of alcohol along the American River during three summer holiday weekends was signed into law.

He’s still waiting for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to act on bills by Jones to restrict the personal information that can be held by businesses after credit- or debit-card transactions, limit use of Social Security numbers on public documents, and force local government to accept some liability for irresponsible future development on floodplains.

Jones has long had a reputation as a workaholic who occasionally irks local officials by being obstinate, pushy and courting publicity.

“I think he’s aggressively pursued issues that were important but also benefited his career,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University, Sacramento.

When Jones ran for the Assembly in 2004 — in a Democratic primary that included Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson and Sacramento City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond — he parlayed grass-roots activism, dogged precinct walking and strong labor union support into an easy victory despite being endorsed by only one of his eight City Council colleagues.

Dickinson now compliments Jones’ savvy, drive and coalition-building. He notes that Jones often holds news conferences to push his causes but calls that penchant “basically smart politics.”

“Whether he does it for the purpose of just promoting the legislation or the cause, or it’s self-promotional, those things certainly run together to some extent,” Dickinson said.

“I think he’s someone who is convinced of the rectitude of his world views and his positions,” Dickinson added. “Because of that, he may be less inclined to entertain alternative points of view.”

Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, described Jones as effective and articulate but not necessarily the back-slapping, joke-telling type. “I think he’s the type of guy you want when you go to war for a just cause,” Court said. “He’s not necessarily the guy you’re going to sit down and have a steak with.”

His wife, Kim, says Jones always has been afflicted with “lost puppy” syndrome — but with peers.

“The kids that other kids were making fun of or something, he would befriend,” she said.

While visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium two years ago, the Joneses learned that the threatened California sea otter population is not thriving.

“Dad, you’ve got to do something about the sea otters,” Jones recalled of his son, Will, then 5. “They’re dying here.”

Jones later won passage of legislation to increase penalties for harming sea otters and to discourage disposal of cat litter into toilets or storm drains where it can make its way to the ocean.

“He’s not lobbying me on anything right now, but I’m just waiting,” Jones quipped of Will, now 7. “We’re having a big debate about the size of his allowance, but so far he hasn’t asked me to put that into the budget.”

State Controller John Chiang attended the Chicago area’s Carl Sandburg High School with Jones, Class of ’80, and jokingly says the only bad thing he can say about his buddy is that “his flare pants in high school weren’t all that hot.”

Jones and Chiang were elected on the same ticket as Carl Sandburg student government officers — Jones as president, Chiang as vice president — after a speech to students that ruffled feathers.

“(Jones) was very, very eloquent, and he framed the issue very clearly,” Chiang said. “He said, ‘Do you like disco or do you not like disco? Our opponents like disco.’ And the heavy-metal crowd booed them.”

Later, Jones and Chiang got called into the principal’s office.

“He said, ‘You guys set back student-government relations 20 years,’ ” Chiang recalled, laughing.

Chiang’s mother didn’t want him carousing on weekend nights, so sometimes he’d hold “physics parties” at his house.

“Dave and my other friends would come over, my mom would cook, and we’d study all night,” Chiang said.

Among dozens of high-profile Democratic bills this year, Jones supported efforts to ban teenage drivers from using cell phones, raise vehicle fees to bankroll clean-air efforts, allow illegal immigrants to qualify for college aid, and place an Iraq war advisory measure on the Feb. 5 ballot.

Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Fair Oaks, described Jones as “very aggressive and hard-working,” but “philosophically we’re a bit of a distance apart.”

“When there’s an issue, Dave would tend to look at what government could do to help that problem,” Niello said. “I would look for ways that the private sector could address the problem.”

Jones ranked low on legislative score cards by business and manufacturing groups last year. He got perfect marks from labor and environmental interests.

Eldest of three children, Jones is the son of a teacher-turned-homemaker and a factory personnel manager who served on an Illinois school board.

But his first hero was William Robert Jones, his grandfather, an East Coast civic activist never known as the “go-along-to-get-along” type.

Jones still admires the trait.

“If the choice is between just going along, or pushing and disagreeing and trying to get something done,” he said, “I’ll opt for the latter.”

Democrat Age: 45
born Jan. 4, 1962, in Philadelphia, PA
Residence: Sacramento, CA
Occupation: Attorney, legislator
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, DePaul University; master’s degree in public
policy, Harvard University; law degree, Harvard Law School
Experience: Assembly, 2004-present; chairman, Assembly Judiciary Committee, 2005-present; Sacramento
City Council, 1999-2004; legal aid lawyer, 1989-95; counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, 1995-98; counsel to Assembly Rules Committee, 2000-2002.

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