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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Henry J. Mello: A Life in California Politics


In an article summarizing his career, one newspaper characterized him as the "great graying grizzly bear of California politics," an old-style moderate Democrat whose career was animated by his dedication to his local district and his tireless efforts in behalf of its economic welfare. GOP legislator Bill Campbell once described Mello as "the only Democrat in the Senate with any experience as an entrepreneur," and one of the last of a dying breed of citizen legislators. Mello claims his approach to politics was derived partly from his mother--an openhearted, socially liberal Democrat, and partly from his father--a fiscally conservative Republican.

The volume is divided into four sections, including Mello's early family life; his experiences in local politics as a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors; his election to the State Assembly; and his tenure as state senator from the 15th District.

He begins the narration with anecdotes about the local Portuguese community in Watsonville, his high school years, and work in his family's apple-farming and cold-storage business. His initial foray into politics began in 1950 when he was a Democratic volunteer during the senate campaign between Richard M. Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas. His local public service career began when he served as a member of the California Agricultural Advisory Board and as a fire commissioner.

His discussion of his early political career covers his tenure on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and the issues that faced that body, including the preservation of agricultural land and related environmental issues; the founding of the UC Santa Cruz campus; town-gown relations; and his relationship with UCSC's founding Chancellor Dean E. McHenry.

Mello's progressive agenda has included such issues as land preservation, gay rights, an assault-weapons ban, senior citizens rights, and the environment. His reputation for "bringing home the bacon" to his district has engendered both praise and condemnation; notwithstanding the criticism, he discusses how he paid scrupulous attention to his constituents' needs, never took anything (or any election) for granted, and in a Republican district, never faced a serious election challenge.

Mello served two terms in the State Assembly, where he began his long involvement in senior issues as chairman of the standing Committee on Aging and also became an influential member of the Ways and Means Committee. During his tenure as state senator, Mello had a distinctive legislative record, frequently having more bills signed into law than any other senator. His legislative legacy includes a remarkable record of initiating senior citizen programs. He authored over 120 bills dealing with seniors, including the establishment of the California Senior Legislature; the first programs focusing on Alzheimer's, including respite care, adult day health care, and multipurpose senior service programs; important changes in laws affecting conservatorship and elder abuse; funding for senior meals programs; and nursing-home reform. Seniors throughout the state hold him in high regard for his work in their behalf.

He describes his role in obtaining assistance for his district after the l989 Loma Prieta earthquake, in creating a visionary plan for the conversion of Fort Ord, and his efforts in behalf of UCSC--all of which demonstrate his consensus-building skills and his great imagination in crafting bills. During his tenure, Mello carried 727 bills and resolutions, 456 of which the governor signed; many of the others were integrated into other bills.

The volume also includes Mello's thoughts on the legislative process; the role of lobbyists; the use of media in campaigns; the culture of the State Senate; and his reflections on the governors with whom he worked, from Edmund G. Brown to Pete Wilson. Mello also discusses his relationship with United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez, Chavez's historical legacy, and his own views on relations between growers and migrant farmworkers.

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