“What goes around comes around,” a popular expression in the 1960s, certainly applied to Meade’s second try for the State Assembly. During the summer of 1970, just months before the election, Bates received a tip that turned the tables on Mulford. An authoritative source revealed that the Assemblyman’s mother, who owned a large, comfortable home in affluent Piedmont, transferred ownership to her son so she could qualify for Medi-Cal, a state-funded medical plan for the needy. It was welfare fraud, the stuff conservatives rail against. The wily Bates set up a secret meeting with the Mulford campaign, one where he confronted them with the facts backed up by documents. He negotiated an astonishing deal: The Meade campaign would not release nor leak the information to the press if Mulford’s staff would agree to show any and all campaign literature and press releases to Bates before circulating them. “They were scared shitless,” Meade chortled, recollecting the affair. Mulford’s handlers kept their promise, going so far as to allow Bates to make editorial changes in their campaign literature.
Yet there was an election eve surprise that year. Pete Stark, founder of Security National Bank in Walnut Creek and later a successful Democratic candidate for Congress, made documents public that revealed the college education of Mulford’s children was financed by a wealthy right wing supporter―a definite conflict-of-interest in the political theater.
Another boost to Meade’s campaign, which in 1968 relied heavily on spaghetti dinners and small donations, was a hefty campaign contribution provided by the state Democratic Party, directed by LA Assemblyman Bob Moretti. The contributions were legal though Meade would later learn there were strings attached. He accepted the funding which helped counter Mulford’s enormous war chest. “I was very naïve,” Meade later said. “I actually thought that the Democratic Party was helping me so we could get rid of this right wing guy and elect someone interested in making good public policy.”
Meade won the election by a large margin, his victory marking a shift in political power in the California legislature handing the Democrats majority control over the Assembly. One of the newly elected assemblyman’s first acts was to support Bob Moretti’s selection as Speaker of the Assembly. “I show up in Sacramento and all of a sudden I’m expected to support Moretti. Well, I did, though not without some regrets. So from day one I was caught in this web of compromise. Yet one thing I must say about Bob―he was a very loyal person.”
Ken Meade at 1972 Democratic Convention
Bob Moretti knew how to take care of his friends. During every summer recess for three years, the Speaker of the Assembly arranged an all-expenses paid vacation to Jamaica for a dozen loyalists in the Assembly. There they stayed in a grand home owned by Sarah Churchill, daughter of the former Prime Minister of England. The California legislators were wined and dined, invited to state dinners and lavish often lascivious bashes where they partied with Jamaican officials and beautiful women, encounters spirited by an endless supply of booze. During one such trip to Jamaica they wrecked five cars in two weeks, accidents due to the use and abuse of large quantities of alcohol, and ganja, Jamaican marijuana rolled into cigar-sized joints.
While on their way to an official state dinner, an elegant affair at a minister’s palatial estate, several members of the California delegation passed around a joint, taking long drags, coughing, laughing at each other as they got stoned. They arrived at the gathering red-eyed and doing their damnest to maintain, marveling at the incredible array of food and liquor there, enchanted by the sight of beautiful women, legs dangling in the bright turquoise waters of a large illuminated swimming pool. It was a fabulous party until interrupted by a man with an accent shouting followed by a crash of pans and a valoop as two men, one holding the other by the throat, toppled into the pool, women screaming as they escaped the melee.
Moments before one of the members of the California delegation viewed a glamorous woman with ganja-crazed suspicion as she clung to the arm of a handsome, impeccably-dressed Jamaican. He sauntered over to her side, his hand cupped as he whispered “I know what you are.” He nodded his head, eyebrows arched, then said: “You’re one of those professional escorts. A hooker.” Moments later he was thrashing about in a swimming pool, the fingers of a Jamaican official wrapped firmly around his throat as they battled and bobbed in the lukewarm water.
The entire California delegation was unceremoniously tossed out of the party, ordered to leave the county and told never to return to that island nation again. It seems the woman accused of being a prostitute was the wife of one of Jamaica’s most esteemed ministers.
“Who knows where the money for those jaunts came from, it was probably from political lobbyists,” Meade said. “It wasn’t paid for by the state, that much I am sure. But this type of thing was, and I am certain still is fairly common. It’s a type of political pay-off. There’s money floating all around Sacramento and every state capitol and both parties chase it. The only difference is this: Democrats at least attempt to portray themselves as the party of the people, which they were at one time. The Republican Party makes no bones about representing the elite. Bush himself said as much. So one can only imagine how lavish their vacations and holiday flings must be and all the other goodies they get…”
* * *
The Speaker of the California Assembly wields as much power―arguably more—than the Governor. This was especially true before term limits, enacted in 1998, prevented legislatures in California from serving more then three terms. It is the Speaker who appoints members to chair committees. Committee chairs, in turn, wield considerable clout, playing a key role in deciding when, if ever, proposed legislation will be heard. If a bill does not make it out of committee it is dead in the water. Due to this influence, one that, among other things, increases their ability to raise campaign contributions, members appointed as committee chairs are expected to be loyal to the Speaker.
Soon after his election Meade quickly became a part of what he called “Moretti’s outer-inner circle.” He had defeated Mulford which gave the Democrats a majority and provided Moretti with a key vote as Speaker. Moretti rewarded Meade by appointing him to chair the Reapportionment Committee, an important post. Every ten years the legislature redraws district lines based, theoretically, on new census information. In practice reapportionment determines the political geography of the state for a decade in favor of the ruling party. Ask the Democrats in Texas the difference reapportionment can make. Meade drew new district lines after careful study and the prerequisite political input then started making the rounds to gather the votes needed for approval.
One key vote belonged to Harvey Johnson, a seasoned, balding Democrat from LA who wore horn-rimmed glasses and carried the scent of bourbon with him beginning early in the morning. “I went in there to talk about the plan and Harvey sat me down with two barmaids—his secretaries. And they brought in the booze and I had a few drinks and before I knew it I was ripped!” Meade said. “And now I was on his level. Now he’s got you because he’s been drinking for years. You sit down to talk the hard facts and you’re a little out of it.
“(Johnson) had an aunt in Bell Gardens that he wanted in his district. And I said, ‘Jesus, Harvey, this is going to take a movement of thousands of people from an adjoining district.’ And he says, ‘I’m not voting for the bill unless my aunt is in the district.’ So I look at my aide and I said, well, all the districts are under review because of a United States Supreme Court ruling known as ‘one man, one vote.’ Every legislative district in the state has to be of equal size.
“My aide and I went back to the computer room and realized I’d have to transfer 50,000 people from an adjoining district, which affects who is going to represent them and the complexion of the adjoining district. I had to get the consent of the other legislator impacted by the change just so we could get Harvey’s fucking aunt in the district.”
* * *
The day-to-day experience of being a politician in Sacramento began to wear on Meade and what had been his almost blissful idealism. In addition to the never ending grueling political battles, legislators were expected to always be “on,” skillful politicians constantly shaking hands, attentive to their constituents, cautious about every word they uttered. And the nature of the job required them to attend countless events, speaking at public meetings, attending barbecues, coffees, conferences and conventions. But most of all if they expected to be reelected they needed to raise money―lots of it. And as is the case with other celebrities their personal lives were constantly under scrutiny by the press though with one significant difference: They could not betray any human weakness in public. Many legislators found the pressure too much to endure. Meade described an assemblyman who he saw nearly every morning as he shuffled down the hallway of the Capitol building on his way to the executive bathroom, a drunken journey that often ended earlier than anticipated, footsteps of urine mysteriously appearing midway in the hall leading back to his office.
Given the size of the State of California and Sacramento’s location, most legislators were “stationed” hundreds of miles from their families. In order to run for office they were required to maintain a residence in their home district. Many established a second living quarters in Sacramento, forced to live a lonely existence in a hotel room or apartment. Fueled by a sense of power and due in part to an often long separation from their spouses it was not uncommon for lawmakers of both parties to have a wife at home raising their children and a girlfriend or mistress in Sacramento. Meade was no exception.
Meade met a married woman and began a passionate clandestine affair that would last nearly two years, a relationship made all the more dangerous by the profession of his lover’s husband: He was a reporter for The Sacramento Bee. His beat? The state legislature. “I was living in Sacramento alone most of the time. Things weren’t really working out with my wife, though it wasn’t her fault. I realize now after going through a lot of therapy that I have problems having any kind of long lasting and meaningful relationships with women. Well I was seeing this incredible woman and it was thrilling, actually, very secretive, which probably was part of the allure. It was exciting, man, we really connected. And that wasn’t happening at home. But it’s like a fish bowl up there and everyone knows what everyone else is doing.” The woman’s husband eventually caught word of the tryst and without a word left town. Split. Just like that. “It really devastated her. I told my wife that I was having an affair and the woman I was seeing really needed me. Naturally that caused a tremendous amount of pain for her as well. So suddenly I was all alone in Sacramento. Really alone. That was when things kind of started to fall apart.”
Meade threw himself at his work, laboring day and night trying to both perform his duties and overcome a growing sense of insecurity and loneliness, feelings he had not experienced since growing up in a shack at the end of a pier. Moretti promised him early in his second term that he would have the right to the first chairmanship that opened which turned out to be the chairmanship of the Assembly Transportation Committee, a very influential post. “There was objection in Moretti’s inner circle to me getting this appointment. Then-majority leader Jack Fenton said in a meeting, ‘Ya know, Kenny’s not into raising money. Why don’t you wait until public health opens, or social services? The transportation committee―we’ve got the Teamsters and trucking companies, and…’ Well all I can say is that I was polite. He wasn’t antagonistic towards me. It was probably an accurate statement. ‘If Kenny wants transportation, he’s got it,’ Moretti said. And I wanted it.”
Not long after assuming the chairmanship of the Transportation Committee an impeccably dressed man paid Meade a visit at his Sacramento office. “This guy comes in to see me and I have no idea who he is. He says, ‘Hello, well how do you do?’ I’m thinking ‘Who is this guy?’ He says ‘Do you remember that bill that you took care of for us?’ And I didn’t know what bill he was talking about but I said ‘Oh, yeah, how’d that turn out?’ And he said ‘Oh, you took care of it for us.’ ‘Oh, great, well, terrific then.’ And then he reaches into his coat and he’s got this big manila envelope. He says ‘We take care of our friends.’ There was a helluva lot of money in there. I don’t know how much, it looked like hundred dollar bills to me. My reaction was one of fear.
“I didn’t know how to act in those circumstances. I said something to try to politely get out of the situation like ‘Well, maybe when I run for reelection we can talk,’ or something like that. And he took the money and left. (After he left) I told my assistant Sid McCaustan ‘Hey, man, this guy just came in here with a bundle of cash. Who is he and what’s this bill he’s talking about?’ He said it was a reporting bill that passed on the consent calendar months before and it didn’t look too bad, it just liberalized what used car dealers have to report. There wasn’t any opposition to it from consumer groups, he said.
“There are hundreds of bills that go to committee, it is impossible to read all of them. That’s why you rely upon staff. The ones that have no listed opposition are usually put on what is called the consent calendar where a lot of bills can be approved at once without discussion. Nothing would get done if every bill that came before a committee was debated. So I said ‘Well, listen, okay then. But don’t say anything about this to anybody.’
“A month later I was at one of these endless events, a statewide convention of nurses or something. You go to these things, there’s a free meal, people drink and talk and you see a few people from your district and you say hello and maybe mingle for a little while and then leave. I was in line at one of these things when Jack Fenton, the majority floor leader who had objected to me being appointed chairman of the committee, said ‘Hey, Kenny. I heard you turned down the bread from the used car dealers!’ And he laughed. It was like, ‘See? I was right.’”
The first major legislative initiative Meade sponsored challenged the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), one of the most powerful firms in the State of California. A state-sanctioned corporate conglomerate PG&E is regulated by a unique government institution called the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), one so powerful that its rulings can only be overturned by the California Supreme Court.
Established in its more current form in 1951 by the Public Utilities Act, the board of the PUC is appointed by the governor and confirmed by members of the California State Legislature.
The State recognized two corporations as utility monopolies: in Northern California PG&E enjoys that special status; in most of Southern California it is Southern California Edison. The official recognition of a monopoly and the regulation of same created a strangely anti-capitalist model for the very same political forces whose rally cry has always been free and open markets.
The stated goal of recognizing a monopoly was to provide a steady supply of gas and electricity to consumers. In return the rates consumers paid and other operational aspects of these monopolies were to be carefully regulated. However, given the nature of politics and the millions of dollars that such corporations generate, PG&E has always found a way to both “deliver energy” and fuel election campaigns.
After one of many “energy crises,” real or generated, many individuals and grass roots organizations in the Bay Area began to question the fairness of the system, one that did not seem to benefit consumers unless they owned stock in the company. Meade’s first major legislative initiative took aim at one particularly glaring peculiarity about this special arrangement.
“PG&E and SCE had essentially a cost-plus contract,” Meade said. “Whatever their costs, in exchange for a guaranteed market for this absolutely essential commodity, they would be given a percentage of their cost as profit—guaranteed. The idea behind the bill was that these two energy monopolies were spending tens of millions of dollars, each year, advertising though they had no competitors. It was a ludicrous waste of consumer’s money. There was a simple solution, really. We would have prevented PG&E from including advertising as a cost of doing business.”
The first legislator Meade visited to win support for his proposal was March Fong, an Assemblywoman from San Leandro known then as a consumer advocate. Fong (who later became March Fong Eu after marrying millionaire Singapore businessman Henry Eu) made headlines when she protested pay toilets by bashing a lavatory to bits with a sledgehammer on the capital steps.
“I went into March’s office and I didn’t really know her that well. I thought I’m just going to go in there and make sure she is for the bill before I go into these more difficult members. And she interrupted me and said ‘I know about your bill, Kenneth, I’ve already seen it and I can’t vote for this. We are going to need the financial backing of PG&E to retain our position,’ meaning basically we are going to need their campaign contributions. And she put it in the pronoun ‘we,’ which meant she wanted the campaign contributions of PG&E. Now let’s be clear about one thing: Campaign contributions are a legalized form of bribery. In the old days there was money transferred for a vote. Now you get the vote and the money comes a little bit later…”
Though dumfounded by Fong’s reaction Meade pressed on with his bill. Opponents claimed the legislation would diminish PG&E’s First Amendment right to “free speech.” Their argument was based in part upon a Supreme Court ruling made on May 10, 1886, one that declared a corporation a “natural person” entitled to the same rights and protections enjoyed by U.S. citizens yet one whose liability is strictly limited.
In an effort to salvage the legislation Meade eliminated an absolute banning of advertising by the utility monopolies and allowed it if paid from corporate profits and not included in their cost base. In other words the corporation and shareholders would pay, not taxpayers.
The amended bill finally made it to committee for a vote. Meade recounted what happened next: “All these people were testifying how much money this would save taxpayers. Now before it can be passed and brought to a vote on the Assembly floor a bill takes a motion from one of the members of the committee and a second. Then it requires a majority of the committee. We had what I’d say minimal opposition from the utility companies and their lobbyists. They testified about the free speech stuff, but I’d eliminated that with the amend-ment. Anyway, the chairman, a little guy up there says, “DO I HEAR A MOTION?” And there’s complete silence. March Fong, a couple of the other Democrats―not a fucking word. Not even a motion. And the chairman bangs his gavel down and announces ‘The bill is defeated for lack of a motion.’
“After the vote we were walking down the hall and I see March being interviewed. And the questions were, ‘Well, Mrs. Fong, can you explain to us why, since you are a consumer advocate, why didn’t you vote for the Meade bill?’ I tell my aide ‘I’ve got to hear this.’ So she says without even batting an eye, ‘Oh, I explained to Mr. Meade early on that I didn’t think his bill was tough enough. I wanted an outright ban.’”
There is a photograph of Meade wearing an eye patch on the wall of his apartment, one that made the front pages of many papers, the result of a disagreement he had with Lou Papan, an assemblyman from San Mateo.
Papan was “a reasonably nice guy” Meade said. He served as vice-chairman of the Transportation Committee under him and at his request briefly chaired the committee in the fall of 1974 while Meade was sidelined by business in the State Senate. “A bill was supposed to be blocked and he let it get through. According to the insider rules what he did was over the top. Now I must tell you that I have a temper. When I found out what happened, I went into his office and started berating him. Well words were exchanged and I threw a cup of coffee at him. The last thing I remember is that he came out from behind his desk. He knocked me out cold. It made the headlines. I was in the papers a lot. And every appearance made me cringe more and more until I realized I have to get out of here.”
Then there were the seeds. Marijuana seeds. Discovered by police in the glove compartment of a Fiat owned by Meade’s wife during a routine traffic stop. “That didn’t hurt me too much―at least not among my constituents in Berkeley and Oakland.”
Yet another incident which also involved Meade’s wife and an automobile proved to be a far greater embarrassment, one that again made headlines across the state. Herb Caen reported that Meade’s state-issued Buick was spotted in Wichita. “When Sharon and I broke up she moved the kids to Kansas. I wanted to help so I loaned her my car, which was much larger than her Fiat. Actually I went to the Assembly Rules Committee before she took the car and asked if there were any regulations and nobody really came up with any. I think they developed some after this incident…
“Actually the gas mileage for the Fiat, which I drove, was far more fuel efficient for the taxpayers than the big state car,” Meade said. Then he laughed bitterly at his own words. “That’s absurd,” he said, shaking his head, . “Well, anyway, all these reporters were asking ‘where’s the car?’ I remember speaking at a press conference where I endorsed a progressive candidate, Ying Lee Kelly, for mayor of Berkeley. And all the reporters wanted to know was if this fucking car was going to come back. So my effectiveness was dissipating and I was coming more and more apart at the seams.”
Meade and a friend went to Kansas and picked up the state-owned vehicle driving it non-stop to California. Soon after crossing the state border they were pulled over by the Highway Patrol. “This friend of mine―more of an acquaintance, really, the only person I could find to make the trip with me―was a local small-time marijuana dealer though he sold pot to professionals and wasn’t a street dealer. So the cops pulled us over and I’m thinking ‘Oh, shit. Just what I need.’ They checked my driver’s license then said ‘Is this the car?’ I said ‘Yes, this is it.’ The cops laughed and off we went. I was relieved. But it was just another rather humiliating experience.”
In 1972 Meade was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, one that nominated George McGovern, the “peace candidate” for president. His opponent? Then-President Richard Millhouse Nixon, a Californian who survived a humiliating defeat in a run for governor at the hands of Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in 1962. McGovern chose Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. Unbeknownst to McGovern, Nixon had in his employ a gang of burglars who before campaign’s end would be caught breaking into a complex called The Watergate.
A planted news leak revealed that Eagleton was under the care of a psychiatrist and had undergone electric shock treatments. McGovern initially supported Eagleton “1000 percent,” yet soon relented, dropped him from the ticket and choose Kennedy in-law Sargent Shiver (father of Maria Shiver, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife) for his running mate. The Democrats suffered an overwhelming defeat. A large centrist bloc of the party blamed the loss on McGovern’s liberal, anti-war views, ignoring the impact of an astonishing―and untrue―election eve announcement by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in late October 1967, that “Peace was at hand” in Vietnam. For party centrists, “The October Surprise,” as Kissinger’s statement came to be known, the Eagleton affair and the dirty tricks played by the Nixon campaign apparently had no impact on that election. The loss was blamed entirely on progressive politics.
Eagleton soon disappeared from public life while Nixon, who suffered from chronic depression, the abuse of prescribed drugs, alcoholism and other mind-altering states, resigned after a bitter fight with Congress over his role in and knowledge of the Watergate break-ins and subsequent cover-up. Thirty years after the constitutional crisis that scandal precipitated, members of the panel investigating Watergate revealed that it was not only the President’s criminal behavior that disturbed them, including the illegal bombing of Cambodia: their primary concern was that a mentally unstable man like Nixon could launch a thermonuclear war against the Soviet Union, a very real threat that former Senator Sam Ervin told his biographer Nixon made while intoxicated one evening. For Ervin and others, Nixon’s slurred threat was far more alarming than all the crimes committed during his presidency.
It has been said that Watergate changed politics forever proving that no person, not even the President of the United States, could lie, cheat, violate the Constitution and get away with it—though there is little evidence to support such a notion. However one thing remains crystal clear: If a politician seeks help dealing with any mental health issue he might as well check into the funny farm.
More than thirty years ago a politician was yanked off the national political stage for seeking psychological help, his career ended by a man whose own mental health is a matter of conjecture, analysis, and debate. Was Richard Nixon “normal” and Thomas Eagleton mentally ill?
R.D. Laing, a controversial Scottish psychiatrist, wrote in 1967:
“The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow men in the last fifty years…”
-R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
“A helluva lot of legislators in Sacramento certainly needed counseling for a whole litany of emotional problems when I was in office,” Meade said. “I’m sure that things are the same or even worse now than they were then. Just look at who is in charge. But after what happened to Eagleton, a politician dared not seek such help. I was no exception. Not until exactly one day after I left office.”
* * *
By the beginning of his third and last term Meade suffered through a particularly trying day. Scheduled to be in a parade in Pleasant Hill, a conservative area of his district he said, “I remember getting out of my bed one day and by this time my marriage was ended, a love affair had gone awry and I was all alone in Sacramento, really hurting… And I had to get up out of my bed and go out to a parade in downtown Pleasant Hill riding with the mayor and a couple of city councilmen in a car.
“None of these people I knew, none of them liked me. People (in Pleasant Hill) raised hell that this radical legislator was being imposed on them due to reapportionment. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend my day in this fucking parade. I remember I was in this car, nobody’s talking to me and I’m sort of trying to make conversation. There were even a few boos in the crowd. After a couple blocks of this I pretended like I had some sort of illness to get out of it. And I came back home and crawled back into bed.”
By the early summer of 1976 Meade announced he would not seek reelection. He was at war with Leo McCarthy, Speaker of the Assembly, on what he described as “a whole host of issues not the least of which was his support of a bill which would destroy Berkeley’s rent control, a move I vigorously opposed. I had also supported Willie Brown when he challenged McCarthy for the Speakership, which put me on the outs.”
Meade did not hold any chairmanships and had virtually no political influence. As he described it, “The ship left the pier and I just didn’t get on it.”
During his last term Meade struggled through each and every day and night notching them off like a man doing time. The Democrats had an overwhelming majority in the Assembly, 55 votes plus one, to be precise―exactly the number needed to pass a budget without the Republicans. Even his ballot became virtually superfluous. Meade continued to battle McCarthy and what he considered his turn to the right. Yet he had virtually no political capital. For the most part McCarthy and the Democratic Caucus treated him like an unwanted stepchild.
Then news arrived. Larry Townsend, a Democratic Assemblyman from Los Angeles, died of a heart attack. Townsend was a nondescript legislator though his nickname was “The Bagman.” At the precise moment Meade got word of Townsend’s demise he had an epiphany: “I knew that put me in a position of some importance to Leo McCarthy. Without my vote the Democrats could not beat back a Republican challenge to the budget.” Meade was determined to do something for his district before he left office.
It didn’t take long for him to see where help was needed the most. “The Oakland school district was falling apart, as it always is. It suffered from poor performance, under-funding, the whole thing.” Meade announced that the Oakland School District needed an extra $10 million―a hefty sum in the 1970s. He made it clear that he would not vote for the budget until $10 million was earmarked for Oakland schools.
“Now that position would not have had a chance if Leo McCarthy as Speaker had been able to pick off a couple of Republicans to vote for the budget. At that time Paul Priolo was the Republican minority leader. The budget came up for a first reading―it takes two readings then a vote for it to pass. I objected. It was a preliminary vote but McCarthy didn’t have me. The Republicans would have normally withheld their votes anyway to see if the Democrats had enough to pass it then cut some deals themselves directly for their votes. When I went into Priolo’s office―he was one of the guys who I kind of connected with. So I walked in to say ‘this is where I’m going, I need you.’ I never even got those words out. He said ‘Kenny I know what you’re here for.’ He’d seen the preliminary votes. So he says ‘I’ve talked to my guys, we have a few things we’d like to negotiate.’ They had some shit in there I couldn’t support―they wanted to emasculate funding for Cesar Chavez’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, I said, no, I can’t do that, I’m in favor of Chavez. The only issue that we will be united about are education failures which, if you want, you can make hay of politically against the Democrats, and the ten million bucks. Otherwise we don’t have a deal.”
Meade did not totally trust Priolo. Years before, at Moretti’s asking, Meade had negotiated a deal with the powerful assemblyman from Los Angeles and eleven other Republicans to approve his reapportionment plan. Priolo assured him everything was set. Meade told Moretti the compact was a “done deal,” which impressed the Speaker. “Are you sure about that?” Moretti asked. “Absolutely,” Meade said. Then Ronald Reagan stepped into the picture threatening to campaign against any Republican who broke party ranks and voted for the plan. Priolo was quick to abort the agreement, though not without reservations. He had broken his word which, in Priolo’s case, meant something. And he knew the incident would be a political embarrassment to Meade who had the humiliating task of informing Moretti that the “done deal” he guaranteed fell apart.
Yet things were different politically this time around. The governor was a young Democrat named Jerry Brown. “Priolo met with his people and I actually had to go in to the Republican Caucus and talk to them. After the first reading, McCarthy said ‘Oh we’ll have the budget in a couple of days.’ I was waiting for the double cross again but Priolo and his people were with me and I’m voting no. McCarthy is sort of on top of what is happening. He meets with Priolo, a couple of other Republicans, and tries to cut a deal. Priolo―and I think he did this mainly out of personal loyalty after having broken his word to me years before―well, he held his guys in line.
“I’m being lobbied by liberals who want money for liberal causes. ‘We don’t want to fuck this up,’ they said. I told them ‘Get the money for Oakland schools or no deal…’”
The deadlock lasted throughout the summer of 1977. The legislators had no vacation and no trips back home. They were stuck in Sacramento. Newspapers were making hay of the stare-down between Meade and McCarthy. Governor Jerry Brown entered the picture.
“His finance people said in negotiations ‘This can’t be done,” Meade said. “We don’t have the money. And if we did and we gave money to Oakland, well then we have to give it to all the other schools.’ ‘No, that’s not true,’ I told them. ‘You can create special legislation for urban school districts and limit it in such-and-such a way. I know how the game is played. You can do it if you want to.’”
An investigative reporter acting on a tip revealed that Jerry Brown was sitting on a large hidden surplus approaching $100 million. There was money available after all. “I think it was The Oakland Tribune that published a piece about the battle between me and McCarthy. It said something like “California hasn’t been able to pass a budget for three weeks. Meade hasn’t blinked yet. Hold on. Looks like McCarthy just did…”
They had a deal. A bill was introduced later called “The Meade Factor” in education finance. It defined school districts that met Oakland’s features—almost exclusively—in terms of household income, ethnicity, school performance, and appropriated additional funding to them. The legislation passed and so did the budget.
“I liked this episode because I was doing this for the genuine purpose that an elected representative should act,” Meade said. “I wasn’t going to benefit from this, I wasn’t running for reelection, nobody was paying any money or promising anything. I was just representing my district. It was a clean exit and with success. I don’t know how I pulled it off because I was still coming apart at the seams during that summer. And I was getting a lot of hostility. Everyone wanted to go home for the summer.
“I would like people to have some sense of how supremely difficult it is to do the right thing. If you are elected with the responsibility of representing the interests of 200,000 folks—nowadays it’s over 400,000—when the going gets tough and you need people to rally around an issue, they are not around. They expect you to do it, not them. And the easiest way to pull that off is to no longer represent the people and just hook up with the institutions that are there…
“All these statements have a certain amount of the continuing theme, ‘I’m innocent,'” Meade said. “Politics and the whole thing that goes on in politics is incredibly seductive. It’s easy to get lured into the whole system. In fact it’s almost impossible—primarily due to the unbridled influence of campaign contributions, gifts and gratuities—to get anything accomplished without becoming part of the system, one that is controlled by concentrations of wealth and power.
“These concentrations of wealth and power that are obvious in this country—the drug industry, the energy people, the financial industry, the defense industry, and so on—they now own our government. We’ve reached the zenith of capitalism where through the agency of government, which is controlled by the dominant economic interests in the country, we privatize profits and socialize losses. That’s the way it is.
“The only way to give the people back their influence in government is to ban all campaign contributions—all of them—and have state-financed elections. That won’t change the economic balance of power but it will restore our democracy.”
After completing his third and final term Meade immediately sought the counsel of a psychologist. When he arrived for his fifth session, the room was dark, blinds drawn, the therapist uncharacteristically morose. Meade asked if something was wrong. The doctor took a deep breath and with some reluctance revealed he had just learned that his mentor committed suicide. “I thought, Jesus, if these guys are depressed and killing themselves, what hope is there for me?” Yet he continued to seek counseling, trying to come to grips with the depression that haunted him. “Going to therapy I learned a lot about myself. One of the things I learned is that we are not independent agents in this world. Things happen to people and at some point you have to deal with them, try to understand what happened and why, confront whatever issues one faces then carry on.”
Ignoring the advice of his psychologist, who urged him to take time off and rest, Meade returned to practicing law. He promised his children he would pay for their college education, a pledge he kept. He later taught law at JFK University in Pleasant Hill for ten years, serving five as Dean of the Law School before returning to private practice. When Meade retired, his adult children, one a doctor, the other an attorney, bought him a sailboat. He secretly lived aboard his boat until discovered and evicted by the harbormaster of the marina where it was berthed. For a year he stayed with Dick Stone, an invaluable friend who helped Meade keep his head above water during what were often difficult times. In 2004 Meade moved into a Berkeley retirement home where he currently resides (when this article was penned).
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The walls of Meade’s cramped apartment are trimmed with photographs of famous public figures, friend and foe alike, a political cartoon meant to mock him, and pictures of his children. He lives simply, brewing endless pots of coffee, microwaving frozen food. He is a chain smoker—a habit he is determined to quit—yet he is remarkably fit. Meade loves to listen to the radio while doing his laundry and cleaning his apartment, reads voraciously and keeps abreast of all things political. The retired legislator earns a little extra cash answering calls from other residents of his retirement home, folks who have flooded their toilets, popped an electrical circuit or lost their keys. Though Meade lives on a fixed income he plays golf and travels frequently, usually as a guest of an old colleague.
In his sixty-sixth year Meade remains a free spirit willing to take great risks. And for the first time in many years he is happy: He has a girlfriend, a woman he has adored from a safe distance for years. Yet from time to time he is still tormented by demons: Given his past he wonders if he is capable of having a healthy long-term relationship with a woman, and is troubled by the pain he believes he may have inflicted upon his children and others. Meade does not want to be in the spotlight again and worries what people will think now that he has gone public—something he agreed to do with great reluctance.
Ken Meade’s story is one of a three-term member of the California State Assembly, a brilliant and empathetic man conflicted by the roles he attempted to play, most contrary to his nature. It is mystifying to him why anyone would be interested in his life. And in that most bizarre of all theaters, a reality show dominated by superstars and supernovas, the role he played was a relatively minor one despite his efforts to help make things better for poor and working people. The story Ken Meade shared with extraordinary honesty reveals much about our nation, the political and economic system that exists in this country, and how extremely difficult it is for one person to make any kind of honest and meaningful change.
Postscript March 29, 2023
We are sad to report that Ken Meade passed away Wednesday March 29th, 2023 in Oakland, California. His son and daughter were at his side.