(Photo: Susie Swatt with Ross Johnson) From the day he first was elected to the Assembly, Ross Johnson served with a singular purpose – improve the lives of Californians. It started with trying to provide relief to beleaguered homeowners who simply couldn’t afford the property taxes required to keep them in their homes. It ended three decades later with vigorous advocacy for campaign finance reform so Californians could understand clearly who was behind the curtain pulling the strings on our elections.

In between, he worked tirelessly to clean up a toxic dump in his Orange County district, and he prevented development that would have destroyed what became Chino Hills State Park – a wildlife jewel that straddles Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.

I worked with Ross, as a press secretary and chief of staff, throughout his entire public career. We first met on the staff of Assemblyman Jerry Lewis of Redlands in the early 1970s. He was Jerry’s administrative assistant; I was hired as a secretary.When Ross surprised all the political pros and won his inaugural race for the Assembly in 1978, I was part of his tiny staff in Sacramento. In quick fashion, he established himself as a tenacious advocate for greater accountability in government, fiscal restraint, and sunshine in the electoral process.

His work ethic was legendary. He would arrive at the Capitol before sun-up and read every bill that would come before him in committee or on the Assembly floor. Although he was stubborn, at times, and held firm to his principles, Ross also understood that politics was the art of the possible, which frequently required reaching across the aisle to enlist Democrats. In fact, he and his close friend John Burton, the liberal lion of the Senate, made quite an odd couple. Both shared a love of country music and often were seen together – during a Senate lull, or walking down a Capitol corridor – spontaneously breaking into song.

Ross and Burton were the only senators who refused to have a computer placed on their senate desks, and he never could figure out how to use email. His skepticism of modern technology led him and Democrat Don Perata to coauthor legislation requiring the manufacturers of voting machines to build-in a paper trail – just in case the machines failed. When a vendor tried to convince him that a back-up paper ballot was unnecessary, Ross allowed him to show off his voting machine to his staff. I cast votes on a dummy ballot. And guess what? It incorrectly recorded me casting a ballot for someone I did not vote for. Ross used that experience to bolster the need for his bill, and it passed and was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

I’m sure some people remember Ross as being very intense, which belied his keen sense of humor. Once, during the late ‘80s, Ross, Governor Deukmejian and the rest of the so-called “Big 5” leadership team spent a day behind closed doors trying to close a multi-billion dollar deficit by deciding which pet projects had to be cut. Late in the afternoon, with no deal in sight, the legislative leaders emerged from the talks and faced a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras in the governor’s reception area. In a bit of gibberish delivered with a straight face, Ross told the reporters, “Our sacred cows have come home to roost.”

When I think of Ross Johnson, I’ll most remember his wry sense of humor and his fierce dedication to his constituents and the people of California.