Jeff Jardine

Law, life, politics: Ex-Assemblyman House saw them as black and white

Assemblyman George House speaks to Soulsbyville Elementary School eighth-graders about the United States Constitution in the Tuolumne County school’s gym in November 2000, shortly before he termed out of office.
Assemblyman George House speaks to Soulsbyville Elementary School eighth-graders about the United States Constitution in the Tuolumne County school’s gym in November 2000, shortly before he termed out of office. Modesto Bee file

When George House went to Sacramento after taking Margaret Snyder’s 25th Assembly District seat in the 1994 election, he quickly showed his Republican cohorts he viewed red and green as if they were black and white.

“We were walking from the state Capitol to the store about two blocks away from the Capitol that makes sandwiches,” said Jim Brulte, a former state legislator who began his third term in the Assembly in 1995 and now heads California’s Republican Party. “During our walk to the store, we came upon the street that had a red light but we looked both ways and there was no traffic coming, so five of us started walking across the street. We got about halfway and realized George wasn’t with us.”

They turned around to find the freshman legislator still standing on the curb, and implored him to join them.

“He said, ‘I’ve never broken a law in my life and I don’t intend to start now,’ ” Brulte said. “The five of us sheepishly walked back, stood on the curb, and waited for the light to turn green. We then proceeded to complete the rest of the walk without violating any traffic laws.”

Yes, life was that cut-and-dried to House, the onetime Modesto California Highway Patrol commander and former 25th District assemblyman who died at 86 on July 14 at an area care facility.

House, who had served on Hughson’s school board for many years, otherwise came from political nowhere to defeat Democratic incumbent Margaret Snyder to win the 25th District seat in November 1994.

In many respects, the folks in Sacramento weren’t quite ready for House when he arrived in the Capitol 22 years ago. Harken back to 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency in no small part on the support of evangelical voters. Consequently, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition gave conservative Christians a stronger voice in government, and Republicans and the Christian right have embraced each other ever since. While House no doubt agreed with them philosophically, his beliefs were his own, friends said.

He and fellow Republican Dick Monteith, who challenged Democratic incumbent Sen. Dan McCorquodale in 1994, both raised plenty of money but kept low profiles during their campaigns until the final month or so, when their campaign teams unleashed blitzes of mailers and media advertisements that pushed them over the top. It also paved the way for Republicans to surpass Democrats in numbers among Stanislaus County voters. Both men won and remained in office until they termed out.

In an interview shortly after House beat Snyder – whose hesitance to take a stand on Proposition 187, an immigration initiative, cost her politically – he offered a one-word answer when asked why he’d run for office.

“Disgust,” he replied. Frustrated by politics as usual, he told The Modesto Bee “(Now) it’s my turn to put up or shut up.”

He always carried a copy of the United States Constitution in his pocket. He read Scriptures in the Assembly chambers and in public speeches.

“He was the first tea partyer,” said Janice Keating, a former City Council member in Modesto.

How far right? Born in Oklahoma in 1929 and growing up in the Dust Bowl era, he migrated to California after World War II and became a police officer in Modesto before joining the Highway Patrol. As a motorcycle officer in the early 1970s, House led then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s motorcade when Reagan visited Modesto. Reagan, who as president became the standard setter for modern conservatism, wasn’t conservative enough for House.

“I never thought he (Reagan) was that far to the right, but he held all the right positions,” House told me after Reagan’s death in 2004.

House certainly was the first among Valley politicians to bring a “firebrand” evangelical minister persona to Sacramento.

“You’ll hear people talking about religion or philosophy and use it to gain support,” said Chuck Winn of Ripon, now a San Joaquin County supervisor. He came to know House because both ran Modesto’s CHP office, albeit a few years apart, and they’d talk on occasion. “But George didn’t pander. It’s what he believed in. He spoke from the heart, not to garner support from his constituency.”

To House, that meant quoting the Bible on the Assembly floor. It meant as a rookie challenging Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s control, which Brown ultimately retained after a 50-day fight. It meant speaking out against gay rights, against anything that challenged parental controls and rights, and against abortion, which invariably made him an enemy of women’s rights advocates.

“There are a number of members of the Legislature who are adamantly opposed to any expansion of civil rights for gay or lesbian people, and Mr. House is one of the most outspoken,” said then-Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, one of two openly gay members of the Legislature, speaking at the time to The Bee’s Kathie Smith.

Yet, Kuehl also called him “unfailingly polite and a very pleasant man.”

In fact, many found it difficult to dislike him personally no matter how vehemently they disagreed with his political or personal stances. After terming out and being replaced by David Cogdill in the Assembly, House dropped in on Cogdill in Sacramento one day.

“He had with him Wesley Firch from Oakdale, who had been his opponent in his previous election and ran against me, too,” said Cogdill, who now heads the California Building Industry Association. “They had a relationship on a friendly level. That was something you don’t see as being normal in politics.”

However, House’s relationship with Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, who represented the 26th Assembly District, soured after full-page newspaper ads targeting Cardoza and Mike Machado, D-Linden, that excoriated the Democrats because they didn’t oppose “homosexual agenda” bills intended to prevent discrimination. It angered Cardoza to learn House “was behind some of those propaganda efforts,” Cardoza said at the time.

House and Machado, however, joined forces with 21 other legislators to sign an ethics pledge in 1996. Signers promised to behave legally and ethically, reject gifts intended to buy votes, reduce the influence of money in the Legislature, treat colleagues and constituents with dignity and respect, and vote their consciences. Some 95 legislators refused to sign the document.

“George was always assertive and never afraid to stand up and speak his mind,” said Monteith, who returned from Sacramento to win a seat on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in 2007.

House’s insistence on being unerringly straightforward caught even his chief of staff, Jennifer Jacobs, by surprise. He preferred she handle most of the media calls for him. But when The Bee’s Smith insisted on talking to him directly, and Jacobs said he wasn’t there, House told her not to do that.

 ‘You can’t say I’m not there,’ ” Jacobs said that House told her. “ ‘You can only say I’m unavailable.’ 

It was totally consistent with the crosswalk anecdote Brulte told. Red and green were the same as black and white in House’s mind. No compromise allowed.

Mused Monteith, “He’d still be standing on that curb waiting for the light to turn green.”