Rep. Mark DeSaulnier would be “quite wealthy” if he had a dime for every time someone said he had “big shoes to fill" as the successor to California Democrat George Miller.
That list includes President Barack Obama, who, like everyone else, could not resist the double entendre. Even DeSaulnier, who's relatively tall, got in on the act at a campaign kickoff event a year ago, removing his shoes as Miller, the liberal legislative giant, towered behind him. “I said, I can’t fill those shoes, those are boats,” DeSaulnier said of his longtime friend and predecessor. “He’s a great man. The thing about George, in addition to all the things he got done here, he’s completely unpretentious, which I really admire.”
Turning 63 later this month and having climbed seemingly every step of the political ladder, DeSaulnier (pronounced de-SAWN-yay) isn’t an average freshman House Democrat. He’s a former Republican of the liberal breed that once had a home in the vast valley of California politics but now sounds extraterrestrial to young staffers.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call from his fresh digs on Capitol Hill, the jovial and introspective congressman rumbled with laughter numerous times while relaying anecdotes about his friends. Many included Miller or "The Wire"-watching habits of his D.C. roommate, Rep. Jared Huffman, from the neighboring Marin-based district. Then the history buff would intersperse quotes from Lincoln or Madison.
Raised in the Massachusetts political culture and transformed into a Californian, his entry into and attitude about politics was shaped by the success and failings of his father and the duty of service ingrained in him during his teenage and college years spent at Jesuit schools.
“He has dreamed about being in Congress for a long time, and he really feels the honor and the history of being here,” Huffman said in a phone interview from the West Coast. “We talk about that. He’s a guy who’s going to absolutely honor the best of the institution during the time that he serves.”
The Lowell, Mass., native was the fourth of five children born to a homemaker mother and a father who was elected to the state legislature by his mid-20s and appointed to the state superior court by his late 30s. Two of DeSaulnier’s siblings are gay, and the divorced congressman says they “are in the healthiest, long-term committed relationships” of the bunch.
While DeSaulnier was attending college at Holy Cross, his father, Superior Court Judge Edward DeSaulnier, was disbarred over allegations of sentence-fixing and was forced to resign. The congressman has previously said his father, a Marine fighter pilot in World War II who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, was an alcoholic and had a gambling problem.
“I was always conflicted about politics because of my dad,” DeSaulnier said. “I love the work, but I don’t completely trust the work. ... It’s sort of a wonderful, more than most jobs, conflict between the best of life and potentially the worst in life — people letting you down because of the responsibility and the possibility.”
On Jan. 13, 2014, as DeSaulnier filled up his tank at his local gas station in Concord, Calif., set to again make the hour-long drive to the capitol in Sacramento, the state senator’s phone buzzed for the first of nearly 100 times that day.
“OMG. George Miller,” an ex-staffer texted.
“You read this and go: What the hell does that mean?” DeSaulnier said.
What it meant was that after four decades representing Contra Costa County in Congress, Miller was announcing his retirement. For DeSaulnier, who'd lost a prior bid in a 2009 special election, when then-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi jumped in the race, this was his shot.
The Sacramento Bee was on the line not long after, inquiring about the race for Democratic leader in the state Senate, for which DeSaulnier was expected to be a front-runner. He told the reporter that with Miller retiring, he was running for Congress, a decision questioned by some allies in Sacramento.
With oversized prints of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. he brought from his state office hanging on the wall behind him, DeSaulnier explained he was term-limted in 2016. Plus, he noted, “you’re a member of the United States House of Representatives, as George Miller constantly tells me.”
Miller, who'd endorsed the then-Republican DeSaulnier for local offices, backed his friend for Congress just days later. DeSaulnier cleared the field of top Democratic opponents in the 11th District and emerged from the top-two primary with 59 percent of the vote before cruising to victory in November.
DeSaulnier ended up in California after college, bartending in San Francisco before becoming a restaurant manager and consultant. He eventually opened and ran a restaurant in the East Bay called T.R.’s — after Teddy Roosevelt — which became popular with politicians and which he owned until his election to the state Assembly as a Democrat in 2006.
The restaurant is where he came to know Miller, whom DeSaulnier said was the only elected official to never accept his offer of a free meal.
“I sort of instantaneously respected him for that,” DeSaulnier said.
DeSaulnier was drawn first into politics by the local planning commission and then as a Concord city councilman and mayor before being appointed to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. But after a second Wilson appointment, to the state Air Resources Board in 1997, DeSaulnier felt the GOP was pulling away from him and he switched parties a few years later.
Now, after declining a chance for the keys to power in Sacramento, he's among the most junior members in the House minority. The founder of the Ending Poverty and Inequality in California Caucus in Sacramento now has a seat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, where Miller served as the top Democrat for so many years, and is focusing on transportation on the Oversight Committee.
He does think about how Miller would handle an issue — just hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, DeSaulnier was still deciding whether to attend and joked about having a T-shirt printed with Miller’s photo and the words, “What Would George Do?” (He went.)
Two months into his first term, DeSaulnier is philosophical about the responsibility that comes with being a member of Congress, an unpopular body still ultimately revered as an institution. He decries the "economic segregation" that exists 50 years after the Selma to Montgomery March, but he said that's why he gets up every day and keeps trying.
“What the founders wrote was aspirational,” DeSaulnier said. “Like anything in life, you don’t get to that point where we’re perfectly equal and everyone is a wonderful human being. As Madison said, if humans were angels, there would be no need for government.”
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