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December 29, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Cover story: Byron Sher looks ahead Cover story: Byron Sher looks ahead (December 29, 2004)

Termed out of the Senate, one of its giants warns of challenges facing California: population growth; out-of-control budget; the 2/3 rule; and federal rollbacks of environmental protections

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

California has lost a giant.

When Byron Sher left the state Senate December 6, the Legislature lost a leader who has crafted some of the state's -- and the country's -- key environmental laws over the last 24 years.

Laws bearing his stamp help protect California's air and waters, reduce garbage going to land fills, encourage recycling, promote renewable energy, and preserve forests. He has also been strong on health and education.

"Byron Sher was one of the giants," says Floyd Gonella of Atherton, former San Mateo County superintendent of schools. "He is one of the strongest advocates of children I ever worked with. He has always been there for schools."

Term limits have ended the government career of the Stanford law professor and former Palo Alto city councilman after 16 years in the state Assembly followed by eight in the Senate.

"Term limits are creating a really big loss here," says Audrey Rust, president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust.

During more than 30 years in government, Mr. Sher built a reputation as an adroit lawmaker with a deep grasp of issues who could work with people of many political persuasions to build laws that actually work.

"Byron is a good negotiator; he creates a terrific atmosphere for dialogue," says Kirke Comstock of Portola Valley, who served with Mr. Sher on the Palo Alto City Council. "He's old-shoe, a little bit rumpled, professorial, not intimidating.

"But behind the genial and caring front is a steel-trap mind."

Now, for the first time since he finished Harvard Law School 52 years ago, Mr. Sher is looking at life without a 9-to-5 job. "Every day since then, I've had an office. It's become part of my identity," he says during a noisy interview in the main corridor of Santa Clara County's government center, where he just received another award.

"Now I'm a free agent."

Mr. Sher plans to travel, and spend more time with his wife, Linda, and their three children and five grandchildren -- who all live in California. He doesn't play golf.

But he will also be looking for ways to stay involved. He's thinking of taking a position on one or more boards of nonprofits, or possibly an appointed office. "I want to stay engaged in environmental and energy issues," he says.

"Losing Byron is an ideal example of what term limits do," says former Congressman Pete McCloskey of Portola Valley. "He is a legislative craftsman. He understands law and the meaning of words, and the beautiful simplicity of few words rather than many.

"Byron was a superb legislator."
Career: low key but productive

Senator Joe Simitian has big shoes to fill.

Asked his advice to his successor, Mr. Sher's response was pure Byron: "Joe's a talented guy. He doesn't need my advice."

Nevertheless, Mr. Sher's style of operating and record of accomplishments project a wisdom that could be a lesson to noisier, less reflective politicians.

Mr. Sher's fascination with politics began at an early age. As a child growing up outside of St. Louis, he was exposed to politics by his father, a lawyer who took him to Democratic conventions. He witnessed the last nomination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the battle for the vice presidential nomination between Harry Truman and Henry Wallace, then secretary of agriculture.

"So I've always enjoyed politics," Mr. Sher says. "You learn a lot about human nature in political battles."

Mr. Sher graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and then Harvard Law School in 1952. He and Linda migrated out West in 1957 to teach law at Stanford. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says.

It was not too long before traffic -- the proposed "Oregon Freeway" -- sucked the young professor into Palo Alto city politics. He served on the council for some nine years -- off and on -- including two terms as mayor.

During those years, Mr. Sher honed his credits in the then-young environmental movement. The Oregon Freeway shrank to the present Oregon Expressway.

Mr. Sher also helped negotiate a 1975 settlement to an "open space zoning lawsuit" that resulted in Palo Alto's being forced to buy more than 500 acres in the lower foothills for $7.5 million -- now the Enid Pearson Arastradero Preserve. "It was the best purchase the city ever made," he says.
To the Legislature

In 1980, Mr. Sher succeeded former Asssemblyman Victor Calvo of Mountain View in the state Assembly.

"Of all the legislators we've known over 50 years, we rate Byron right at the top," says Bill Lane of Portola Valley, former publisher of Sunset Magazine. He and his brother, Mel, have been intimately involved with state environmental issues.

"Byron is one of a kind," Mr. Lane continues. "His knowledge of the subjects impressed us the most. He protected the water, state parks, clean air, and forests."

For 11 years, Sen. Sher chaired the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources -- and helped produce laws that have changed the face and culture of California, and made it a national leader in caring for the environment. His credits include the California Clean Air Act, the Integrated Waste Management Act (garbage and recycling), and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Key to these successes was Mr. Sher's collegial, non-confrontational style, and the committee system. "Some of the most fun in the Legislature was my work on committees," he says.

The committee is where legislation gets a close look, and ambiguities or unintended consequences are ferreted out, Mr. Sher explains. As a result, most proposals become "better bills than when they got to the committee."

One early and important bill that Mr. Sher carried in the Assembly was the law that requires double containers for fuel tanks and pipes. He worked with then-Senator Becky Morgan to solve the problem of 10,000 tanks leaking petroleum products into the groundwater; this problem first emerged in Santa Clara County as a byproduct of the "clean" manufacture of computer chips.

"That was quite a battle and taught me a lot about the legislative process," Mr. Sher recalls. "It also taught me about the necessity of making compromises to make sure that this legislation worked."

"Byron is low-key, open-minded, and willing to discuss other legislators' bills," says Ms. Morgan, who acknowledges that she is more conservative than he is.

Less weighty but more fun was their effort to get the banana slug named state mollusk. That effort failed in the Senate. But Ms. Morgan considers the yellow critter taught the kids who were pushing the process a valuable lesson: "You can't win 'em all."

One of Sen. Sher's signature achievements was the solid waste act of 1989, which required all jurisdictions to reduce the amount of solid waste going to landfills, and set deadlines: a 25 percent reduction by 1995, and 50 percent by 2000.

While he jokes that "Garbage is us," Mr. Sher takes pride in shifting California from a throw-away culture to acceptance of recycling and reusing materials.

"This has been as successful as any environmental law I've done," he says. "People want to feel good about reusing materials that inevitably get thrown away."

Two other sources of special pride to Mr. Sher are his work on energy conservation and renewable energy legislation, and his role in saving old growth redwoods in the Headwaters Forest in 2000.

Ms. Rust sums up Mr. Sher's contributions: "Byron has brought to the state Legislature intellectual capability and intellectual curiosity coupled with the ability to allow people to talk together across the aisle and across issues. And through all of that, he doesn't lose the thread of what he sees as good for California." Jay Thorwaldson, editor of the Palo Alto Weekly, contributed to this report.

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