black ribbon

By Greg Lucas
01/05/13 12:00 AM PST

John P. Quimby, a craggy Capitol fixture for five decades as first a legislator and then a lobbyist for the Inland Empire, died December 23 of complications from pneumonia. He was 77.

A Democratic Assemblyman from 1962 to 1974, he subsequently lobbied for the counties he previously represented, San Bernardino and Riverside.

“Politics is a game of addition – not subtraction,” Quimby was fond of saying.

Quimby was 28 when he began his first term, becoming the youngest person to win election to the lower house at the time. Previously, he was elected to the San Bernardino City Council at 22, the youngest person to serve on that body.

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve seen all the changes,” Quimby aptly said in a newspaper interview – 38 years before he retired as a lobbyist for Riverside County.

With his barrel chest, bouncer’s shoulders and rumbling baritone that bespoke his early career as a radio and TV announcer, Quimby was a commanding and endearing Capitol presence.

Quimby was also the first paraplegic to serve in the California Legislature, which was a part time body during his first two terms.

The polio he contracted at age 12 confined him to a wheelchair or kept him braced with his stainless steel “sticks” but the disease never hobbled his zest for life.

Ever quick with a quip, Quimby could “outtalk friend and foe,” to quote the headline of a July 29, 1973 profile by veteran Capitol Press Corps reporter Vic Pollard in the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram.

After filing for re-election to the Assembly in San Bernardino in 1970, Quimby gave a luncheon speech in which he railed against Northern California interests trying to choke the flow of water to Southern California.

“The people attempting to stop the State Water Project say that the extra water coming to Southern California would attract more people who would contribute further to the air pollution problems in this part of the state. This is nonsense,” Quimby was quoted as telling the audience in the February 28, 1970 edition of the Ontario Daily Report.

“He then cleared his throat, coughed a couple times, and said, ‘God, the smog is terrible down here,’ ” the paper reported.

During a 1973 Assembly Rules Committee discussion of a measure backed by then Secretary of State Jerry Brown restricting lobbying activities that voters approved one year later as Proposition 9, the Sun-Telegram quotes Quimby as saying:

“If this bill had been law when Jerry’s father was in office (Pat Brown) would be so far back in jail we’d have to pump air in to him.”

It was common in the Capitol to happen upon the white-maned, luxuriantly mustached Quimby regaling listeners with a hoary yarn, corny joke or homespun homily – punctuated with a periodic “goddamn,” “by golly” and a pull on a fat cigar.

His stemwinder about a forgotten imaginary overcoat is a Capitol classic.

“John Quimby was the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met when it came to the inner workings of the Capitol,” said Jim Wiltshire, deputy director of the California State Association of Counties, who worked for Quimby as a lobbyist from 1999 to 2004.

“From Eddie the shoe shine man on the South Steps to Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, he endeared himself to everyone. There wasn’t an elevator operator or a governor over the past five decades that John didn’t take the time to let them know he cared,” Wiltshire said. “John thrived on the magic of human interaction.”

Although a Democrat, Quimby touched the lives of legislators, staffers and administration officials on both sides of the aisle.

Said Quimby of his approach to lobbying in a 2009 Riverside Press Enterprise interview:

“You need to have a relationship where you can meet a (legislator) on the way up to a hearing and say to them a half-dozen words and they’ll take you on your word. You have to develop that rapport.”

Quimby had decades to develop that rapport. His legislative career began when lawmaking was a part-time job. He was a contemporary and drinking companion of Speaker Jesse Unruh who championed the Legislature becoming a full-time body in 1966. He also served for several years with the brilliant but driven Phil Burton, who Unruh considered a rival.

A “gargantuan presence that dominated everything, the big hog,” was how Quimby described Unruh to John Jacobs in bhis biography of Burton, A Rage for Justice. Burton was “this other thing” who was “really doing things and doing them under Jess’ nose and Jess din’t like him and he was a real threat and Jess was worried.”

In 1963, through low-balling and political legerdermain, Burton won passage and a signature by Gov. Pat Brown of an expansive bill, AB 59, increasing welfare benefits that the Democratic governor intitially said would save counties $21 million but instead, cost them more than five times that amount.

Quimby became a co-sponsor. Seeing the initially innocuous measure morph into its final form was “like watching Phil Burton weave together a gorgeous tapestry, thread by thread. Only he knew what it looked like,” Quimby told Jacobs.

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