“You didn’t hug Nixon, but you hugged Nelson Rockefeller.”
News Pointer Editor
July 6, 2004
One could compare lawyer and former legislator William Bagley’s vast and productive career to the stretch of Highway 101, from the Golden Gate Bridge to San Rafael, that is named for him: long, busy and so much a part of daily life that it often goes unnoticed. Or it could be compared to his San Rafael hillside garden, in which he grows 20 different kinds of fruit trees, 30 vines and every kind of vegetable imaginable.
Born in 1928, Bagley was raised in Woodacre in a two-room summer house with no central heating. He recalls that Woodacre first opened its post office in 1925, and his family had P.O. Box number 2.
Bagley attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1949 and earning his law degree from the university’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1952. He paid for his undergraduate studies with the $450 he earned each summer.
Bagley’s accomplishments are dizzying. After working for Pacific Gas & Electric fresh out of law school, in 1956 he joined a small San Rafael firm, Gardner, Reid and Elliott. He worked there until 1960, when he successfully campaigned for California Assembly, representing Marin and Sonoma counties for 14 years.
As an assemblyman, Bagley was chair of the Welfare Committee, the Joint Committee on National Tax Policy, the Finance and Insurance Committee, the Statewide Information Policy Committee and the Special Committee on Open Records. The self-described “evangelical moderate” prides himself on pushing freedom-of-information laws.
After leaving the Assembly, Bagley failed a bid for state controller, and then went to Washington, D.C. in 1975, where President Gerald Ford named him the first chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In 1980 Bagley returned to California, where he joined the law firm of Nossman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott. He later became a senior partner.
Bagley served on the University of California board of regents from 1989 to 2002. His career has earned him numerous accolades, including an award for Most Effective Assemblyman from the Capitol Press Corps, Legislator of the Year by the California Trial Lawyers Association, the Golden Bear Award from the California State Park and Recreation Commission, the Sigma Delta Chi Freedom of Information award, and Alumnus of the Year from the University of California at Berkeley in 2003.
Bagley and his wife, Diana, have two children, Shana and Tracy. He has three children with his former wife, Doris: Lynn, Walter and Bill.
Most recently, Bagley was named to the board of directors for the Marin Communty Foundation. He was appointed to that board by the president of the University of California.
News Pointer: You attended school at the University of California 50 years ago. How has it changed since then?
William Bagley: The institution has changed massively. UC Berkeley was built in 1868, and UCLA was built in the early 1920s. There was an agricultural center in Riverside and a farm in Davis. But no universities, aside from Merced, have been built in the last 20 years. We’re living on our fathers’ investments and taxes.
In 1940, there were 10 million people in California. In 1960, there were 15 million. In those years, we built the state. But Ronald Reagan didn’t govern.
NP: It sounds like you didn’t like Reagan’s style very much.
WB: Ronald Reagan learned to govern after his first two years in office. During the first two years, he wanted to clean the place out. He literally didn’t govern. But then his staff said, “We might need you to run for president,” and that was when he started to govern.
He wanted to get rid of fair housing; he wanted to repeal the Rumford Act. It was assigned to my conference committee, and this is one of the three or four things I’m most proud of: I didn’t convene my conference committee. If I had, Reagan would have repealed it. And a few months later, he thanked me.
Reagan was a decent man. He never wanted to hurt anyone, and he was secure. Nixon was insecure, but Reagan was secure.
NP: Whom have you admired most?
WB: Nelson Rockefeller — he’s the first one that comes to mind. I traveled the state with him in the 1964 campaign when he was running against Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination. Three to five of us joined him, and had he won the nomination, we would have been on his delegation.
During his campaign, he chartered a plane and we traveled all over, from Siskiyou to San Diego. He was so human, so decent. He didn’t need to do this, but he cared about his country and was going to dedicate himself to us. And he was a big puppy dog. You hugged him. You didn’t hug Nixon, but you hugged Nelson Rockefeller.
NP: Tell me about your early years in Marin.
WB: That was a beautiful part of my life. The streets were literally dirt. I could catch trout or shoot quail. I grew up as a country boy. Back then, there were only three high schools, Tomales, Tamalpais and San Rafael. Novato had 500 people and no high school, and the kids arrived 15 to 20 minutes late every day because they had to milk the cows.
NP: In 1941, you changed your name from “Baglietto” to “Bagley.” Why?
WB: My father changed the name. People used to ask me why I changed it, and I would tell them, “You can say anything you want about me — but not about my deceased father.” It was Baglietto, and in 1941 he shortened it because he got tired of spelling out his name. It was during World War II, when Italians were not that popular.
He wanted his son to be an attorney. My father drove a fish wagon for $5 a week to support his widowed mother; he never went to college. When I was 10 years old, he had business cards printed for me that read, “William T. Bagley: Attorney at Law.” He wanted his son to succeed.
NP: What were your early law jobs like?
WB: I graduated from Boalt Hall in 1952. I was 23 years old. You don’t go into law practice when you’re 23 years old. I could get paid $300 a month by the big firms in San Francisco, or I could make $325 a month at PG&E, and they had rugs on the floor. They tried their own cases, so I ran all over the state trying their cases.
I came here in 1956, and there were two or three law firms in San Rafael, and no lawyers advertised. I tell you, I get stomach contractions when I see those full-page ads for lawyers in the yellow pages.
NP: And then you entered the world of politics.
WB: In 1960, I ran for state Assembly. In those days, the legislation was part-time. You worked 180 days a year in odd years, and did a 30-day session in even years. The beauty of it was, you got to come home. You didn’t go to Sacramento to earn a living.
NP: Do you think the change to a full-time legislature has made a big difference?
WB: Oh, yes. What has hurt Sacramento is term limits, which for the assembly is six years. It takes you four years just to learn who to trust, and to work out what are the arenas in which you want to work.
The other thing is political reform. In 1974, when Jerry Brown was running for governor, He sponsored Prop. 9, which said you can’t pay more than $10 a month on get-togethers for legislators. It ruined collegiality. A group gathering doesn’t happen. The only time they get together is at fundraisers, because those are exempt. We used to have card games on Monday nights in some legislator’s office, but you can’t do that anymore because using the office costs more than $10 a month.
NP: What do you think of our current assemblyman, Joe Nation?
WB: Nation is an exception. He’s one of the brightest people in Sacramento. He has a future. He’s a public person, like I am, and he’s a moderate, which means he wants to govern by consensus and he wants to accommodate people. He’s damn effective.
NP: Do you follow local politics in any way?
WB: I know who is where, to some extent. It has changed massively. In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the courthouse crowd ran the county. You had George Jones as the county clerk, Al Bagsaw as the district attorney and a single judge, Edward I. Butler. In those days [in San Rafael], the Elks Club was on Fifth and B, the courthouse on Fourth and A, and the Albert Building was at Fourth and B. And you would go from one to the other — it was a very small triangle.
These days, it’s a clean county; the government is very clean. I haven’t followed local enclaves, but you have a good group of decent people running the county.
NP: What were some of your accomplishments?
WB: The California legislature in the 1960s and 1970s was called the number one in the country. We were effective. I don’t want to brag, but we carried a lot of good stuff. We added a few tax brackets, I sponsored welfare reform and property tax relief. I was steeped in civil and human rights. Those were good years in California.
NP: You say you don’t want to brag; is there anything you regret not having been able to do?
WB: When we passed tax withholding, there was a year in which you were taxed from April, but you were also taxed from January, so there were about four months of double-taxation. The governor wanted to give it back and the Democrats wanted to spend it all.
It was about a billion dollars, so we gave about half back in the form of a tax credit, and the other half went into capital outlays, including a couple hundred million for schools and a couple hundred million for parks. But I wish I had specified urban parks, because we already have one Yosemite. We need parks in the barrios.
NP: Do you think the freedom of information laws that you championed are still working?
WB: Yes. I make an analogy: people say you can’t legislate morals. That’s absurd; the entire appeal code is an effort to legislate morals. But you can legislate atmosphere.
I make a comparison between freedom-of-information acts and fair-employment acts, which came into law in 1959. It’s been an age of progress since then. You didn’t see black secretaries in the ’40s and ’50s, but once you were encouraged to practice fair employment, it became acceptable. There has been a progression of diversity.
The very fact that you are supposed to have an open meeting and open public records, and for people who never sat on city councils or public bodies, the first thing they’re told is a rundown on public information laws and open meeting laws. Whether they like it or not, they begin to practice it. This creates an atmosphere of openness. Yes, they work.
NP: What did you do after you left the Assembly?
WB: I ran for state controller in 1974 … and I ran out of money. I had the support of every newspaper, but I didn’t have enough money. Had I won, that was an obvious stepping stone to becoming governor. I would have gone that way. When you get that far, you want to climb the ladder. In retrospect, I think I’ve done enough; I’m pleased.
They say that working in politics is like waiting for a streetcar. You have to be on the right street corner, and when the streetcar stops there’s got to be a vacancy, and you’ve got to have your two bits to pay for the ride.
NP: How and why did you return to law?
WB: I went to Washington for about five years. I knew Nixon, I knew Ford. I was appointed as the first chair of the Commodities Future Trading Commission. In 1980 I came back to California and started my current office, which was originally a Los Angeles law firm, Nossman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, LLP. Jack Knox had been representing West Contra Costa County and was recruited to start a Northern California office.
Three of us opened an office on the Embarcadero. Now we have 150 lawyers, about 40 of those in San Francisco. Our practice was mainly the government arena, although we were never lobbyists. We’ve worked for water rights and utilities administration.
I’m now a counsel to the firm. I can’t really retire — I’ve got too many people who need me for something. But I’m essentially retired, though I still do three to four days a week.
NP: What do you think of the current media?
WB: I enjoy journalism. I enjoy the press corps. I think the Los Angeles Times is a wonderful newspaper. I like the San Francisco Chronicle.
What’s happened to media is the decline of the family-owned paper. I could go up and down the state and find such papers from the Eureka Standard to the San Diego Union — that’re going away. They have all disappeared, virtually all. I don’t know what it’s done nationally, but locally it’s taken the roots out of communities. If you like roots, that’s not good.
NP: You have a freeway named after you, which not many people do. How did that happen?
WB: Years ago, I was a consultant to the senate’s transportation commission. The process is very simple; it involves passing a joint resolution. Without talking to me, the chair put in a resolution. Two of my partners also have freeways named after them, and we joke, just among men, about whose freeway is longest. Well, my freeway is longest.
NP: When did you return to Marin?
WB: We came back in late 1979 and bought a house on the hillside above Glenwood. My house looks out over the bay.
Remember, my name is Baglietto — every Italian has to have a garden, and has to have a fig tree. Name a vegetable and I’m growing it. Every morning between May and October, I have breakfast in my garden. I eat the berries, the apricots, the plums. It’s wonderful, and I get my exercise, too.
NP: You recently joined the board of the Marin Community Foundation; what do you hope to accomplish there?
WB: I don’t have a [feeling] for it yet. It’s a wonderful, worthwhile organization, and has grown tremendously as a foundation. But I think it spreads itself too thin. I think it could have more impact, rather than anyone who’s a brother or sister gets $3.50. That’s a formed opinion of mine — if they want to talk me out of it, let them try.
This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.