Newton R. Russell, a veteran state senator known as an expert on California's complex public pension system and a stickler for upholding legislative rules, died Saturday of lung cancer at his La Cañada Flintridge home, his family said. He was 85.
A conservative Republican, Russell served 32 years in the Legislature, including 10 years in the Assembly and 22 years in the Senate, where he represented the communities of Arcadia, Monrovia, Sierra Madre, San Marino, Temple City, Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge and part of Pasadena. He stepped down in 1996 when he was termed out.
Known as a hard worker with a fair and forthright manner, he had admirers on both sides of the aisle, including former Senate Democratic leader David Roberti of Los Angeles, whose long Sacramento career coincided with Russell's.
"People admired him. I don't think he had any enemies," Roberti said Monday of his former colleague, who was known as the "conscience of the Senate."
"He always felt the public should have notice on the things we were doing and he was vigilant in looking after that," Roberti said. "Sometimes, if we wanted to waive the rules, Newt's mike would go up and he would be saying 'No, no, no.' He always adhered to the rules."
As chairman of the Senate Public Employment and Retirement Committee, Russell became an authority on the arcane rules governing the state pension system and loopholes that led to abuses.
He successfully pushed legislation that halted the practice of converting perks, such as car allowances, into salary just before an employee retired. The legislation also installed an actuary to analyze the long-term costs of the pension programs, an action that his colleagues agreed saved the state millions of dollars. The savings included tens of thousands of dollars in accidental overpayments that employees were forced to repay under Russell's bill.
"I can remember as an assemblyman when assemblymen would stand up and present bill after bill that dealt with retirement benefits. Nobody had the faintest idea whether the benefit was justified. It was a subject that nobody really understood," he told The Times in 1981.
He also led a campaign to protect retirees from inflation by funneling unexpected state interest income to their pensions.
Among his other accomplishments were bills that created the original "use a gun, go to prison" law with then-Sen. George Deukmejian, banned the manufacture and sale of drug paraphernalia, and established the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the state unit that protects workers and the public from safety hazards.
He also championed legislation that required public schools to teach abstinence as the main method of preventing unwanted teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.
Russell was born in Los Angeles on June 25, 1927. A fourth-generation Californian, he served in the Navy and graduated from USC as a business major before going to work in the insurance industry.
His interest in politics was stimulated as a volunteer in Richard Nixon's first campaign for president in 1960. After a failed first try, Russell won a seat in the Assembly in 1964.
Four years later, he had his eye on a GOP congressional seat but withdrew from the race after then-Gov. Ronald Reagan persuaded him to stay in the Assembly to preserve the Republicans' newly gained majority.
In 1974, after reapportionment meshed two districts, he lost a bitter primary race by fewer than two dozen votes to then-Assemblyman Michael Antonovich.
He was out of office for only about 10 days when a midterm resignation opened up a state Senate seat. With Reagan's endorsement, Russell defeated then-Los Angeles City Councilman Arthur K. Snyder in a special election.
A religious family man, Russell organized a bipartisan Wednesday morning Bible study group for legislators and said he often prayed for political friends and foes during sessions.
He supported term limits, even though the law ended his long career.
"The tendency, unless you are careful, is to slowly come to the conclusion this place is run for our benefit and we are indispensable," he said before leaving Sacramento. "It's awfully easy to rationalize how we conduct ourselves … in a way that wouldn't be understood by the public."
Russell is survived by his wife of 60 years, Diane; children Steven, Sherry Sclafani and Julie Gans; and eight grandchildren.
Services will be private.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times