Behind the Lines with B.T. Collins
B.T. Collins sits in the back row of the state Assembly. The former Green Beret captain lost a hand and leg in Vietnam, but more than hook and limp set him apart in this forum. For one thing, he’s the only lawmaker with a wet toothbrush stuffed in his shirt pocket. Plus, he doesn’t say much, a true legislative novelty.
All around him, colleagues debate the great issues of the Assembly--not to be confused with the great issues of California. This morning, the most heated oratory addresses whether to allow a cartoon character named Joe Camel on cigarette ads. No, shout the Democrats, that’s peddling cancer to kids. Yes, roar the Republicans, that’s free enterprise.
“Who the hell is Joe Camel?” asks B.T. Collins.
The remark is directed at the only people with worse seats than him--the press corps. He cracks his devilish Gene Hackman smile and then returns to correspondence heaped in piles on his desk. In eight months in the Assembly, Collins has yet to deliver a single floor speech or introduce a single bill. Instead, he sits each day and works through the mail, scribbling birthday wishes to friends, letters to constituents, notes to colleagues.
Collins makes it clear he entered the Legislature as a favor to Gov. Pete Wilson. The Republican moderates wanted one of their own to fill a vacated seat, and Collins was the man. As a maverick administrator who served as Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, Collins is more accustomed to the center of action. But he defines himself as “a good soldier,” and so he serves now in the rear guard, holding a seat in a legislative body he once described as a "(expletive) day-care center.”
Collins is one of the last characters left on the bland landscape of Sacramento politics. Our state government has become an increasingly buttoned-down operation. There’s not as much backslapping, not as much all-night poker. There also are not as many hangovers the morning after. Whether more business is accomplished as a result can be debated.
B.T. Collins is not buttoned-down. Besides his toothbrush, a wad of tissue sticks out of his back pocket, and he seems almost insulted when a more fastidious colleague attempts to tidy him up. He talks like a trooper, taking care even to spell certain unprintables. An old-fashioned pol, he knows all the elevator operators and busboys, and they all know B.T.
He also is a human quote machine. To talk to Collins for two hours, as I did one night last week, is to understand how he once almost lost his job under Brown by taking potshots at the governor’s greasy hair. He filled my tape recorder with enough outrageous political commentary to feed a press corps for a week. And the next day, his press secretary called and asked: “Was he outrageous enough for you, or do you need more?”
But even Collins, at age 52, must adjust. The onetime tribal chief of the Sacramento wild set no longer drinks and smokes until 4 each morning--he just tries to stay awake through Ted Koppel. “Because of diabetes,” he said, “I took my last drink Feb. 17, 1987, at 1 p.m. And I had to quit smoking six months before that, because of a heart problem. . . . Let’s just say, I am very comfortable with my own mortality--and that is what gives me a perspective most legislators don’t have.”
Collins might be freed from his legislative bondage after Tuesday. He faces a tough primary opponent named Barbara Alby, a conservative with support among fundamentalist Christians in their suburban Sacramento district. She’s attacked Collins for his more moderate views on abortion and gun control, and his reputation as a hell-raiser. He has been forced to explain why “an AK-47 is not a birthright,” and has noted, pointedly, that his Christianity was not an issue in the jungles of Vietnam.
Despite his detached demeanor, Collins does have plans--and an agenda--for the Assembly. He supports construction of the Auburn Dam--the bumper sticker on his Olds reads “Build It. Dam It"--and he wants to elevate the societal standing of teachers. He explains his legislative inactivity as pragmatic politics--now is not the time to push new bills, and no one ever is persuaded by floor speeches.
Don’t misread his disinterest. With each note he writes at that back row desk, Collins expands and maintains his vast web of personal acquaintances. He remembers each ally he makes, each vote he casts. “I keep track of everything,” Collins said. “Every favor I ever did. And they know it. They know the bill is coming.”
Should Collins lose, he won’t be out of work for long--his Rolodex alone assures him of employment here. Which is a good thing. This town needs every character it can muster, even one-legged, foul-mouthed vets with diabetes and bad hearts. If state government isn’t going to be important, let it at least be fun.