B. T. Collins, Brash Maverick Lawmaker, Dies
Assemblyman B. T. Collins, a rough-hewn political maverick who made his mark with blunt talk and direct action while serving in appointed positions under Republican and Democratic governors, died late Friday at Mercy General Hospital after suffering a massive heart attack. He was 52.
The Republican legislator from suburban Carmichael, who lost an arm and a leg to a grenade during combat in Vietnam and had a history of heart problems, collapsed at a local hotel shortly before a civic luncheon to be addressed by Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Although doctors said he was clinically dead when he arrived in an ambulance, Collins was rushed to two successive hospitals and placed on life-support systems in a desperate effort to save him. He never regained consciousness from the time he collapsed until his death more than eight hours later, a spokeswoman for Mercy hospital said.
The legislator had undergone heart surgery to clear blocked arteries in December, his second such operation in five years.
Collins, a bachelor, was best known as Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s irreverent Republican chief of staff in the early 1980s. At the time, Collins was a heavy drinker and a chain-smoker, an abrasive and profane former GI who publicly criticized his boss, praised Ronald Reagan and tangled regularly with button-down bureaucrats.
A diabetic as well as a heart patient, Collins quit drinking and smoking several years ago. Born Brien Thomas Collins, the bearish, blue-eyed Irishman was known to friends and critics alike as “B.T.” He was raised in White Plains, N.Y.
In a 1981 interview with The Times, Collins, then newly appointed by Brown as his second in command, displayed the kind of candor that became his hallmark, even on the subject of his boss. He said his first task should be to “get that guy to washing his hair. It’s disgusting, all . . . grease. Not even dandruff could get through.”
He said he intended to help Brown “be the kind of governor he should have been for eight years. I’m gonna tell him the goddamned truth: ‘Governor, people don’t like you.’ ”
After making those remarks, Collins offered his resignation to Brown, who turned it down. “He’s the thinker, and I’m the loud-mouth drinker,” Collins said later.
In an unusual publicity stunt during the Mediterranean fruit fly emergency in the early 1980s, Collins gulped down a tumbler of diluted malathion to demonstrate that the controversial insecticide represented no threat to public health.
In 1967, as a young Army Special Forces officer, Collins lost his right arm and leg to a grenade during combat in the Vietnam War. He was hospitalized for 18 months.
He later earned a law degree from the University of Santa Clara. Collins worked as an attorney briefly in 1975 but said law practice was a bore and joined Brown.
Collins first showed that he would be no ordinary bureaucrat in 1979 when Brown appointed him director of the California Conservation Corps, a neglected and ineffective organization that former Gov. Reagan had created and neglected.
Using Army know-how, Collins shook the CCC inside-out, reforming it in the style of a military boot camp. He recruited unemployed, inner-city youths for low-paying jobs fighting fires and floods. Successfully scratching out a budget from a skeptical Legislature, Collins transformed the CCC into one of state government’s most effective and highly regarded agencies.
After the election of George Deukmejian as governor in 1982, Collins became a vice president of the investment firm Kidder, Peabody & Co. In 1989, re-entering public service under a Republican boss, he was appointed deputy to then-state Treasurer Thomas Hayes and served until Hayes was defeated by Kathleen Brown in 1990.
Early in 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Collins director of the California Youth Authority, where he immediately touched off controversy by demanding that the young prisoners, many of them Spanish-speaking, write their complaints to him in proper English. “I hope the ACLU sues me for depriving these people of their right to be ignorant,” he said.
Wilson called on Collins several months later to run for a vacant Assembly seat in a suburban Sacramento district. Collins fought an uphill battle and narrowly won.
“It was not something he necessarily wanted to do, and I urged him to do it,” Wilson said later. Collins said he ran “for the same reason I went to Vietnam in 1965: I don’t want to grow old saying I wish I had.”
Friends noted that he seldom overlooked a birthday. A typical telephone call would go like this: “Hey, this is B. T. I’m at the airport in Chicago. Happy Birthday. Gotta run.”