Ex-Senator Has Gained New Agenda : Profile: John Seymour is enjoying his role as housing agency’s executive director.


A party was going on, but John Seymour wasn’t there. Instead, the former U.S. senator from California was home watching TV images of his erstwhile colleagues back in Washington flash by during a presidential address to Congress.

There was a tug of nostalgia, a wistful moment--but no remorse. “I said to my wife: It’s good in a lot of ways to be out of there,” Seymour recalled. “It’s a chapter of my life that’s written and done.”

Now continues the latest installment of the Seymour story--with his role as executive director of the California Housing Finance Agency, a relatively obscure arm of state government that mostly helps fund low-cost loans for first-time home buyers.

The post is several flights down from the lofty heights of the U.S. Senate, where Seymour served 21 months before he was trounced last November by Democrat Dianne Feinstein. But since his appointment by Gov. Pete Wilson to head the housing agency, the 55-year-old Seymour has tasted contentment.

There is the sudden freedom of escaping the political spotlight, of having more time for family and friends. Moreover, the affable Republican appears well-suited for the $98,000-a-year job: A former real estate broker and onetime president of the California Assn. of Realtors, he once proclaimed himself the “realtors’ senator” while serving Orange County in the state Legislature through much of the 1980s.


“I’m sure on the public pecking order this is a far step down from U.S. senator,” Seymour said in acknowledgment, “but I’m having fun.”

Fun for Seymour means helping craft a $4.6-billion plan he hopes will turn the sleepy agency into something of a dynamo. The five-year goal is to provide loans to 40,000 families and create 50,000 new jobs in the construction industry while yielding more multifamily rental projects than were produced in the agency’s previous 17 years of existence.

Such ambitious benchmarks raise eyebrows among some state housing officials, who contend the sluggish real estate market will conspire against all efforts. “It all seems like hyperbole to me,” said one. “The money just ain’t there.”

But even some Democrats contend that Seymour, who has built a reputation as a moderate, may yet be able to make a mark. “I think he’s a good choice for the job,” said state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), former chairman of the Senate housing committee. “Housing is certainly his issue. And from a legislative perspective, he’s someone we can call who knows the process and is responsive.”

Seymour recently emerged as a leading candidate to head a proposed state infrastructure bank that boosters said would spur the sluggish state economy and produce jobs. Legislative efforts to establish the bank failed last month, but backers intend to push anew next year, and Seymour--whose history in Sacramento and political relationship with Wilson give him clout in the Capitol--might once again play a role.

The idea of an ambitious agenda does not trouble Seymour.

During the booming 1960s and ‘70s, he built a thriving real estate brokerage and escrow firm in his adopted hometown of Anaheim. His connections to the development industry helped launch a political career that began on the Anaheim Planning Commission in 1970, followed by election to the City Council in 1974 and the position of mayor in 1978.

After scoring a stunning coup by helping the city lure the Los Angeles Rams to Anaheim Stadium, Seymour was well positioned for an easy victory when he ran for state Senate in 1982. Little more than a year after taking office, he joined an internal uprising among Senate Republicans that allowed him to wrest away the caucus chairmanship.

Even after Seymour lost the party leadership spot in 1987, he continued to exhibit unabashed ambition, aggressively positioning himself to run for governor or some other statewide office. He got his chance twice, but both times was defeated--first, by an Orange County colleague, Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), in the 1990 Republican primary for lieutenant governor; next, by Feinstein in last year’s U.S. Senate race.

After his November defeat, Seymour moped around the house for several weeks. He talked of trading politics for a job as a college teacher. But then Wilson--the friend and mentor who had plucked Seymour from relative obscurity and appointed the Orange County lawmaker as his successor in the U.S. Senate--again entered the picture. This time he offered Seymour the housing job.

“When he first came to me, I said: ‘Hell no!’ ” Seymour recalled. “My view of the agency was that it did a fine job, but wasn’t making a real impact.” Nonetheless, he agreed to mull the job offer. Seymour talked to builders and the agency’s board members. One recurring theme was enticing: He could really make some things happen if he took over.

His appointment drew grumbling about political patronage that has yet to abate. “It’s just another in a long line of appointments handed out like consolation prizes to defeated Republican candidates,” said Kim Alexander, policy analyst for California Common Cause, a state watchdog group.

But others counter that Seymour’s credentials make his appointment beyond reproach. “In the world of politics you’re always going to find those accusations,” said Bergeson, his former foe in the race for lieutenant governor. “In this case, John was extremely well qualified for that position.”

Seymour’s ties to the real estate industry, however, have also occasionally raised the perception of conflicts between his political and private dealings. As a state senator, he owned rental properties, tried to develop land and invested in real estate partnerships even as he carried legislation affecting such interests.

Seymour has long maintained that his support of the real estate and development industries was based on deeply held philosophical beliefs, not the prospect of personal gain.

Some advocates for low-income housing--largely ignored by the agency Seymour inherited--hold out hope that he will help their cause. “We want to give Seymour a chance--we want to sit down and work with him,” said Christine Minnehan, a lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Seymour says he is sympathetic. Through his years in the real estate business, he dealt with thousands of home buyers “who just couldn’t make it.” With such memories in tow, “I come to this job being very sensitive to the need for low-income housing,” he said.

John Seymour--Mr. Orange County Real Estate--champion of the little guy? Only time will tell. Certainly he has endured political defeat of late, the sorts of setbacks that fan introspection.

Seymour said he does not anticipate returning to political life. A father of six, he is eager to head back to Orange County, where most of his grown children live. He still hopes to one day become a college instructor.

But for now, he is committed to guiding the housing finance agency while Wilson remains in power. And he is enjoying a full family life with his wife, Judy, and the one child still at home, 11-year-old Bennett. For the first time in years, it is an existence free of the campaign trail, unfettered by the constant obligations of elected office.

To Seymour, the most notable symbol of his new life is the family dog, an English springer spaniel named Duke.

Back in 1990, Bennett came to his father and asked for a dog. Caught in the midst of the lieutenant governor’s race, Seymour said the family simply did not have time to deal with training and caring for a puppy. Later, in Washington, the boy broached the subject again. Seymour said he felt like “a bum,” but demurred once more because of the looming 1992 reelection campaign.

Finally, in the weeks after Seymour’s defeat last November, Bennett got his dog.

“For us, it was a big deal,” Seymour said. “That dog is a symbol, a symbol of a normal life again.”