Early in January of 1991, I met Gaddi Vasquez for breakfast, mainly to get a fix on this rising young star in local politics. Although only 35 at the time, his name had been bandied about in recent weeks as the person new Gov. Pete Wilson might name to serve the rest of Wilson's U.S. Senate seat.
It was very heady stuff for someone so young, and even after Wilson opted for the more seasoned Orange County state Sen. John Seymour, it wasn't seen as much of a blow to Vasquez. In fact, some local Democrats were glad Wilson had tapped Seymour over Vasquez, a feeling borne out when Democrat Dianne Feinstein trounced Seymour in 1992.
The label on Vasquez was "potential." A future governor. A future senator. Being Latino and conservative and an accomplished public speaker seemed to satisfy most pundits' checklist regarding Vasquez's long-term electability. No less an authority than presidential adviser and consultant Stu Spencer had said of Vasquez when he was only 33: "I don't think he should stay a supervisor very long. There's a lot more for him to do."
Here we are in 1995 and Vasquez is still a supervisor--in the way, I suppose, that you could say that Sinatra is still a singer.
The best possible spin would be to say that Vasquez's career is in limbo. It's actually much worse than that, however, because Vasquez's political base is about to become nationally known as the place that went bankrupt while he was a supervisor and then skipped out on its debts. The political death knell is that when Vasquez announced this week that he wouldn't run for reelection next year, no one was really dismayed or surprised. When people quit caring, your potential has been tapped out.
"I think he's really a humble person," says a former Vasquez staffer. "He was a cop, and cops try to measure and weigh things and look for the truth, the facts. I think he always kept an eye on his family and his personal life to make sure he didn't let all the words of flattery and promise put him out of balance."
It's not that Vasquez was indifferent to the flattery. "I think it was tremendously exciting for him," the staffer says. "What 33-year-old wouldn't be excited about this promise, this 'first Hispanic governor, first Hispanic president?' "
When considering his public career, it's probably unfair to call it a failure, unless measured against what people hoped he would be in office. I remember coming away disappointed from my breakfast meeting with him--not because there was anything unpleasant about him, but because I had such high hopes. We all like to think we're in the presence of potential greatness, and I was hoping the press clippings on Vasquez would be true.
To be sure, he was likable, polite to a fault, humble and articulate. And utterly and maddeningly noncommittal about almost everything, refusing to say even whether Wilson had talked to him about the Senate vacancy. In recent years, that innate caution came to be Vasquez's hallmark, taken to the ridiculous extreme of his refusing to stake out a public position on Proposition 187, the anti-immigration issue that every Latino and public official cared about.
Even when announcing his decision this week, Vasquez couldn't bring himself to make a ripple. He took the standard route of saying he wanted to spend more time with his family and said his decision had nothing to do with the upcoming Measure R vote or the bankruptcy itself. If so, why announce a year ahead of time? Why not acknowledge the public anger toward the supervisors and say he hoped his announcement would defuse some of that?
Imagine him resigning his office and making an impassioned appeal for Measure R. Imagine a Gaddi Vasquez passionately arguing the legality and morality of Prop. 187. Imagine him out front on any issue of the day.
That is not the Vasquez style, and it's why his passing from the political scene isn't the story it once might have been. It falls short of political tragedy.
The former Vasquez staffer, still loyal, shades that a tad. "I think the tragedy is that Gaddi has all the potential that everyone always said he did. The tragedy is that I feel like someone pulled the carpet out from under his feet and that the public is going to lose one of the most decent people in government today. I know reporters said he was too cautious, he never showed leadership and never lived up to his promise, but he's everything a good politician should be, and I have a difficult time pinning the blame for the bankruptcy on him."
Perhaps we expected too much. Certainly, he is no villainous figure. Saddled with the burden of being a potential political superstar, the worst we can say about Gaddi Vasquez is that he remained merely mortal.
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.