Bernie Richter, a former Republican assemblyman whose flame-throwing oratory and opposition to affirmative action delighted conservatives and repulsed liberals, died at a Chico hospital Monday. He was 68.
Richter, who was turned out of the Assembly by term limits in 1998 but immediately began running for a state Senate seat that will open next year, suffered a heart attack at home and died at Enloe Medical Center about two hours later, said his friend and campaign consultant George Osborn.
“I talked to him at 7:30 a.m. and he said, ‘I can’t talk to you right now. I’ll have to call you back.’ Next thing, I got a call saying he had passed away,” Osborn said. He said Richter had no history of heart disease.
Richter, a Democrat-turned-Republican who operated family-owned video and liquor stores in Chico, 90 miles north of Sacramento, was a tall, gawky fellow whose country-boy demeanor barely masked an eagerness for intellectual and political combat.
As the GOP’s premier practitioner of both bombastic and razor-sharp oratory during his 1992-98 tenure in the Assembly, Richter relished favorite conservative targets: taxes, abortion, welfare and, most of all, affirmative action for women and minorities.
A GOP colleague, then-Assemblyman Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, remarked that Richter said out loud and in public what other Republicans “are only willing to privately think.”
In 1994, before affirmative action had exploded into a national political issue, Richter introduced legislation to abolish “preferences and quotas” in state government employment and college admissions. The proposal failed in the Democratic-controlled house, but its essence became law in 1996 when voters approved landmark Proposition 209.
Along the way, Richter, who billed himself as the legislative “author of 209,” encountered suggestions that he was a racist, which he dismissed. He said it “never entered my mind that I was [a racist]” and he believed that Proposition 209 passed because “everyone else was more or less in the same boat.”
Instead, Richter was fond of portraying himself as a colorblind civil rights activist who fought for fair play regardless of who won or lost under affirmative action.
“It’s just something I feel inside my bones--that you cannot take note of people’s race, ethnicity, whatever, in making government policy,” he said in 1996, describing his opposition to affirmative action.
Critics, however, accused him of reaching his conclusions by turning the preference arguments upside down.
State Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) argued that discrimination continues to exist and that affirmative action helps combat it. He cited the dominant ranks of white men in business and academia.
“That’s just what the Germans said in 1930,” Richter countered. “They said it’s very hard to go to a big company in a big industry and see anything but Jewish faces, dominating totally out of proportion to their numbers. [Polanco makes] exactly the same argument. It’s identical.”
At another point, Richter was called an "[expletive] moron” by then-Assemblyman Kevin Murray (D-Century City) at a legislative hearing that touched on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 separate-but-equal ruling for segregation of black Americans. Murray, an African American, apologized.
In 1994, as veteran Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown prepared to step down from power, Richter, known from his days as a price-cutting retailer in Chico as “Crazy Bernie,” was briefly courted by Democrats to succeed Brown. Richter tried for a week to line up support among fellow Republicans, but succeeded only in angering them.
Assemblyman Rico Oller (R-San Andrus), Richter’s opponent for the GOP nomination in the sprawling 1st Senate District, sent condolences to Richter’s widow, Rae, and their children. He called Richter a “one-of-a-kind public servant who often charted an independent course.”
Arrangements for a memorial service are pending.