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Capitol Journal: Tom Hayden was a role model for participatory democracy. He didn’t stand on the sidelines — he jumped right in

Tom Hayden
Tom Hayden speaks with David Dellinger, left, chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, during a break in a congressional hearing about the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago on Dec. 4, 1968.
(Associated Press)

This country needs more people like Tom Hayden, motivated citizens who don’t just stand outside the arena and gripe about how the game is played. They go inside and participate.

That has largely gone unmentioned in commentary about the leftist protester-turned-state legislator who died Sunday after a lengthy illness at 76.

Hayden was a liberal radical, but if he had been a conservative reactionary the point would be the same. This is not about his politics. It’s about engaging.

What particularly impressed me about Hayden was that he didn’t merely sit back and complain — as so many Americans increasingly do — that all politicians are crooks and the system is corrupt.

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He walked the walk — straight inside to the establishment and tried to change what he could.

Yes, a crook occasionally surfaces. The vast majority of politicians, however, are not crooks. They’re pretty reflective of the imperfect voters who elect them.

Corrupt? Depends on your definition. Yes, large campaign contributions are corrupting. And Hayden fought against the venal influence of political money for decades.

In 1994, Hayden complained to me about his colleagues’ virtual nonstop hitting up of special interests for campaign donations as the annual legislative session neared adjournment and hundreds of bills were up for votes.

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“What you have in the August orgy is a huge fire sale,” he said. “ ‘Buy your access now.’ And maybe your bills too.”

Hayden certainly was not a crook. He was cause-driven. That’s what citizens say they want — much more so, of course, if it’s a cause they like.

Hayden wasn’t a games player, not a conniver who would withhold his vote on a major bill while demanding a political favor in return.

“That wasn’t the way he operated,” says Bill Lockyer, who was the Senate leader when Hayden was a senator. Lockyer later was elected state attorney general and then treasurer.

Hayden was a political celebrity, of course, before he ever got elected to the Assembly from Santa Monica in 1982.

He grew up in middle-class Michigan but was drawn to political activism. In the early 1960s, he joined Freedom Riders protesting Southern segregation.

“After seeing the courage of black people in the South fighting Jim Crow laws, I was converted to activism,” he wrote in a 2012 op-ed piece for The Times. “The students I met there were inspiring, willing to die for a cause.”

Hayden became a radical rock star, co-leading the violent anti-Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was arrested and convicted of inciting a riot, but the verdict was overturned.

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He kept fighting for civil rights and the poor. And he married actress Jane Fonda, which substantially boosted his cachet.

Hayden ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and lost. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor and Los Angeles mayor.

And this is where my admiration for the guy rose: Unlike so many celebrities or the super-rich, Hayden didn’t insist on starting near the top in politics. He didn’t look down on the Legislature as being beneath him. He deigned to run for the Assembly.

Hayden realized that the state Capitol is where laws are made. Californians may think the Nov. 8 ballot is overloaded with 17 state propositions, but lawmakers act on thousands of measures each legislative session. This year alone they passed 1,059.

“Tom was frustrated to get into the system,” says Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), who was an assemblyman when Hayden was a senator. Their paths crossed often in Los Angeles politics.

“You can be out there involved and form committees, but there’s nothing like the power to introduce a bill and get it passed,” Hertzberg says. “It’s an issue of legitimacy, the ability to legislate compared to just writing an op-ed or a book. Tom understood that.”

In the Legislature, where he served 18 years, Hayden often seemed like a fish out of water. It wasn’t his natural habitat. He went along to get along, but only to a point.

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He wasn’t a raving bomb thrower. He quietly picked his shots. Achievements were modest: research into the effects of Agent Orange on U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, pier repairs in Santa Monica and Malibu, funding to allow prisoners to remove their gang tattoos, blocking demolition of L.A.’s downtown Catholic cathedral.

Hayden’s strength was his energy, focused thinking, thoughtful articulation and clear, creative writing. Legislators paid attention, even if they disagreed.

“His was one of the great restless minds of our time,” Lockyer says. “He was one of the early voices in climate change.

“Sometimes people on the left or the right bristle with self-righteousness. But that wasn’t true of him. He had a philosophy he was committed to. But it was not something he was pushing in your face.”

A conservative Republican and former Marine, Assemblyman Gil Ferguson of Newport Beach, tried to get Hayden kicked out of the Legislature for visiting Hanoi during the Vietnam War. The effort fizzled.

When Hayden eventually was booted by term limits in 2000, he received an unusually long two-hour tribute on the Senate floor.

“It is almost like people are saying we wish we could be more like you,” then-state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) told him.

Hayden was a public policy junkie and a role model of the participatory democracy he championed. He got off his duff.

Updates from Sacramento »

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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