At some point on Monday, Nov. 23, Bill Monning planned on dropping his office key and ID badge on his desk at his State Capitol office in Sacramento and walking out the door for the last time. His final day as the state senator representing the sprawling District 17 isn’t until Nov. 30. But as he wrapped up his business in Sacramento with a Health Committee meeting about the Covid-19 pandemic, his plan was to come home and work in the district until the end.
Monning, a lawyer by training, a teacher by avocation and a humanitarian by nature, has held office since 2008, when he won the Assembly seat that had been held by John Laird. (Plot twist – Laird, who went on to serve as California Secretary for Natural Resources in Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, just won the senate seat held by Monning, who has termed out of office.) In an interview during his final days in office, Monning describes the situation as bittersweet. A small fraction of people ever get the opportunity to hold elected office, and he thinks he and his team, many of whom have been with him since his first days in Sacramento, have made the most of their time serving a district that is bigger than the state of Connecticut.
“I’m gonna miss a lot of it,” he says, “and certain parts I won’t miss at all.”
He runs through a list of achievements that includes weathering storms (literally and figuratively) and disasters (some driven by nature and climate change, other’s wholly manmade). The points of pride could fill a few pages of this paper, but they include: securing funding for the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery; securing the rights for the terminally ill to die at a time and manner of their own choosing, with a prescription written by a medical doctor, via the End of Life Option Act; ensuring safe drinking water for everyone through Senate Bill 200, which allocates $130 million annually through 2029 to bring 300 public water systems into compliance with safe drinking water standards; getting Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant decommissioned via SB 1090, and getting workers and residents mitigation money. And getting Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge replaced in record time, in a huge act of fighting through bureaucracy and winning.
There are losses, of course, maybe most notably not getting a tax on “Big Soda” or forcing labeling of sugar-sweetened beverages as a potential health hazard. There was a smaller victory, and still a sweet one: children’s meals sold at fast-food restaurants now have to offer milk or water as the default drink – if a parent instead wants their kid to have a soda, they have to ask for it. And Big Soda has had to spend big battling tax measures in the cities of Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco – and in those cities, Big Soda lost.
“We got on Big Soda and they proved the power of money,” Monning says. “But one of my philosophies, particularly in a public health campaign, is that even on a pathway to a bill’s failure, there’s a measurable increase in public awareness and soda consumption has gone down.”
Over 12 years in office, Monning has had thousands of encounters with constituents and heard from thousands more via email. But one particularly memorable encounter took place in the Monterey Sports Center, where Monning was soaping and rinsing – post-workout naked style – in the shower.
A constituent wanted to talk to him about a spay-neuter bill that passed that allows animal services to spay or neuter any cat or dog picked up as a stray, even if it’s a family pet that just got out of the house or yard.
“He argued it would be an abuse if his show dog was spayed or neutered, and I asked if I could get a towel,” Monning says. “That was a little awkward… but animal bills set off the switchboard and the emails, as do gun issues. Those are the two most prevalent ones.”
Monning estimates he’s driven 320,000 miles since being elected, and he calls the days and weeks away from home the hardest part of the job. Now that it’s about to be over, he’s mulling doing some mediation work (he’s still a lawyer) and maybe some teaching (he’s still on the faculty at Monterey College of Law and Middlebury Institute of International Studies).
“I expect I’ll find pathways to stay active,” he says. “I still have juice in the battery.”