Albert Rodda said it softly, the way he says most things. He leaned forward in his brown leather chair, smiled a little at his state senate colleagues, and said in that gentle half-swallowed, schoolteacher's voice, "If anyone can help us pick up this frightened porcupine without getting quills on us, please do."
It was Rodda's kind of comic relief, but there was more to it than that. It was also the bewildered plea of a man who tried so hard to take care of that funny-looking animal that he never realized it was a porcupine at all.
New Deal Democrat, Gentlemanly Senate veteran, Lover of camellias, existentialist literature, progressive education and government-sponsored social reform. Not, according to his detractors, a wildly effective leader of men.
Ten days after the passage of Proposition 13, the unprecedented property tax limitation initiative that has focused the nation's attention on the California state capital this white-haired, pink-faced, bespectacled senator from Sacramento is wielding the gavel on the committees that are wielding the ax.
"A page and a half of language which amends the constitution and totally restructures local government, that's what it was," the exhausted senator said Friday evening, at the end of seven straight hours of legislative meetings. "The ramifications are massive." And he raised his hands, palms up, resigned.
Rodda is chairman of the Joint Conference Committee, which is deciding how much of the multibillion dollar state budget surplus will be used this year to rescue local governments from their estimated $7 billion shortfall, and the Senate Finance Committee, which, amid all the confusion, must get a state budget to the governor by July 1.
He spends his days hurrying from one committee to the other, his rimless glasses resting on his nose, his arms full of charts and memoranda. With the television cameras focused on the steady procession of local officials and suddenly unfunded program directors and analysts whose figures disprove those of the analysts before them, Rodda sits back in a big brown chair and listens. He twirls his pen between his fingers. He rubs the sides of his nose. The lines on his forehead get deeper.
Rodda, who was elected 20 years ago to the California Senate and has focused much of his career on public education (he introduced the first bilingual education bill more than 10 years ago) was adamantly opposed to Proposition 13, and has not changed his mind.
The new amendment - which limits property taxes to 1 percent of market value, rolls back assessments to the 1975-76 level, and limits assessment to a 2 percent annual rise if the property does not change owners - still seems to him the convulsive response of outraged voters who did not really understand what they were doing.
"They weren't listening," Rodda said. They were angry. . . the effect is going to be I think, on needy people, and it may make them angry. It may aggravate class differences in our society, in our state."
He says he believes the reports of some analysts, hotly disputed by Porposition 13 supporters, that this year's handout to local governments from the state budget surplus (probably about $4 billion) will only tide them over for a year. Then it will get worse, he said: the surplus will shrink and needs will grow and legislators like Rodda - at the local and state levels - will not be able to fix their communities' ills the way they once thought they should.
He spoke of a woman with cerebral palsy who had testified the night before on the need for funding of the education for the handicapped. "You feel as if you want to cry," Rodda said. "The cameras weren't there for her, but they were there for Gann."
Rodda meant Paul Gann, who wrote Proposition 13 with businessman Howard Jarvis, and the senator got visibly angry for the first time. "if I were the king, I would make Jarvis and Gann my court jesters," he said.
Does he feel chastised? Yes, in a way. Less enthusiastic about a legislator's ability to help? Yes. "There 's not much psychic satisfaction in being a legislator anymore. . . I don't have the special license plates on my car anymore. . . I don't find myself introducing myself as Senator Rodda anymore. I say I'm Al Rodda. I just don't have as much enthusiasm about being a senator anymore.
"I have to admit we should have responded earlier," Rodda said. "I have to admit it's unbelievable" - meaning the rise in property taxes - "and unfair." And if liberals like himself had agreed earlier on a substive property tax revision bill, Rodda said he would not be out there banging a gavel for the implementation of Proposition 13.
But they didn't, and he is. Rodda chairs his committee like the respected older schoolteacher he is (he retired from city college teaching in 1967), philosophizing, breaking up fights, and every so often tossing out a corny joke, probably the corniest of which is his explanation that his humor began with his grandfather from Cornwall: "I'm Cornish, you know."
He does not go drinking with the boys. He was born in Sacramento, and his three children still live in the sea. He is thought to be incorruptible. "Al Rodda is the most decent, compassionate individual here in Sacramento," said Republican Sen. William Campbell, who disagree politically with Rodda on just about everything. Deputy Secretary of State Michael Gagan added, "T think if you did a beloved poll, Rodda would without a doubt be the most beloved."
He is not a great leader, some say, not a forceful man. "A little man," one legislator put it, "in the finest definition of the term - a man struggling with problemsbeyond his background."