The death of George Zenovich at age 91 on Wednesday reminds us that there was a time when politicians addressed real problems, a career in government was held in high regard, and Democrats and Republicans could vigorously debate the issues -- and remain friends.
Zenovich represented the Fresno area for 16 years in the Assembly and state Senate during the 1960s and 1970s. Most notably, he co-authored first-in-the-nation legislation recognizing the right of farm workers to collectively bargain. He also helped write legislation on behalf of low- and moderate-income housing, and the arts. All the while, he championed the cause of handicapped children.
Zenovich had the passion, intelligence, personality and savvy of an effective leader. His sense of fair play and demand for social justice first came to the forefront when, as Fresno State student body president, he tried -- but failed -- to get the Bulldogs' football game in Oklahoma canceled because the opponent said that it wouldn't allow Fresno State's two black players on the field.
At the Capitol, Zenovich cultivated friendships and found common ground on issues with Republicans without straying from his liberal Democratic roots: "In general, when he got involved in some specific issues, he was very effective," said former Gov. George Deukmejian, who served with Zenovich in the Assembly and Senate.
What Zenovich didn't have was an inflated view of himself. In 1972, he agreed to debate a Bullard High student on the virtues of the Democratic and Republican parties. Can you imagine a state senator doing that today? The student, Brad Hill, is now presiding justice of the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno, and works in the building that bears Zenovich's name.
And, of course, there were the squirrels that Zenovich captured in Sacramento's Capitol Park and brought to repopulate Fresno's Courthouse Park in 1963. Yes, he knew how to get his name and picture in the paper.
Zenovich believed that legislation could right wrongs and improve people's lives. He treated political opponents with respect -- not disdain. Politicians and community leaders of all stripes would do well for themselves -- and their constituencies -- by reflecting on Zenovich's life and public service, and vowing to set aside political combat, at least some of the time, in favor of problem solving.