Updated: Jan 5, 2022
East Bay House veteran leaving legacy of reform
“That’s who he is, a dreamer with a plan.”
Jan. 13, 2014
After more than 40 years of service, United States congressman George Miller announces that he is retiring and will not run again for office during a press conference at this Richmond headquarters on Monday Jan. 13, 2014 in Richmond, Calif. Mike Kepka/The Chronicle
WASHINGTON — Rep. George Miller’s office overlooking the Capitol is almost bare, the barber chair his mother gave him carted away, the walls empty of four decades of photos of family, friends, Contra Costa County constituents and a president or two. But Miller is still at work.
With a handful of days before retirement ends his 20-term House career, Miller stood in the Oval Office as President Obama signed child care legislation that took the Martinez Democrat 17 years to pass. He got House Republicans to approve a land exchange for the John Muir National Historic Site in his district. And he slammed a big foot down on a water bill that California’s two senators had spent months negotiating.
“I’ve given everything I could give, 24-7,” Miller said. “Not painful. Total joy. But it’s been 40 years.”
When he is gone, California will have lost a booming voice in Washington, a master legislator dubbed “Big George” by former President George W. Bush, a liberal lion often compared to his late friend Sen. Edward Kennedy. He has left a long trail of pathbreaking legislation, from the Affordable Care Act to No Child Left Behind to the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the law that gave the environment a guaranteed share of California’s precious water.
“Through all of those changes, recessions and wars, political upheavals, all of the rest of it, the fact is, you could continue to get things done on behalf of people in the country,” Miller said.
At 6-foot-4 and much leaner now than a decade ago, his thick hair and mustache long ago turned white, Miller spends his free time during winter hiking in the East Bay Regional Park District he helped establish. In the summers, the 68-year-old backpacks in the High Sierra.
“That’s what I love, being at high altitudes,” Miller said.
High altitudes are where Miller has romped in Washington: As the trusted right hand to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, his longtime friend from San Francisco whom he mentored when she arrived at the Capitol as a freshman in 1987. As the landlord of the famously squalid row house on Capitol Hill with its peeling paint, broken blinds and roster of powerful roommates, from former Monterey congressman and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to current inhabitants Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a fellow Californian, neighbor and friend, decided one re-election year to have a fundraiser at the house.
“George said, 'I don’t know if you really want to do this,’” Boxer said. She insisted that it would be a big success because everyone had heard about the house. But she had one condition: “I’ve got to come in there with a cleaning service,” she told him.
“Well, I walked in and almost fell over. Schumer had a blanket there that was so old, if I remember rightly, I may have gone out and bought him a new bedspread because it was just so awful.”
A workhorse who reads eight newspapers a day and prepares for legislative combat “like you’re going to go for an oral argument in the Supreme Court,” Miller said he looks forward to going to his real home in Martinez, to his wife and high school sweetheart, Cynthia, who he said will have a new puppy on her hands to train, and his two sons and his six grandchildren.
“I love being in my house in Martinez,” Miller said. “I love being in my backyard with my 20 redwood trees. I love being up at 5 o’clock in the morning and taking the dog for a run in the hills — I don’t run, the dog runs — and listening to the wild turkeys and seeing coyotes in the early morning. I’m pretty simple.”
Miller arrived in Washington at age 29 as part of the Watergate class of 1974, the son of a prominent state senator who brought to Washington a combination of Bay Area working-class politics and a liberal reformer’s zeal. When his father died in 1969, Miller ran for his seat, lost, and went on to get a law degree from UC Davis and work as an aide to then-state Senate Majority Leader and later San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
Miller’s hand is visible across a broad range of laws, focused around the two big committees he chaired, Natural Resources and Education and Labor. He led House passage of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, battled for miners at home and garment workers abroad, led enactment of a higher minimum wage, overhauled the student loan program and won a major expansion of the federal food program for poor mothers and children.
He was a key architect of the Affordable Care Act. He was among the first to back Barack Obama as he ran for president, and today opposes Obama on a new Pacific free trade agreement.
'Dreamer with a plan’
“He is a masterful legislator,” Pelosi said. “To watch him, the command of issues, the political astuteness, the respect that people give him. ... To see him legislate is to see a master at work.
“He would always say, 'I love to be in a room full of dreamers, but I want to be a dreamer with a plan,’” Pelosi said. “That’s who he is, a dreamer with a plan.”
When Miller arrived in Congress, he said, disabled children were not allowed to attend public school. Now they are.
At a recent event in Berkeley honoring his work, Miller said, he looked out over a sea of people with every form of disability, now successful in their professions. “They have reputations, they have accomplishments, and when I got here, many of them probably would not have been able to get into the elementary school,” Miller said. “What else is there?”
He pointed to the public lands he helped set aside for conservation, in national parks, national trails and wilderness areas. “It’s there,” he said. “You can see it.”
Working with GOP
Although he’s one of the most liberal members of Congress, Miller has shown a capacity to forge friendships and alliances with conservative Republicans.
He teamed with Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education law, even as he fought him passionately on the Iraq War.
“I really never thought about disliking somebody because they disagreed with me,” Miller said. “The disagreements are there, but they can’t block you from other avenues.”
He fought Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young on the Natural Resources Committee over protecting public lands. But after he handed the committee’s gavel to Young in 1995 upon the GOP takeover of the House, the two forged a political partnership that led to legislation that both take pride in.
Sometimes friendships form with “somebody who you can’t believe the things they think,” Miller said. “Don Young and George Miller. Forty years together. Got along. Did some of the biggest bills, these land bills.”
Young “hates the federal government, he hates (federal restrictions on) lands. He hates this and he hates that, and we did it,” Miller said. “He put together the hook-and-bullet guys, and I put together the greens.”
'Sit down and talk’
“We’re both big guys, and both of us are a little bit loud at times,” Young said. “Of course he, because of the area he represents, is more what I call the extreme environmental community, where I’m a resource development person. But there’s room for both people to sit down and talk, and we were able to do that.”
Young said he grew fond of Miller’s son George Jr., and the two often hunted together. The elder Miller was not a big hunter but sometimes went along.
One day they were out hunting and Young took a shot, startling Miller.
“My mistake, he wasn’t prepared,” Young said. Miller yelled at him, “'God damn, I’m deaf,’ because the noise from the rifle bounces off real quick,” Young said. “He thought I’d killed him, but I didn’t.”
Congress “needs more George Millers,” Young said.
With his departure, Pelosi will lose an ally who has been at her side as she passed him in the ranks of the House leadership.
“It was very clear from the beginning that she could scope this place out,” Miller said. “To be in a room watching her working and strategizing is one of the great political opportunities in the country.”
'Doesn’t BS people’
Boxer provides insight into why Pelosi relied so heavily on Miller. “When you want to have an opinion that is unfiltered, that is straight from the heart and from his brain and from his gut, you know you’re going to get it from George,” Boxer said.
Panetta describes Miller as genuine, “honest in his beliefs. He doesn’t BS people. He doesn’t play the political game of telling them something he doesn’t really believe.”
One of Panetta’s concerns about Washington is “the sense of kind of giving up because it’s just too hard,” he said. “Well, George Miller’s not somebody who ever gave up.”
Miller said he wanted to leave on his own terms, after watching colleagues stay too long. “I couldn’t do that to this district,” he said. “I thought a lot about these things ... and if I couldn’t give them 24-7, you owe it to them to leave.”
He also had other reasons: “my kids, my grandkids, my own sense of things I wanted to do that I’ve just put off, put off, put off.
“I had a great run,” he said. “I’ve had more fun than I would have ever imagined in my life. I’m very proud of my accomplishments.”
Two years ago, he said, his sons told him, “Pop, you’ve done it. Come on. Come on home.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead