The Future Governor From Newhall, California
By LIONEL ROLFE
The obituary notice of a four-term California assemblyman who died at 86 the other day brought back memories of an odd and jarring time in my youth when he hired me to write a philosophy because he was then an aspiring politician.
When I first met Jim Keysor in the late ‘60s, I was a reporter at the Newhall Signal. On hot summer days, the president of the Newhall Chamber of Commerce would stroll across the patio to gab with us in our modest cityroom.
Jim Keysor was the chamber’s president, but he struck me a little different than the usual kind who becomes president of the chamber of commerce. This isn’t to say he was a fellow member of the counter culture. He wasn’t. He was a Mormon, from a prominent Mormon family, and he was a Democrat of sorts.
He had been born in Salt Lake City in 1927. What was most weird about him was that he was a Mormon and a Democrat. In those days, and still probably nowadays, Mormons in Newhall were a motley crew of political reactionaries, proud Republicans who like all proud Republicans looked down their noses on Democrats.
One of the most prominent of them was the lieutenant governor, with the so appropriate name of John Harmer. Harmer was a charmless kind of man with an appalling reactionary political philosophy.
Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to the post after his predecessor went to jail. His predecessor was a fellow named Ed Reinecke who was the first person to go to jail over Watergate. I knew Reinecke pretty well. He was perfectly conservative, but a charming and intelligent fellow who had even gotten his degree from Caltech in electrical engineering or some such. I always thought he was kind of a fall guy, an attempt to deflect anyone from getting to close to the real guy, who, you might remember, resigned but never went to prison.
Jim knew Harmer because Jim was one of the brothers of a large and wealthy Mormon family who owned Keysor-Century Record Company, a vinyl pressing plant in nearby Saugus.
He was president of the firm when he decided to get into politics—and it’s been suggested his brothers were willing to finance his campaign because they’d save more money with him out of the business. They figured it was cheaper to buy him an assembly seat than keep him in the business. That might be an unfair assessment and quite far from the truth—but that is what they were saying behind his back.
Keysor seemed to genuinely want to get along with us more counter culture types and was acutely aware that there was a certain amount of disdain in his own community toward him because he was a Democrat. I kept thinking that he wanted our approval, partly because he needed some validation from somewhere—even if it came from outside his tight knit circle.
But he was a little hard to take in person. Jim had an unusually dark tan because he spent hours under a tanning light. How did I know that? He proudly told me so. Then he bent over my desk, and pointed at his rows of hair that he was having implanted. I thought the hair looked odd, and it made me look askance at him. But he was very proud of himself. He proudly told me that he planned to become governor of California. A few weeks later, he told me he wanted to hire me, and pay me well, for ghostwriting his “philosophy.” In addition to a generous weekly paycheck, he also gave me his big white red-leathered upholstered Cadillac convertible to drive around the desert sun in. I thoroughly enjoyed doing so. He thought driving that car would change my politics into believing in the virtues of capitalism.
I wrote his “philosophy,” which was not easy, since at heart he didn’t have one. He always explained he was a good Mormon, but his politics were quite a bit left of the rest of his clan.
But Keysor was on a roll. In 1970 he ran for a seat in the state house from Newhall and a large swath of northern San Fernando Valley. He never became governor, but he remained an assemblyman for four terms. He also ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, the state senate and even tried to become the county assessor. He lost all three.
I never quite understood Jim. I spent a lot of time writing his “philosophy,” but it never gelled well. His most provocative belief was as a staunch believer in encounter groups. In those days, encounter groups were not just for the counter culture. Corporations were sending their workers to them. I guess Keysor’s love of encounter groups was not so different than Rodney King’s plea, “Can’t we all just get along?”
All things equal, Keysor was not a bad guy. But he had a certain feckless quality that bothered me. It didn’t deny him a certain level of success on this mortal coil, but probably it should have.
Later he got angry at me for not having come up with the “philosophy” that would have proved to be the winning charm in propelling him into the top job he really wanted. My feeling was I put in the time he paid for and tried, but developing a winning “philosophy” provide to be too elusive a goal. I failed Jim Keysor and I know he went to his grave angry about that.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of several books, available on Amazon’s Kindlestore.