(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared April 18, 1999, in the Contra Costa Times.)
Contra Costa Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier is a Republican backed by Democrats who can't decide in which party he would be most at home.
He's an Irish Catholic who supports abortion rights, loves the symbolism of Mass, yet finds himself espousing Buddhist philosophy.
He's a workaholic who knows his brutal schedule cost him his 15-year marriage, yet he doesn't want to slow down.
Whether it's personal or political, DeSaulnier, 48, seems to relish the struggle for the right answer. And now he has a new struggle. As one of the East Bay's most influential leaders, DeSaulnier is examining his political future, looking beyond county government to Sacramento or Washington.
"I'm seriously considering it. The question is when," he says. "If I'm successful at this level, then at some point I would like to go to a level where I'd have greater influence, where I could be involved with public policy that affects the state of California rather than just the eighth largest county in the state."
But, like most major decisions DeSaulnier makes, this one will be ponderous.
Haunted by the memory of his father, a corrupt Massachusetts judge who chose quick personal gain over moral correctness, DeSaulnier cherishes slow and deliberate intellectual debate.
For him, life is a constant dialectic process, in which an idea is put on the table, then challenged to produce a synthesis of a new idea.
"I don't think I'll ever be an ideologue in politics or faith because I actually think you can be passionate about being someone who brings people together," he explains.
"That's what a politician should be doing, or any leader should be doing: Bringing people who have different opinions together. Then you come up with a solution that's better for everybody. It's not better for the ideologues, but it's better for the larger community."
Heavily influenced by the Jesuit priests who taught him when he was sent away to high school while his parents were divorcing, DeSaulnier says he believes strongly in the ultimate goodness of people and their ability to improve themselves.
"The idea that you're human, that you have the potential to do better and redeem your mistakes," he explains one night driving home from Sacramento, "is what makes us along with our intellect that being that has potential to go to a higher life within this physical existence."
Then, suddenly, the tone of DeSaulnier's voice changes. The internal struggle has produced a new revelation. "Maybe the Buddhists have it right," he says. "It's the journey."
DeSaulnier's journey brought him to the East Bay two decades ago.
He transformed an old pawn shop in downtown Concord into one of the area's most popular restaurants -- a lunch-time hangout for some of the county's leading power players.
He used an appointment to the city Planning Commission as a launching pad to the City Council, the county Board of Supervisors, the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, and a gubernatorial appointment to the California Air Resources Board.
He's a politician who can't seem to master the sound bite and doesn't seem to care. And, true to his dialectic outlook, he's a man who seems to spend more time bringing groups together for meetings than pushing his own ideas.
Whether it's libraries, refinery safety, a county charter, a new county hospital or a growth policy, DeSaulnier has planted himself in the middle of the debate.
"He's a consensus builder," says John Dalrymple, executive secretary of Central Labor Council of Contra Costa. "He solicits input in a way that makes you feel that it's going to have an impact on his decision-making process.
"Because of that, it often takes him a long time to reach a conclusion, which people sometimes find frustrating. But he tries to be very principled, so I'm willing to wait for him to make up his mind."
'A kid who loved his dad'
Such compliments stir ambivalence in DeSaulnier.
"In a lot of things in life," DeSaulnier says, "there is a seduction process where people on different levels will tell you how great you are. If you always accept that on face value, you allow yourself to be seduced."
DeSaulnier has seen what happens when officials start letting the praise and power go to their heads. That, he says, is what destroyed his dad.
Superior Court Judge Edward DeSaulnier was elected to the Massachusetts Senate in his 20s and appointed to the bench when he was just 37. Fourteen years later, he was disbarred for his role in a sentence-fixing scheme and subsequently forced to resign from the bench.
"He either thought he would never get caught or he rationalized it and thought he was above the law," DeSaulnier says of his father. "As a kid who loved his dad a lot, it was a very painful thing because you watched him kill himself by allowing himself to be corrupted."
Perhaps nothing drives the Contra Costa supervisor more than the struggle to prove he is the antithesis of his father, that he can be a public official and not let it corrupt him.
"His father had a profound effect on him," says the supervisor's ex-wife, Melinda Clune.
Mark, the fourth of his five children, was very close to his dad. "The part that makes it sad is he had a lot going for him," Mark says. "I cared a lot about him."
But, as he was growing up in Chelmsford, Mass., Mark knew that something wasn't right with his father.
"He was betting on the phone all the time. He had all these code words. A bean was the denomination. Then they had code words in case somebody was listening as to what a bean was, whether it was a hundred, a thousand, how much. He used to bet all the time. He was a gambler."
In 1971, when Mark, then 19, was living with his father during a summer break from college, a reporter came to the door looking for the judge, who wasn't home. Then another reporter called. Finally, a television reporter told him what had happened: His father had been named in a congressional hearing as organized crime's connection to the judiciary in New England.
"I thought my dad had a gambling problem, and he did some things that I questioned, but I had no idea. It wasn't like he was a bad judge, it was like he was the bad judge."
On his own
As the Boston newspapers and a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court inquiry uncovered his father's corruption, Mark returned to school at Holy Cross College, a small Jesuit liberal arts college in Worcester, Mass. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in history and set out across the country.
He stopped in Palm Springs, where one of his brothers was living, but soon moved on to San Francisco, a city he liked because of its similarities to Boston. He got a job as a management trainee at the Stanford Court Hotel on Nob Hill. When that turned into a dead end, he took a job as a doorman there, before answering an ad for a bartender at Henry Africa's, then a popular bar and restaurant.
It was there that he met his future wife. She remembers a serious and quiet young man.
"He didn't flirt with people. He didn't pay much attention besides getting his job done," she says. "He was always self-contained."
DeSaulnier became the bar manager and then, at age 25, the restaurant manager. He started managing and consulting for other restaurants. In 1978, restaurateur Sam Duvall called DeSaulnier and told him to look at a site he was considering for an eatery in Contra Costa.
"He told me, It was one of those East Bay cities, Walnut Creek or Concord, I can't tell the difference.'"
By then, DeSaulnier had married, the couple were planning to have children, and they wanted a place where he could raise children. They didn't plan to stay in Concord. He figured they would eventually return to the big city.
DeSaulnier and his partners struggled over what to name the new restaurant. Although DeSaulnier considered Teddy Roosevelt a symbol of what attracted him to the GOP, someone else actually came up with the idea of naming the restaurant for the trust-buster, 26th president who was in office about the time the Concord building was constructed.
"Then we had to argue about should it be Teddy's, and they said, no, it sounds too gay for this community. And then should it be Roosevelt's. No, it's too affluent for this community." So they settled on the president's nickname and called the restaurant "TR's."
Death of his father
For the next decade, DeSaulnier and his wife built TR's Bar and Grill into a profitable establishment. They bought a house in Pleasant Hill, then later moved to Concord, had two boys and settled into suburban life.
Every once in a while, DeSaulnier's father, the disgraced judge, would come to visit and ask to borrow money from him and his brother in San Francisco. As they later learned, their father was stopping in Las Vegas on his way home and gambling it away. The checks he cashed at TR's would later bounce. Eventually, he vowed not to cash any more.
But in 1989, his father once again pleaded for money to get home and promised the check was "good as gold."
"For some reason, I said, 'OK Dad this one time. But you're not going to spend it gambling, right?' 'No, I'm over that.'"
A few days later, his father, crying, called the restaurant in the middle of lunch and told his son the check was going to bounce.
"I said that's OK. And I wasn't the way I was the previous time when I said don't do this again. I wasn't even disappointed. I was just sort of accepting."
It was the last time DeSaulnier or his four siblings talked to their father. About a week later, one of his brothers called the restaurant and said, "Dad's dead."
Former Judge DeSaulnier had spent the last 15 years of his life trying unsuccessfully to clear his name. According to news articles at the time of his death, he had moved to Florida, remarried, divorced again, washed cars and sold storm windows and bullet-proof vests. On April 20, 1989, police found him on his bed with a .22-caliber revolver in his right hand.
"He was being evicted from his condominium," DeSaulnier says. "His car had been repossessed. He hadn't had anything to drink for eight years, and he had started drinking again. He left a note something like, out of money, no hope, no car, no place to live.'"
The supervisor sat in an Oakland restaurant earlier this year periodically picking at his dinner as he told the story in a matter-of-fact tone, as if it were someone else's father. But then he reached the end, and the enormity of what he had just described seemed to hit him.
"It will be 10 years in April," he quietly added.
Best and worst of times
For DeSaulnier, the years since his father's suicide have been his political best and his personal worst.
It's the decade he rose from restaurateur to politician. It's the decade he sank from married father of two to divorcé.
In 1991, after four years on the city's Redevelopment Advisory Committee and more than a year on the Planning Commission, DeSaulnier ran for Concord City Council.
In a city divided over gay rights, with a mayor under investigation of sexually harassing city employees and politicians battling over a controversial series of metal rods known as the Spirit Poles on a downtown street next to TR's, DeSaulnier's quiet style appealed to voters ready for harmony.
It was a move that surprised his brother Ted, a lay teacher of morality and social justice at Marin Catholic High School, where he is also chairman of the religion department.
Growing up in the '60s, Ted, a Democrat, and his Republican father would debate politics at the dinner table. It was Mark, five years younger than Ted, who would interject, "Do we have to keep talking about this stuff?"
So, "when Mark decided to run for City Council, I said, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'" Mark reminded Ted that their father was happiest when he was a politician before he became a judge. "I'd like to try it and give it a shot."
It's something both sons independently recall. Their grandfather pushed their father to be a judge. It was a decision both sons feel their father regretted because it took him out of politics. The result, Mark says, is their father led an "inauthentic" life.
DeSaulnier's decision to run for City Council came at a big price. Between politics, the restaurant and marathon training he had started in 1987 -- including jogs of 10 miles a day and a weekly 30-mile run to the top of Mount Diablo and back -- he had little time for the rest of his life.
His wife began to realize that she would always be competing for his time, he says. "I like living this way. It's hard on my personal life."
Both personally and professionally, DeSaulnier says, he is independent. "They do say your greatest strength is your greatest weakness."
In 1992, for his 40th birthday, he and his wife went to Italy. He had just been elected to the City Council. The restaurant was doing well. They had money in the bank. The loans they had taken out to buy out their partners had been paid off.
They stayed at nice places in Italy. DeSaulnier thought life was good. But, in hindsight, he says, "the whole trip was weird." They came back and a couple of weeks later she broke the news.
"She said, 'I want a divorce. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to go to therapy. I just want to do it.'"
She moved to Idaho, took the children with her and remarried. He and Clune have remained friends, but, he says, the separation from his sons has been tough.
While his younger son, Tucker, 13, lives in Idaho most of the year, his oldest, Tristan, 16, came back about 2¿1/2 years ago to stay with his dad and attend high school here. He's about the same age that DeSaulnier was when his parents divorced.
DeSaulnier remembers his parents' divorce well. "It certainly made my divorce painful when it happened because I didn't want my kids to go through that," he says.
He recognizes he has not always been a stellar father. "I've always been very close to my kids. I wanted to be a good parent. But at the same time I was running around doing these other things."
And then there's the comparison with the judge that haunts him at every major turn in his life.
"I think I have been a really good parent. I'm very close to both of my kids. I've certainly been there for them much more than my father was."
Happiness on a mountain
Since his divorce, DeSaulnier says, he's spent more time trying to analyze and understand his life.
He's heavily influenced by what he reads. Conversations with DeSaulnier are frequently laced with references to French writer Albert Camus, German novelist Hermann Hesse, mythologist Joseph Campbell or the Bible.
The "self-contained" bartender of two decades ago credits politics with helping him become more social and open about his life. But at his core, he's still a man of solitude.
"That's why I like running," he says. "One of the places I'm happiest is when I'm out on the mountain."
Although he gave up marathons after his 20th, DeSaulnier still runs about four times a week for a minimum of seven miles. It's a time on Mount Diablo for meditative thought. Before heading out, he says, he takes a few minutes in his den to read Camus or the Bible, something to ponder while he's out.
"He's more introspective than most of us," says his sister, Susan DeSaulnier, a New Jersey real estate agent who is the senior sibling and seven years older than him. "He doesn't strike me as the typical politician."
'I'm in the wrong party'
These days, DeSaulnier also ponders his political future.
At this point, it should come as no surprise that a major reason DeSaulnier is a Republican is that his father was. The other reason, he says, is that he was a history major in college who admired Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
But, to DeSaulnier, the GOP is no longer the party of Roosevelt fighting for the little guy. Roosevelt, he says, "made a big point about caring about working people, and I don't see a lot of that, certainly from the Republican Party."
And he doesn't see the GOP as the party of Lincoln trying to unite a divided nation. Instead, he sees his party becoming more dogmatic with anti-abortion litmus tests and other divisive issues.
Even Pete Wilson, the governor who appointed him in 1994 to a vacancy on the county Board of Supervisors and gave him in 1998 his plum appointment to the California Air Resources Board, has made DeSaulnier leery of his own party.
Wilson-backed Propositions 187 (immigration), 209 (affirmative action) and 226 (union dues) made DeSaulnier consider jumping to the Democrats.
"My personal disagreement with all three of those was enough for me to say, all loyalty aside, I'm in the wrong party," he says. "Pete Wilson had the opportunity to do for the Republican Party in California what Clinton has done (for Democrats), move it to the middle. But then he keeps tacking back to the right. That was a disappointment to me."
DeSaulnier recognizes he's at a major crossroads in his political career. He's approaching 50. His hair is much grayer than when he entered politics. He figures he must soon decide whether to be content in nonpartisan local office or make a push for the Legislature or Congress, where party labels are critical.
He likes being the big fish in the local pond. He still has big items on his agenda.
He wants to set up a nonprofit group that would meld public and private resources to fund programs that help youths stay out of trouble and repair themselves if they have taken a wrong turn.
He wants to help lead development of a regional growth plan for the Bay Area.
And he wants to build incentives into county government that will make it run more efficiently -- like private business.
Search for answers
DeSaulnier's journey is entering a new phase. As time passes, he says, he leads his political life less to atone for the sins of his father and more for his love of public policy.
"The ultimate redemption," he says, "is to lead your own authentic life." And, while DeSaulnier says he hasn't reached that pure state, he is closer to it.
He sits on his living room couch looking out toward the pool in the back yard of the tract home he and his wife moved into on the day Tucker was born in 1985. It's the house that his girlfriend has told him he should sell so he can put that phase of his life behind him. But he resists. He wants to stay here while the boys are still growing up so they can have a sense of stability.
At the same time, DeSaulnier contemplates political change, life beyond county supervisor. But there are so many practical considerations. Right now, between running the restaurant -- where he still often greets lunch-time customers and clears the tables -- and having his oldest son living with him, local politics is more practical for his life.
He wonders aloud if he could be happy as one of 120 state legislators rather than one of five county supervisors. And how could he get elected to higher office?
He lives in a heavily Democratic Assembly district, one currently represented by Tom Torlakson of Antioch. As Torlakson ponders a run for state Senate in 2000, DeSaulnier considers whether to try to succeed him. That option doesn't seem likely. It's too late to re-register as a Democrat for that race and winning the seat as a Republican would be nearly impossible.
He could move slightly south into the adjoining Republican district now represented by Lynne Leach of Walnut Creek and run for her seat when she is forced out by term limits in 2002. Of course, moving might not even be necessary if reapportionment puts him in her district.
But the bigger question for DeSaulnier is whether he has a home with Republicans anymore.
"What I'm looking for is an indication that the Republican Party is going to come back to the middle," he says.
If he doesn't see the move to the middle, he says, he will probably re-register as a Democrat. "There's more tolerance in the Democratic Party," he says. "There's no tolerance in the Republican Party."
Whatever path he takes, it's clear that DeSaulnier has proved to himself that he can do what his alcohol- and gambling-addicted father couldn't: Be an honest public official.
"In the end," says his brother Ted, "he's doing a lot of things that my dad wasn't able to do because of the disease he had. I see Mark being motivated to follow his own journey."