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Remembering Don Casper, a City Official Who Saved Taxpayers Billions 

Wednesday, Aug 24 2011
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In July I received a call from Don Casper, the former chairman of the San Francisco County GOP, vice president of the Civil Service Commission, and prominent local barrister.

Good news, he said: Gov. Jerry Brown had rehired him as a state official overseeing government office buildings. Casper had been fired by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger 18 months earlier from the same obscure post for refusing to approve the selloffs of the S.F. headquarters of the California Supreme Court and the state's Public Utilities Commission.

"The state office buildings are back in safe hands," Casper told me.

In some ways, Casper played the part of the grandee. He dressed in the immaculate style of a white-shoe lawyer. He chose his words painstakingly. And during his 21 years on the Civil Service Commission, he amassed so much institutional knowledge that meetings often consisted mostly of other panelists asking his advice.

But Casper wasn't being pompous when he said California's buildings would be safer under his care. He was simply stating a fact.

Casper was the rare political player who understood that some policy questions weren't just fodder for Democrat-Republican one-upmanship. Rather, he believed there are questions of fact whose answers should set the basis for policy.

He was killed on Aug. 14 by a hit-and-run driver.

During the last year and a half of his life, Casper weighed the evidence surrounding a proposed fire-sale privatization of billions of dollars' worth of state property. The conclusions he drew earned him an extraordinary epitaph: He died a state official who'd saved California billions.

Newspaper eulogies described Casper as a man of great principle. But it took the city a while to come around to what seemed to some mere eccentricity.

During Casper's decades as a prominent local political player, his tendency to analyze issues as problems to be studied — rather than favors to be traded — led to him being branded as an odd bird, even a reprehensible turncoat. In 2000, as the chairman of the San Francisco County Republican Party, he persuaded the central committee to endorse Willie Brown — California's Mr. Democrat — in Brown's race against the more liberal-seeming Tom Ammiano. Casper argued that in a Democrat-controlled town, you play the hand you're dealt. The state GOP considered censuring the SF County party for endorsing a Democrat. Those flames didn't cool quickly: Casper was later pushed out of his chairmanship. Brown appointed him to the Civil Service Commission. And Casper settled into a public role as the don of that body, gaining citywide respect for his studious approach to helping resolve the city's labor-management conflicts. Imagine: a Republican who contributes to labor peace.

In a country threatened by madly ideological Tea Partiers willing to steer government off a cliff, Casper's sober brand of analytical politics will be missed.

If it is possible to judge people by the company they keep, Casper's close friendship with David Novogrodsky, the longtime leader of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, would be illuminating.

Why, pray tell, would a prominent local Republican turn to a union leader, of all people, for advice, friendship, and conversation? Could it be that Casper's curiosity was most piqued by perspectives he hadn't heard?

"He would call me once in a while when he was thinking about something, or I would give him a call when something came to me," says Novogrodsky. "The fact that the Republicans took a different position than he did on something didn't bother him. That was the same sort of attitude I had: If the Democrats thought something, it wasn't as if I was going to take the same position because being a Democrat was really something. I felt he was one of the few people I was really able to communicate with."

This was the kind of nonabsolutist spirit that seemed to guide Casper as he routinely telephoned me over the years with ideas for stories. Once he alerted me to a Civil Service Commission agenda item involving an African-American firefighter who accused the city of letting white officers cheat on advancement tests. Casper wasn't certain whether the complaint had merit, but he believed it was a matter of such public importance that it deserved more attention. In the end, a city inquiry cleared the senior officers, a decision with which the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association was dissatisfied. But, as always, I was impressed with Casper's judicious weighing of the facts.

I got another such call in February 2010. Casper announced he'd run across a matter concerning an obscure California state commission. It was complicated, involving difficult-to-discern points of fact, powerful politicos, and a Don Casper point of view that went against the Republican grain. In other words, Casper was in his element.

Since 1993, Casper had been a board member of an agency only a handful of people had heard of: the San Francisco State Building Authority, which oversees the financing of government buildings. It met briefly in a basement room once a year, rubber-stamping routine bond-service payments.

But that February, Casper had gotten wind that something big was happening: Gov. Schwarzenegger was quietly arranging to sell many of California's most valuable public buildings to create the illusion of balancing the budget in an election year.

By law, however, Schwarzenegger had to push the plan through regional State Building Authority panels. And Casper told me he would use his position to attempt to block the sale. I quoted Casper denouncing the deal. ("Ex-S.F. GOP Boss Seeks to Halt Sale of Supreme Court, PUC Buildings," The Snitch, 4/22/10.) Schwarzenegger swiftly fired him.

Along with fellow fired whistleblowers, Casper took Schwarzenegger's office to court and won, thus killing the governor's drive for a swift selloff. The Associated Press reported the privatization would ultimately have cost taxpayers $1.1 billion. Other media revealed political insiders benefiting from the deal.

The plan eventually moved to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, who scotched it.

Casper had won a public range war against his party's top official in a way that happened to benefit Democrats politically. But he happened to be correct on principle.

True to form, Casper was pleased with the result. "They're back in the hands of those who consider that public assets belong with the public," he said of the buildings when he called me with the news.

Casper was a committed Catholic. If he was right — as he so often was — perhaps he's in good hands now, too.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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