SACRAMENTO (AP) — State senators on Thursday recalled former legislator Nicholas Petris as a monumental figure in California politics who championed some of the state's most enduring policies during nearly four decades in the Legislature.
Term limits forced Petris to retire in 1996 after 37 years in the state Assembly and Senate. The Democratic lawmaker from the eastern San Francisco Bay Area died Wednesday at the age of 90 at an Oakland nursing home.
Among his legislative achievements was the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967, which prohibited the involuntary commitment of most people with mental health problems. He also pushed legislation requiring infants to ride in car seats, mandating immunizations for preschoolers and banning smoking in trains, planes and buses.
Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, called Petris a role model who exemplified public service at its "very, very best" because he pushed big ideas that helped shape California's modern history.
"For me, Nick was one of those people who show why term limits was a bad idea," she told her colleagues on the Senate floor.
The son of Greek immigrants, Petris grew up in Oakland and served during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services, the military's intelligence-gathering arm. He was elected to the Assembly in 1959, a decade after graduating from Stanford Law School, and served eight years before winning a Senate seat.
Bills promoting environmental protection were among his legislative hallmarks. He helped establish the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to preserve habitat around San Francisco Bay and once proposed banning the internal combustion engine. That effort failed but is credited with contributing to state laws requiring cleaner-burning fuels and stringent air pollution standards.
Lawmakers in the Senate said Petris also was a gifted orator, who often cited Greek history and literature during his speeches on the floors of the Legislature. His home burned during the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, destroying his extensive personal library.
Sen. Jim Nielsen served with Petris in the Senate before voters enacted term limits. He said the two often were philosophically opposed — Nielsen is a Republican from a rural area in far Northern California while Petris was a Bay Area liberal.
Nevertheless, Nielsen said his former colleague earned great respect from all lawmakers, calling him a "gentleman and a problem-solver" who was one of the Legislature's greatest speakers.
"Nick would always light up this room with the eloquence of his debate," said Nielsen, who now sits at Petris' old desk in the Senate chamber.