Recalling Leo’s Legacy

Last week marked the passing of our Center’s founder, Lt. Governor Leo T. McCarthy, 14 years ago. As a progressive advocate for the common good,  he inspired those around him—like his former Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, Steve Hopcraft. Read on for Hopcraft’s reflection on Leo’s legacy. 

I’m the sixth child of an Irish Catholic mother, herself one of ten children. She grew up in a convent school. Three of her sisters became nuns. I was raised to believe in social justice, became altar boy to the Rhode Island bishop who resigned protesting the church’s failure to oppose the Vietnam War. I fought racism, war, and sexism during my high school and college years. I came to California in 1973, helped lead a two-year Berkeley tenants’ union rent strike, and spent two more working with Cesar Chavez’s UFW on the first union elections for farmworkers, boycotts and a statewide referendum that followed. The UFW “fired” three hundred of us “volunteer staff” in 1977, and I came to Sacramento as the lobbyist for the state’s renters and worked to pass rent controls and tenant protections that remain in California’s largest cities. By 1982, exhausted with “outside” efforts for change, I looked to move “inside” for a little more stability. Leo McCarthy had carried our bill to outlaw discrimination against renters with children, and that’s how I came to join his campaign for lieutenant governor and later, his staff.

Leo drew to him bright people who were up to a challenge and wanted to make a difference.  I chose Leo because of his commitment to help the less fortunate, his intelligence, integrity and personal magnetism. Leo radiated purpose; he was on a mission and wanted partners.  Leo showed that good policy could also be good politics. Leo was a tough, shrewd politician, but he knew when to fight and when to move on. Why he chose me is a mystery, but I was used to working cheap!

Leo spurred you to do better. Dissatisfied with anything but the most effective and current arguments, methods and evidence, he inspired because you didn’t want to disappoint him. He was always engaged, intense and personal. What you thought was your best, was less than he thought you could do. I left Leo in 1989, and spent 25 years working to raise the minimum wage, legalize medical marijuana and advance death with dignity, among other efforts.

Your legacy includes your impact on those around you. He taught us all, and his lessons inspired us. Leo’s legacy includes a legion of people who went on to implement the lessons learned. While Nancy Pelosi is the most shining example, Art Agnos, and dozens of others “graduated” from Leo’s staff. What’s your Leo story?



Steven Hopcraft was the press secretary to Lieutenant Governor McCarthy working with the statewide media on issues and elections, including the 1988 presidential race where Steve served as the California Press Secretary during the presidential and senatorial elections. Following the 1988 election, Steve founded Stephen K. Hopcraft Communications Consulting serving nonprofit and public interest organizations.

Leo T. McCarthy Center • February 10, 2021

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