For Jim Beall, there were no first-day jitters when he stepped foot on the Senate floor eight years ago.
“It was December of 2012 – my first day — and by the time I finished the day, I had introduced, I think, three bills,” Beall said.
And after a distinguished four decades in public office in Silicon Valley, Beall cast his last vote on the Senate floor — virtually — in August. It was a bittersweet end — or perhaps a new beginning — for a man who entered public life at the age of 28.
Beall served 14 years on the San Jose City Council, 12 years on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and six years in the state Assembly before being elected to the state Senate. And the longtime political fixture has left a lasting mark on Sacramento — spearheading transformational legislation on housing, transportation and mental health.
“I’m sure I’ll miss fighting for the good causes—I know I will,” Beall said. “I don’t back down. You have to be persistent if you’re fighting for the underdog.”
I serve, not for accolades, but to make people’s lives better. It was an honor to serve the residents of Senate District 15. As I look back on my tenure, my proudest moments are working with the very community I grew up in. My deepest gratitude to my colleagues, staff, and family pic.twitter.com/Np7x70oebc
— Senator Jim Beall (@Jimbealljr) September 1, 2020
Beall was once an underdog himself. After his childhood home in the Cambrian area of San Jose burned down, Beall — the second oldest of 10 children—was thrust into the role of providing for his family at age 14.
For the next decade, he worked jobs during and after school. In the summers, he worked on farms, harvesting fruits, vegetables and flowers. He watched other farm workers go to sleep at night in agricultural slums and in camps alongside the San Joaquin River. He saw how hard they worked and how poorly they were treated.
“It motivated me to be a champion for social justice causes and also for affordable housing,” Beall said.
He saw the overcrowded schools, destruction of open space that came with the urban sprawl and expansion of San Jose in the 60s and began studying local government, political science and urban issues at San Jose State University. Beall was quick to get to work, even then, conducting surveys on housing discrimination and helping fellow students find places to live.
His advisor was none other than longtime political scientist Terry Christensen.
“He kind of already knew what he was doing,” Christensen said. “So I wouldn’t say he took a lot of academic advice, but we bonded pretty early on on interest in local politics.”
He recalls how Beall served on the San Jose Planning Commission and helped push the idea of district elections. In the 80s, when Beall was 28 years old, he was one of the first councilmembers elected by district, rather than by citywide election.
“I remember mid-70s, meeting with him and others, about making that change,” Christensen said. “And that was all about better representation for neighborhoods, more prospects for women and minorities to get elected, lower cost campaigns.”
From local office to county and now state office, Beall has continued to be a “grassroots guy,” Christensen said.
A legacy in Sacramento
In the state Capitol, the longtime Democrat made mental health and foster care a cornerstone of his career.
Beall helped pass Assembly Bill 12, which allows young adults to remain in foster care until age 21. He authored, SB 803, which allows Medi-Cal funds to be used for peer support services for individuals struggling with mental health issues and addiction.
This year, Beall worked with San Francisco Sen. Scott Weiner to pass SB 855, which obligates insurance policies to treat mental health and substance use disorders the same as other medical conditions.
Jessica Cruz with the National Alliance on Mental Health said Beall was a voice for the voiceless.
“He’s just been instrumental throughout his whole career in making sure that families and individuals were at the forefront of any kind of mental health policy,” Cruz said. “He’s been a champion for not only NAMI and our members throughout the state of California, but for everybody who’s affected by mental health.”
In the housing arena, Beall pushed for Prop. 1, a $4 billion affordable housing bond approved by voters in Nov. 2018. With the money now exhausted, he introduced SB 795 to increase funding for housing.
“Most of the big housing bills got stalled or delayed in the last couple of weeks. And I think the state still has a problem with affordable housing, they don’t have a real plan,” Beall said. He said COVID-19 has further stagnated the legislative process.
Beall is also proud of the work he did to help secure $2 billion for the BART to San Jose Project.
One of Beall’s signature landmark transportation bills was SB 1, passed in 2017, which raises $5 billion annually for transportation improvements, including filling potholes and repairing local streets, highways, bridges and improving public transit.
“He takes a lead on big picture, statewide, high level policies, like mental health, transportation, housing, how foster kids are treated. What’s the payback there?” Christensen said. “You’re not going to get campaign contributions. You’re not even going to get many votes. It’s just what he does. It’s what he’s committed to. So at the highest level, he’s an excellent legislator.”
Beall’s last day as a senator is December 1.
As for what’s next for Beall, rumors have long swirled about a potential run for San Jose mayor. Beall shot them down.
After decades of working in politics, Beall is endorsing in local races and said he now has an even bigger mission: Sending Biden and Harris to the White House.
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.