Though he spent the first three weeks of his life in Drake, North Dakota, where he was born while his mother was visiting her parents, Ross Johnson proved himself a true native son by devoting his life to serving California as a public servant.
Johnson was a long-time California State Legislator and the first person ever to serve as a party leader in both houses of the legislature. He most recently served as chairperson of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
A true “local boy makes good,” Johnson’s interest in politics started during his childhood. His Dad, a Texan, was a lifelong Democrat and his North Dakota mother was a lifelong Republican. He watched his parents support two different parties, while also witnessing the democratic process unfold on a 10-inch black & white TV in his family’s Anaheim home. He watched in fascination the 1948 Truman vs. Dewey campaign and the 1952 political conventions. He remembers his first political act was riding his bike to the Republican Party office in Anaheim and paying 50 cents for an “I Like Ike” button.
He graduated from Katella Elementary School and then attended Anaheim High, where he further developed his interest in history and politics. His younger brother Cliff also attended AHS. A Class of ’59 grad, Cliff went on the serve as a Kern County deputy district attorney. He sisters, Marilyn and Beth, also graduated from Anaheim in ’63 and ’65, respectively.
A member of Anaheim High’s water polo and swim teams, Ross continued his sports career at Orange Coast College. He transferred to Orange County State College, becoming one of the first students to study at what is now California State University of Fullerton, earning a bachelor’s degree in history.
Throughout this time, starting from his high school days, Ross was employed as an iron worker. He said he remembers always having the thought in the back of his mind that he would someday run for public office. In case his political aspirations didn’t pan out, Ross continued his construction career and also did a stint in the Navy, his goal to see the world. Serving as a hospital corpsman, Ross said the only world he got to see was the 5 freeway on drives back and forth from San Diego to Orange County.
During this time, Ross married Diane Morris. Their 42-year marriage produced two daughters, Susan and Molly. He also worked as a political staff person and continued his education at Western State University College of Law, earning a Juris Doctorate degree. He was admitted to the Bar in 1977.
The thought of running for political office moved from the back of his mind to take a front seat in the Senator’s life for the next 26 years. Ross represented Orange County in the California Legislature, serving in the State Assembly from 1978 to 1995. He was then elected to the State Senate and served from 1995 to 2004. Among his important contributions, he authored several bills to tighten campaign finance laws and provide more public disclosure of campaign contributions and in, 1988, authored the first ballot proposition approved by California voters to impose limits on campaign contributions.
Ross was a major moving force behind creation of California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. He led the campaign to deny confirmation to Supreme Court Justices Rose Bird, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso.
Ross was also responsible for the creation of Chino Hills State Park – more than 10,000 acres, spanning portions of Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.
When asked why serving his community in the political arena was so important to him, Ross answered that it was a matter of conscience: “I felt that the lives of ordinary, honest citizens were being affected by government. Government was increasingly regulating people’s lives from the cradle to the grave. When my grandkids asked me what I did about it, I wanted to be able to say that I tried.”
After years as North Orange County residents, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson retired from politics and now reside in the Sacramento suburb of Gold River.