Nicholas C. Petris, who was a leading liberal voice for nearly four decades as a California state senator and assemblyman representing his hometown of Oakland and other East Bay cities, has died. He was 90.
Petris, who retired in 1996 because of term limits, died Wednesday at the Oakland retirement facility where he had lived in recent years, his former chief of staff, Felice Zensius, said. The cause was old age, she said.
A Greek American known for his eloquence from the floor of the state Senate, Petris championed a host of liberal causes during his career, offering legislation on behalf of the poor, the sick and the elderly. A Democrat, he also wrote laws that increased environmental protections and expanded the rights of farmworkers and tenants.
"He was the last of the real giants of the old Senate," former state Sen. John Burton, now chairman of the California Democratic Party, said Thursday. "He never compromised his principles and was true in what he believed — a real intellectual liberal."
Legislation that bears Petris' name, the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, bars the involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals of most people with mental illness. He also wrote laws that required redevelopment agencies to build housing for low- and moderate-income residents, and prohibited smoking on airplanes, trains and buses in the state.
As an assemblyman, he was also the co-author of legislation that was credited with saving San Francisco Bay from overdevelopment.
"He felt that government was for people who needed help, that the wealthy are good on their own," said Zensius, who worked for Petris for 25 years, the last 10 as his chief of staff. "So when crowds of lobbyists came to our office, it was people advocating for the mentally ill, the farmworkers, the elderly. That's what he cared about."
He was sometimes controversial. In the late 1960s, he introduced a bill calling for elimination of the internal combustion engine, sparking outrage in the auto industry. The bill failed, but Petris' efforts were credited with leading to stricter controls on air pollution in California.
Nicholas Christos Petris was born in Oakland on Feb. 25, 1923, the son of Chris and Mary Petris, who were both Greek immigrants. He spoke mainly Greek until he started school.
He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and a law degree from Stanford University. He served with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, then worked as a lawyer before he was elected to the Assembly in 1959 and to the state Senate in 1967.
Petris was known for his oratory and for peppering his Senate speeches with quotations from Greek philosophers and politicians. "For Christ's sake, Nicky, you're doing Pericles," Burton said he would tease Petris, a reference to the great statesman of ancient Athens.
In 1991, Petris was among the many who lost their homes in the Oakland Hills to a devastating wildfire that destroyed more than 2,700 residences. The blaze also claimed his beloved personal library, filled with volumes of Greek philosophy, Greek history and English literature.
Soon after, his colleagues in the Senate lined up and one by one presented him with books to help fill the bookshelves in his new library. "I was in tears the whole time," he told the Modesto Bee several years later.
Anna Vlahos Petris, his wife of 60 years, died in 2010. Survivors include his brother Gus.