Bill Bird: A tribute to Senator Sam Aanestad
There are only so many special people that you run into during this game called life that you can count them with the fingers of one hand. Sam Aanestad was one of them.
I last saw Sam Aanestad about this time last year at Frank’s Pizza in Grass Valley. Although I’d spoken with my former boss on occasion, I hadn’t actually had the opportunity to see him for quite a long time. I had the good fortune of working for him in his Senate office for six years, but when his term ended in 2010, we parted ways.
Sam passed away just recently. The news came as a shock. I wasn’t expecting it. He was just 71 years old. The last time I would see him, at Frank’s Pizza, he appeared to be the picture of health.
His passing stirred many memories, including my first job interview with him after serving with Senator Rico Oller. “You’re not going to have as much fun in this office as you had with Rico,” Sam warned me sternly. He was right. I had more fun.
Sam’s political beliefs were no secret: strictly conservative and without apologies. It fit his Northern California senate district. New taxes and fees were the enemy that must be fought at all costs. “Unless,” he explained to me once, “an organization had voted to raise its own membership fees.” It was then when he allowed himself to press that rarely used “yes” button on his Senate desk.
But to describe the man as a conservative politician would be grossly unfair. Sam was far more than that. He was a family man first, speaking with pride about his children and grandchildren. He was a physician second, relating story after story from his Grass Valley practice, and at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. But, most of all, Sam Aanestad cared deeply about people.
Sam never let his care for children and families get in the way of his conservative political beliefs. I learned this one day in the stairwell of the state capitol, where I was alerted that Sam had just voted for a bill that would allow more women to receive testing for signs of cervical cancer.
That vote seemed normal to me given his medical background. Until I learned that the measure that my conservative, pro-life senator voted for provided additional funding for medical clinics to provide these screenings. Many of these clinics in Northern California are run by Planned Parenthood. These clinics offer numerous services, some of which conservative, pro-life activists detest.
Sam knew that this vote would inflame many people who had voted to put him into office. But that didn’t matter as he carefully explained to me later.
“The best way to defeat cervical cancer in women is to catch it early,” he explained. “Early detection is the key. The earlier it’s detected the better chance at survival.”
Sam never wavered from this belief, despite the thousands of phone calls that poured into his senate office from constituents outraged by his vote. He knew that his vote to provide funding for additional cervical cancer screenings would save lives. His care for children and families outweighed even his strongest of political convictions: the rights of the unborn.
It still didn’t stop the protest phone calls, which rolled in like waves on an ocean. There were some days where it seemed like that phone never stopped ringing. I would imagine there are some activists who still haven’t forgiven him for that vote.
Although I have many countless memories of Sam Aanestad, it’s this particular one that came to mind when I recently learned he was in ill health. Those problems started not long after I saw him at Frank’s. I had been kept blissfully unaware, but that was the way Sam operated.
Sam Aanestad is the only politician I ever worked for who didn’t want attention and avoided the media spotlight. His focus was always on the people around him, whether it be family, friends, former employees or his constituents.
That’s the Sam Aanestad I remember and will never forget.
Bill Bird served as the communications director for Sam Aanestad from 2005 to 2010. He lives in Citrus Heights.
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