Gary K. Hart, who represented Santa Barbara and the Tri-Counties in the state Assembly and Senate, and was known for his passion for education, whip-smart knowledge of public policy, and high ethical standards in a world of political deal-making, died on Friday. He was 78. 

Gary K. Hart

Gary K. Hart

“He was the epitome of a public servant,” Jack O’Connell, former superintendent of public schools and assemblyman and senator representating Santa Barbara, told Noozhawk. “He was brilliant on policy and on politics. He knew more about what was in a piece of legislation than the author did.”

Hart served in the California Assembly from 1974 to 1982, and then was elected to the state Senate. Hart served in the Senate until 1994, representing a district that included parts of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

In the Legislature, he helped create public charter schools, establish the state solar tax credit, and increase child support payments for divorced women.

Hart was born in San Diego, but his family moved to Santa Barbara, and he graduated as a top basketball and football star.

He graduated from Stanford University, attending on a football scholarship, and earned a master’s degree from Harvard. 

O’Connell followed in him the Assembly and the Senate, and said it was almost an “impossible task.”

“The last half century, there was no one who did more for public education than he did,” O’Connell said. 

The two were friends for more than 40 years.

Beyond his political acumen, Hart was a good guy.

“He was a gentleman, a statesman,” O’Connell said. “He carried himself with not a breath of arrogance or entitlement. A first-class gentleman.”

Former California state senator and assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson recalled Hart as humble and brilliant. 

“Gary was one of a kind in the political world,” Jackson told Noozhawk. “He never wavered from his commitment to what he thought was right. He was not someoone who sought the spotlight. He was an elegant man.”

In Sacramento, Jackson recalled how the two occasionally played tennis. He appointed her to a commission that oversaw no-fault divorce law legislation. She considers him a mentor. 

“He and I talked at great length about the best way to approach the process, and how to be one’s best self in a world that didn’t necessarily reward that,” Jackson said. “He was always voted the most ethical man in Sacramento during his tenure.

She was impressed with his willingness to be flexible. Although he introduced the state’s public charter school law, he later expressed concerns about how the legislation played out and the direction it was headed.

“He was always one to question on the basis of whether things were right, not whether they were political appealing,” Jackson said.

Santa Barbara attorney Michael Cooney worked with Hart on legislation related to journalism and the free press and California’s shield law, which offers legal protection for reporters to protect their notes and content that is not published from disclosure and state review.  

“He was very supportive of free speech and the importance of newspapers and other means of transmitting the news out of state control,” Cooney said. 

The two developed a friendship from that, and they ended up playing golf together and taking trips to watch baseball spring training in Florida. 

Hart was instrumental in helping to get Cooney appointed to the state’s Teacher Credentialling Commission and Student Aid Commission. 

The two talked often as Hart was battling pancreatic cancer the past few years. 

Cooney said he will remember him as someone who was really capable of bringing different ideas together to create legislation that made sense.

“Gary, although he was always a member of the Democratic Party, rose above any definition of the party,” Cooney said. “He was really an independent thinker in terms of what was best for the public. 

Gregg Hart, second district county supervisor, knew Hart from the time he worked for assemblymember Jack O’Connell. 

“Gary Hart was an icon in Santa Barbara politics, whose public service to our community left a lasting legacy,” Hart said. “His policy leadership on education and the environment set the standard that generations of local and state legislators have followed ever since. I will miss him and know the many Santa Barbara and Ventura County residents who worked with Gary, locally and in Sacramento, are indebted to him and his family for his valuable public service.”

According to the Sacramento Bee, after leaving public office in 1994, Hart co-founded the California State University Institute for Education Reform.

In 1998, then-Gov. Gray Davis tapped him to serve as secretary of education, where he helped shepherd Davis’ education agenda through the Legislature the following year.

After retiring from politics, Hart served on boards of several organizations, including the Public Policy Institute of California, the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching, the Campaign for College Opportunity, and the Alder Graduate School of Education.

Hart, who was born Aug. 13, 1943, is survived by his wife of 52 years, Cary Hart, as well as three daughters and six grandchildren.

The family asks that contributions in Hart’s memory be made to the Sacramento County Office of Education Resiliency Scholarship Program, P.O. Box 269003, Sacramento, CA 95826.

— The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.