Mayor Steinberg remembers mental health giant, friend Rusty Selix
Rusty Selix was the co-author of the Mental Health Services Act, which now brings in $2.4 billion annually for mental health in California. He was a long-time advocate for mental health providers in California. He was a great friend to many. He died last week after a courageous battle with ALS, a cruel disease. In his last years, Rusty fought hard for a cure. I was honored to be asked by his wife, Nancy, to speak at his memorial on Friday. A great partner and friend.
The fight Rusty demonstrated confronting ALS was not a surprise to me. Neither was his belief that a breakthrough for this dreadful disease was really possible. For that’s exactly how he approached the other great cause of his life.
It is hard to remember all the details from 21 years ago when Rusty and I first met and started on our personal and professional journey.
My chief of staff at the time, Andrea Jackson, reminded me over the past few days of the details of our first meeting.
I had won my Assembly primary election in June 1998. I had this vague and very undefined idea that we should uphold the ‘promise’ Governor Reagan and the Legislature made in the 1960’s to fund a decent system of mental health care.
Rusty was the expert who everyone said, “You must talk to him.”
We met at a great salad place across the street from City Hall called Cafe Soleil. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad. Andrea was with us and cracked me up when she recounted the following:
”When I first met Rusty with you prior to your election, I thought, ‘Wow two wonky guys in ill-fitting suits....wait, isn’t he from the Selix tuxedo folks?’”
Her recalling the quality of our suits jogged my own memory. I remember that Rusty and
I connected immediately. I remember his intensity. I remember his incredible knowledge and his attention to detail. I remember him never trying to dampen my own enthusiasm. I remember he knew much more than me about mental health, but never told me so.
I remember thinking, “He is a lobbyist. He is also a big dreamer and hungry to act in a big way for an important cause.
I remember knowing immediately that I wanted to hook my wagon and my own passion to him.
We were off to the races together. He literally wrote my first mental health bill, word for word. And every other mental health bill I wrote in the Assembly.
We talked often but we really did not have to. After a short while, he knew intuitively and instinctively what we needed to fulfill the promise.
I have always said and believed that the lobbyist profession is an honorable one. And lobbying for an association is complex, as the director or lobbyist works for the members.
Human nature and reality usually create a culture of avoiding risk for the lobbyist. Do no harm; improve things where you can.
Rusty was unique. He loved his members, the real providers of mental health services. But he was not afraid to lead. He convinced them to think bigger. He convinced them that their mission could be more than to protect the little they had. He turned the mental health advocacy community from understandable victims of constant budget cuts whose cause was last on the priority list to fighters demanding the resources needed to help hundreds of thousands more people in need.
Here is the real truth about Proposition 63. We raised the minimal amount of money necessary to pass a statewide ballot measure in a state of then 30-plus million people.
We never would have gotten the signatures if Rusty had not almost single-handedly convinced community non-profits with stretched budgets and ‘you want us to do what?’ skepticism about state government and big money initiatives to pony up $10,000, $25,000, and $50,000 out of their own organizations to go after billions for their cause.
They did not really know me. They knew Rusty. They had worked with him. They trusted him. They put their own reputations on the line because they trusted him that much.
And man, did he deliver.
We told Rusty when he was able to take it in; the state, the nation, and untold numbers of people have had a chance at a better life, at life itself, instead of early death, because Rusty Selix used his big brain, bigger heart, and cunning skill to lead on the unaddressed issue of our time.
Rusty was tough and relentless, and sometimes stubborn. He was also one of the most gracious and generous people I have ever known. He deflected credit every time it was righteously directed his way.
We never spent a lot of time together on fun or casual subjects. Yet I will always think of him as one of my best friends of a lifetime. He brought the deepest of meaning to my life and so many other lives.
Andrea Jackson summed it up best for me. She was a new chief of staff when I started, and like me, was new to both the Legislature and the mental health cause. Rusty didn’t care.
She told me this morning;
”Rusty loved me. Trusted me. Encouraged me. Believed in me. As a new staffer in a strange new world, it meant everything. I loved him back.”
We all love you back Rusty. We will never forget you and what you did for so many who will never know you. Thank you, dear friend.