The 45-year-old Katz has also identified strongly with the Jewish community and considers his heritage complementary to his political philosophy.
"I think that Jewish culture has shaped my sense that we are all dependent on each other, and [formed] an appreciation for society's victims, which comes from the Holocaust experience," Katz said only hours after flying home from a recent marathon bill-passing session in Sacramento.
"My concern for the environment is also grounded in my Jewish heritage, and the importance of protecting civil liberties derives from knowing what Jews all over the world have gone through," he added.
Katz's grandparents came to New York from Russia and Austria. His maternal grandfather founded an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn and both his parents were raised in Orthodox homes.
During World War II, his father was stationed in California before being shipped overseas, and like many other GIs, decided to settle in the Golden State after his army discharge.
Richard Katz was born in Los Angeles and celebrated his bar mitzvah and confirmation at Conservative synagogues. He cut his political teeth during anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in high school and in a rally to retain a popular principal about to be fired.
"That's when I had my first lesson about the media," Katz recalled. "I had a call from a TV station, saying all their people were out for lunch, but if I could keep the protest going for another hour, they'd send someone."
At San Diego State, Katz tasted the joys and frustrations of electoral battles, winning a seat as student representative, but losing the race for student-body president.
After a stint with the Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign, Katz got his first paid political job as Los Angeles aide to George Moscone during his unsuccessful bid for governor in 1973.
Moscone, who was murdered in 1978 while mayor of San Francisco, taught Katz two valuable lessons.
"I learned from him that a single person can make a difference and that it was OK to compromise for a good reason," said Katz.
Katz's law studies were cut short when "I found out that I was more interested in Moscone's campaign than in torts and the Magna Carta."
In the mid-1970s, Katz turned a hobby in graphic design into his own graphic arts business, specializing in campaign literature.
He followed this with two years with the Jewish Labor Committee, directing outreach programs to trade unions and the African American community.
Katz plunged fully into politics in 1980, winning an Assembly seat from a working- class, multiethnic district in the San Fernando Valley. After the redrawing of political maps, his district is now 62 percent Latino, 12 percent black, 8 percent Asian, and 5 percent Jewish and 13 percent non-Jewish white.
In Sacramento, the lawmaker compiled a record as a centrist Democrat, in his own words, "fiscally conservative, tough on crime and progressive on social issues." He concentrated mainly on legislation affecting transportation, the environment and education.
Katz initiated a program of each year inviting a Holocaust survivor or Righteous Gentile to Sacramento on Holocaust Memorial Day to address both houses of the legislature. He was instrumental in pushing through a bill mandating the teaching of the Holocaust and black slavery in California high schools
He also became a protege of Speaker Brown, often playing "Willie's tough guy," according to colleagues. In this role, he gained somewhat of a reputation as a tenacious and temperamental legislator, a characterization he does not altogether deny.
"I care passionately about crime victims, the disabled, and the environment," he said. "I take on issues as if I were the only one fighting for them. If that's being temperamental or emotional, so be it."
Katz said that he has not always seen eye-to-eye with Brown, but "win or lose, you knew you are going up against the best," said Katz. "It's like going one-on-one with Magic Johnson, and making an occasional point."
In Sacramento, Katz is part of the informal Jewish caucus of five or six Jewish Assembly members. Every year they get together at a seder organized by state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles).
Yet Katz sees a waning of Jewish representation, as Jewish voters spread out from their former enclaves and other ethnic groups consolidate their power bases. Meanwhile, ambitious Jewish politicians are fixing their sights on Washington, D.C., rather than Sacramento, he said.