Hard(line) opening

Chico GOP’s office-warming party reinforces protesters’ comparisons to Trump, down to the ejection of media

In the courtyard adjoining the GOP’s Chico campaign center, Assemblyman Jim Gallagher is interviewed by TV news while U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (second from left) and state Sen. Jim Nielsen (second from right) mingle with constituents.

In the courtyard adjoining the GOP’s Chico campaign center, Assemblyman Jim Gallagher is interviewed by TV news while U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (second from left) and state Sen. Jim Nielsen (second from right) mingle with constituents.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

When local GOP organizers set last Saturday (Aug. 20) for the grand opening of their regional campaign headquarters in Chico, Democratic Party organizer Bob Mulholland leaped into action. He organized a protest—rallying his base by, among other things, dispatching a mailer from the Chico Democrats connecting Chico Vice Mayor Sean Morgan (up for re-election) with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Saturday morning at 1058 Mangrove Ave.—what supporters call the North State Republican Victory HQ and opponents brand the Trump/Sean Morgan Campaign Office—this distinction of Trump or not-Trump proved a defining characteristic.

Mulholland may have imposed the narrative from the outside, but actions of organizers and reactions by local Republicans suggest a party that’s maybe not, contrary to what state Sen. Jim Nielsen told the audience, “going to unify.”

Indeed, Nielsen made his impassioned declaration—continuing, “Today is the day all Republicans are welcome, all Butte County folks are welcome, even Bernie folks are welcome!”—right before an incident that undercut his message: this reporter getting kicked out.

From 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., when speeches began inside, around a dozen protesters and 220 event attendees had occupied the same general vicinity. With protesters relegated to the perimeter, the building buffered the partisan groups. Organizers insisted anyone they identified as a protester would face removal from the premises (private property), so protesters were restricted to the sidewalk (public property).

Mulholland remained streetside but engaged in a debate with Jack Breuker, North State regional policy director for the GOP. Breuker recorded their entire exchange with a video camera; Mulholland pulled out his smartphone and recorded himself getting recorded.

When Breuker insisted that the center was established for regional races, as opposed to being a presidential satellite, Mulholland exclaimed: “Not for Trump? What kind of Republican headquarters is this? Stand up for your candidate!”

Actually, the center did, with Trump/Pence campaign signs for the taking and a cut-out of Trump in the main room.

Plus, evoking the tone of Trump rallies, organizers offered limited access to media at an event to which they’d invited the public, then ushered out a reporter whom a Republican had asked into the building.

The point person for Saturday’s event, Saulo Londono, welcomed print media (the CN&R) and broadcast media (KRCR Channel 7) into the office complex’s courtyard, located off the backside parking lot. However, only the TV crew gained access to the room holding the reception—and just for a few early speeches to capture atmospheric shots (known as “B roll”). Londono declined this reporter’s earlier request to enter, even for a quick photo, saying the camera could make people in the room feel uncomfortable.

Before the program began, Paula McLay, a member of Chico Republican Women Federated, invited this reporter just inside the building to shoot a photo of her organization’s table, which was manned by Stephanie Taber, CRWF president. The table was close enough to the reception area to hear the speakers.

Chico City Councilwoman Reanette Fillmer explained how much the GOP campaign center had meant to her election effort in 2014. Assemblyman Jim Gallagher repeated many of the same comments he made in a CN&R interview 20 minutes earlier, encapsulated by his remark that “we need a new course and Republicans have it, so the next generation gets the California we all love and can benefit from.”

Partway through Nielsen’s speech—after his rousing cry for unity, on behalf of North State GOP representatives in Sacramento and D.C.—one of the organizers escorting out the camera crew asked this reporter to leave the room.

McLay, visibly upset, followed through the door. Londono came right after, providing an explanation that did not satisfy McLay—that the speeches weren’t open to media coverage. He had not stated so earlier. McLay said she could not understand why they would be private; Republicans should want their message to get out.

Chico Democrats, including Mike Hawkins (left), mount a protest at the North State Republican Victory HQ, which they’ve rebranded the Trump/Sean Morgan Campaign Office.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

The door opened again, and Taber approached Londono.

“If he’s not welcome, I’m not welcome,” Taber said. She turned and departed.

Around the same time, 12:30 p.m., organizers mounted a counterprotest to Mulholland’s. Five young adults emerged with handmade signs. The face-off lasted less than five minutes, ending when the cameras had their shots. Mulholland expressed to the group, which included Breuker, that he was pleased by the attention.

Other Chico Democrats also had drawn attention. One driver razzing the protesters, too preoccupied to notice the pickup in front had stopped mid-block for pedestrians, wound up in a fender-bender. Mike Hawkins, a longtime Democratic Party activist, estimated a 50-50 split between friendly and unfriendly responses.

“Exciting times,” said Jean McGrath, a fellow protester.

The grand opening drew a who’s-who of North State conservative politicians: U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, Nielsen, Gallagher, Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl, Morgan, Fillmer, Paradise Town Councilman Woody Culleton and Oroville City Councilman Dave Pittman. Also in attendance were several lesser-known general election candidates, including Dr. Eugene Cleek (Congressional District 3), Loretta Torres and Jovanni Tricerri (Chico City Council), Mike Zuccolillo (Paradise Town Council) and Mike Greer (Paradise school board).

The regional campaign apparatus covers Butte and surrounding counties, with Chico as the epicenter. While organizers may have rebuffed the Trump label, nearly every candidate interviewed at the event—those whom the operation will benefit—expressed support for the GOP candidate.

LaMalfa, the District 1 Congressman: “As Republicans, as conservatives, as patriots … we’re all kind of interlocked together on this, so I’m interested in Sean Morgan getting re-elected, I’m interested in Donald Trump getting elected.”

Cleek, the Enloe-based surgeon running to unseat John Garamendi: “I am voting for Donald Trump. Do I agree with everything? No … but he needs to be the president, not Hillary Clinton.”

Gallagher, the District 3 Assemblyman: “I think [the protesters out front] want to take the focus off their own candidate … if they want to do something, talk about what she’s done, what she’s going to do, and can we believe her, can we trust her?”

Zuccolillo, the Butte County GOP chairman: “[Trump is] not afraid to speak his mind…. I’ve always been somebody who’s outspoken, not afraid to speak my mind, and I think people find that view refreshing.”

Only Morgan backed away from the Trump association.

“I think it’s funny,” he said around 1:15 p.m., after both assemblages had dispersed. “I guess if I’m the people protesting this, I gotta go, ‘OK … we can’t attack his record, so let’s throw him in with this guy [Trump].’

“I’ll be honest with you: What’s happening nationally is irrelevant to my race.”

Morgan said he also is running independently of the two other council candidates who attended the event. Yet, if the GOP embraces those other two conservatives, all three will benefit from the collective campaign resources. In that way, Morgan agreed, the GOP is connecting candidates up and down the ticket—if not promoting regional unification, then integration.

“I think that’s absolutely a great word [integration],” Morgan said, adding: “If we march together, things are better.”