Party drama

Primary election exposes rifts in the local and statewide GOP

Mike Zuccolillo, chairman of the Butte County Republican Party, says the primary election got ugly.

Mike Zuccolillo, chairman of the Butte County Republican Party, says the primary election got ugly.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Election winners
Butte County Republican Central Committee seats go to:
District 2 (Chico)—Laura Page, Loretta Torres, Laurie Maloney
District 4 (south county)—Sherry Smith, Barbara Rice, Joan Townsend, Jacqueline Lincoln
District 5 (Ridge)—Steve Crowder, Dan Wentland, Darrel Wilson, Barbara Coffman, Mike Zuccolillo

Mike Zuccolillo has held the chairmanship of the Butte County Republican Party for the past four years. That role has taken him to state GOP conventions, where he has aligned the Butte GOP with hard conservative counties.

Public voting decides who sits on parties’ central committees, and Zuccolillo, a Paradise-based real estate agent and former planning commissioner, faced re-election in the June 7 primary. District 5—matching the county supervisorial district on and around the Ridge—had five seats up for grabs. District 2 (Chico, three seats) and District 4 (south county, four) also had central committee votes.

Normally these down-ticket races are low-profile. This was no ordinary election.

The campaign of Congressman Doug LaMalfa, amid a hard-scrabble fight with Chico challenger Joe Montes, waded into the county party challenge. So did Spirit of Democracy California, the political action committee chaired by Palo Alto multimillionaire Charles Munger Jr. The super PAC sent out a District 5 voter guide aiming to “rebuild the GOP” without the current county chair. One Munger mailer fused both elements by featuring LaMalfa’s photo and a quote attributed to LaMalfa endorsing the District 5 slate.

“It took me for a shocker that it went to that extent; to see people campaigning for central committee,” Zuccolillo said Monday (June 13) at his realty office. “We’re usually begging for people to be on there. It’s all volunteers; nobody gets paid. People are there because they believe in the cause.

“Why make an issue out of it?”

Zuccolillo happened to be at the epicenter of two rifts: LaMalfa’s camp versus Montes’, and the statewide ideological battle amplified by Munger’s investment in local elections. He did not campaign and just managed to retain his seat, finishing fifth by fewer than 200 votes. He edged out Ron Jones, husband of Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, and one of the voter guide selections.

Meanwhile, Steve Thompson, a former county GOP chairman who worked on Montes’ campaign, lost his seat in District 4.

Zuccolillo acknowledged division among local Republicans in the wake of the election.

“This happened before: When I became chair, this whole group of people who never attended a central committee meeting came in trying to take things over,” Zuccolillo said. “They came for a couple meetings, and they left.

“I hope there’s harmony and we’ll unite. This election got uglier than most. I guess time will tell.”

LaMalfa, speaking by phone from Washington, also recognized the post-primary divide but expressed confidence in his home-county party.

“Locally, this is nothing new—you have some campaigns that have a higher level of strife than others,” LaMalfa said. “What I’m more concerned about is the larger unity we need as a party for the presidential [election]; we need to get people on board and be strong in what we need to do this fall.

“This race was not atypical; it probably was milder than some I’ve been through in the past.”

The local Republicans’ split, simmering since winter, became public last month with a series of campaign ads—not as much those from Munger’s super PAC, but rather from the LaMalfa campaign and the Montes effort, which also included a super PAC.

As covered in the CN&R (“Shots fired,” May 26, Newslines), Montes went after LaMalfa’s record; LaMalfa, feeling his challenger mischaracterized his voting record, struck back with an attack on Montes’ personal and professional history.

Encampment is nothing new. Chico Republicans had their loyalties tested when LaMalfa and former Mayor Rick Keene, both state assemblymen, squared off in the 2010 primary for state senator.

“This is a little different: a candidate coming out of nowhere to try and knock me off, coming right out of the chute with negative campaigning from almost the day he announced,” LaMalfa said of Montes. “It put a different kind of twist on this one….”

The undercurrent trickled into the county GOP’s annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner, Feb. 19, for which both LaMalfa and Montes received invitations to address the crowd. Zuccolillo said he got blowback from the congressman’s campaign.

“Every year we let candidates speak,” he said, “and traditionally it’s everyone from assembly level up. It’s never been a problem before.”

LaMalfa said the concern was tone: the prospect that he’d talk, then get bashed by both Montes and radio personality Lars Larson, the event’s special guest, who’d endorsed Montes—the only challenger who got to speak.

“Typically at these dinners, you have the elected Republicans who do the speaking,” LaMalfa added. “If you wanted to start a candidate forum, you wouldn’t have much of an orderly dinner. Mr. Zuccolillo’s neutrality in this is highly in question, because … he endorsed the other gentleman and gave him the maximum amount of money [$2,700].”

The central committee did not issue endorsements, but Zuccolillo posted his own “Butte County Republican Party Chairman’s Voter Guide”—which included Montes—on the Butte GOP’s Facebook page.

As for the central committee, LaMalfa said his campaign got involved because “changes need to be made to have this be a more vibrant county party and more attractive to people. Some people who have wished to become involved come to a meeting or two are sometimes are turned off by the [intra]party squabbling.”

Zuccolillo says the county party has been effective, pointing to the conservative shift of the Chico City Council as a prime example. In any case, he expects divorced Republicans to reconcile within a few months, after primary wounds heal.

On that, he and LaMalfa concur.

“Regular voters don’t really care [about internal workings],” LaMalfa said. “They just want an effective party and candidates they can get behind.”