So alike—and so different

State Senate candidates Keene and LaMalfa share core conservative values but have vastly different approaches

Rick Keene (left) and Doug LaMalfa.

Rick Keene (left) and Doug LaMalfa.

Photos By Evan Tuchinsky

Rick Keene and Doug LaMalfa have long been on parallel courses seemingly destined to intersect. Republicans from neighboring communities in Butte County, they were elected to the California Assembly in 2002 and handily re-elected twice more. They left the Legislature in 2008, due to mandated term limits, setting the stage for the 2010 primary for the seat of termed-out state Sen. Sam Aanestad. It’s a heavily Republican district, so whoever wins this primary is almost certain to win in November’s general election.

Both men are self-proclaimed conservatives who tend to fall on the same side of most issues: taxation, government spending, regulations on businesses, global warming, immigration, same-sex marriage, water. Superficially, at least, they would appear to be simpatico spirits.

Scratch just a millimeter beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find that some divisions run deep. While the candidates have been mostly civil (even if biting their tongues to remain that way), their supporters have unleashed a torrent of attacks in letters published in local papers and posts on political blogs such as and

LaMalfa has been criticized for accepting subsidies at his rice farm, for his former chief of staff, and for campaign donations he made as well as received. Keene, meanwhile, has been taken to the mat for his occupation (lawyer, lobbyist or business owner?) as well as his votes on state budgets and an immigration bill he proposed that’s characterized by detractors as offering amnesty. Dueling endorsement news also has been a hot topic.

In separate interviews with the CN&R, Keene and LaMalfa each said he wants to win the Senate seat for himself and not to deny the other. Still, LaMalfa observed, their electoral collision has been “a long time coming.”

“The sides started lining up in 2005,” he continued. “I noticed him poaching over my Assembly district, and after the third time, I thought, ‘OK, I guess it’s 2010’—which doesn’t really help with collegiality and starting to work together down there [in Sacramento]. So there you are.”

Keene, for his part, says he didn’t decide until a few years after that to run for Aanestad’s spot. “I don’t need to win it so Doug doesn’t win it,” he said. “It’s not disparaging Doug; I have nothing bad to say about him. I just think our approach is different.”

Keene headed to Sacramento after eight years on the Chico City Council, where he also served as mayor. Less than a year into his first Assembly term, he became assistant Republican leader. GOP legislators also gave him leadership roles on committees such as Budget, Utilities and Commerce, Natural Resources and Joint Legislative Audit.

Among the accomplishments he touts are “reducing workers’ compensation costs” through legislation he helped craft; “a series of efficiency hearings with Darrell Steinberg,” a Democratic leader, that “cut ongoing expenses $250 million a year”; and, “working across the aisle, fixing levees in Marysville—100-year protection for the first time.”

For his Senate campaign, he’s promoting “Six Ideas That Republicans Can Be For”—inspired by the “Contract With America” forwarded by congressional Republicans in the 1990s. He calls for emphasizing the roles of charter schools and vocational training in public education; increasing energy production and water storage; pushing for “defensible forests”; and, in the realm of political reform, limiting the scope of action for new legislators and the amount of legislation overall.

“Republicans on my side of the aisle have been trying to vote against policies I think they should be voting against,” Keene said, “but limit their political activities to that. I don’t think we’re going to go forward as a state unless we [Republicans] get proactive in our solutions—of course, consistent with our conservative view of the world …. Otherwise, we are characterized as ‘the party of no.’

“If we want to convince people that we need to change direction, you can’t just leave them with the Hobson’s choice of no ideas versus bad ideas; you have to present your alternatives.”

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LaMalfa, not surprisingly, has a different take on the job. “Much of what we do [as elected representatives] is customer service,” he said. “The pendulum doesn’t swing much in Sacramento. One legislator saying he or she will change a lot is unrealistic.

“I’m going to take my turn at the broad things that are good for Northern California: water, resources, jobs and infrastructure. There’s nothing new there. My ideas I draw from my own knowledge and experience, but I want the knowledge and experience of people in this district.”

LaMalfa comes from a farm family in Richvale. He got his college degree in agricultural business, and the rice operation he manages will mark its 80th anniversary next year. He’s received endorsements from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association for his stance on balanced budgets, and he also is pushing for better water storage and electricity generation.

Among his ideas: combination nuclear power and water desalination plants near coastal population centers. “If we’re helping to make sure that urban folks get what they need in electricity and water supply,” he said, “that takes pressure off us [in the North State]. It’s an out-of-the-box idea, though, controversial probably, not easy.”

He takes a similar local focus on the state budget, which he called “such a vortex, a black hole, that everything is being sucked into and is stopping everything we want to do .… Our rural areas are more affected by little chops—a little whack is a big percentage of what they do, but it’s a tiny drop in the state budget.

“Fighting for rural California is a unique argument we have in Sacramento. I have been pretty successful in the past … fighting for a broad spectrum of issues for small communities.”

Answering all the charges and countercharges in this race would take pages. Rather than address them all, the CN&R selected a few for the candidates’ response.

• Keene on his occupation: “Out of the last eight years, I’ve practiced law a total of six months and I’ve been a lobbyist none of that time,” he said. For the first seven months of 2009, he worked for a Sacramento law firm that “has a lobbyist—he’s one lawyer out of 30. My job was to assist other lawyers and recruit new clients.” After that, he said, he opened a consulting business (thus the title of “business owner”), advising a few clients on land-use matters, but to support his family “I’ve been spending my retirement—what’s left in my 401(k) is being depleted monthly.”

• LaMalfa on accepting millions in farm subsidies while challenging government spending: “Rice, wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton—in any of these staple commodities, you’re competing in a global pricing system against countries that have no controls … and subsidize exponentially more per unit of production. The world price ends up being below the cost of what it takes to produce it in this country.

“If you want it grown here, the farm program keeps the cost of food stable and grown domestically. If you want it to disappear, fine—if you love imported oil, you’ll love imported food.”

• Keene on Congressman Wally Herger’s endorsing LaMalfa: “They have the same political consultant, and I know in other regions Doug’s consultant gets their candidates to cross-endorse. It doesn’t bother me—he [Herger] has to make his choice like anybody else.”

• LaMalfa on continued association with David Reade, now employed by Assemblyman Jim Nielsen: “He’s Jim’s chief of staff, and I don’t intend to raid him from that position.”

The last, of course, assumes LaMalfa beats Keene on June 8. Both plan to campaign right up to the election, deflecting whatever comes at them. Stay tuned.