After John Doolittle, the Placer GOP can’t quite get it together

Assembly fight, party squabbling show leadership void in Placer GOP

With former GOP Rep. John Doolittle (left) out of the picture, foothill Republicans are fighting each other. The Assembly contest between Beth Gaines (center) and John Allard (right) and five other Republicans is just one example.

With former GOP Rep. John Doolittle (left) out of the picture, foothill Republicans are fighting each other. The Assembly contest between Beth Gaines (center) and John Allard (right) and five other Republicans is just one example.

U.S. Rep. John Doolittle doesn’t live here anymore. That much is obvious from the GOP scrum to replace Assemblyman Ted Gaines, just elected to the state Senate, and the infighting among Republican loyalists in the foothills.

The Placer County Republican Party was once a tightly run ship. And the old “Doolittle machine” was hugely influential in local races, appointments and everyday affairs (see “Boss Doolittle”; SN&R Feature; July 22, 2004).

But Doolittle’s successor, U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, has a very different style.

“The general gist of it is, for a long time, Doolittle had a very good handle on the district,” said Aaron Park, former member of the Placer County Republican Central Committee. “McClintock is hands-off. He doesn’t want to involve himself in local politics.”

The result? A special election to succeed Assemblyman Ted Gaines featuring seven Republicans and one Democrat, Dennis Campanale.

The race is even more unpredictable for Republicans because of the state’s newly passed open-primary law, which will select the top two vote getters in the primary to contest the May 3 general election. It’s unlikely, but possible in a heavily Republican district like this, for two GOP candidates to face off in the general.

The front-runners are John Allard and Beth Gaines, wife of Ted, who began his a term as state senator earlier this month. Gaines succeeded state Sen. Dave Cox, who died in office last summer.

Campanale challenged Ted Gaines for the Assembly seat last year and was trounced 58 to 36 percent.

But he may benefit from the onslaught of GOP hopefuls this time around. The district leans Republican, but those votes will be splintered amid numerous hopefuls vying for that vote. Five other GOP candidates are Cheryl Bly-Chester, Rob Matthews, Bogdan Ambrozewicz, Matt Williams and Mike O’Connor.

It was very different during the Doolittle days. When Ted Gaines, then-Placer County supervisor, declared his candidacy in 2004 for the 4th Assembly District seat, state Sen. Rico Oller considered running as well.

But Oller eventually stepped aside, allowing Gaines to succeed termed-out legislator Tim Leslie. The aversion of internecine warfare between GOP candidates vying for seats was the rule rather than the exception. Multiple party insiders say Doolittle asked Oller to step aside so Gaines could run for the seat.

Doolittle backed candidates at the county and city levels, even for obscure slots on utility boards and similar small-fry public entities—the idea being to build a cadre of loyal followers from the ground up.

But Doolittle was pushed from office by the long-running Jack Abramoff scandal. After Doolittle, Placer politics resemble a freeway with everyone changing lanes at once.

“With all this infighting,” Park said, “the well-oiled John Doolittle machine would not have tolerated these.”

The squabble to replace Assemblyman Ted Gaines is new to the Republican Party in Placer County.

The 4th Assembly District consists of most of Placer and El Dorado counties, all of tiny Alpine County and a slice of northern Sacramento in Rio Linda and North Highlands.

Ryan Ronco, Placer County assistant registrar of voters, said that about 58 percent of the district’s voters are in Placer County; Ronco also said the costs of the elections to replace Gaines are $850,000 to $900,000 for each contest for Placer County alone.

Allard has served on the Roseville City Council since being appointed in 2003. He was re-elected in 2004 and 2008 against better-known Roseville candidates.

“My first priority is to make California business friendly. Until you turn the economy around, we can’t deal with the costs of infrastructure. We can’t get people back to work,” said Allard, a small-business owner.

Allard says he’s an eternal optimist regarding Gov. Jerry Brown. “His proposal to eliminate cell phones for state employees is a good start,” he said. “It beholdens Republicans to be part of the solution.”

Through her spokesperson, Beth Gaines did not respond to an interview request with SN&R; her candidacy for her husband’s seat was made official via a press release issued January 12.

“It’s clear that the voters want to be represented by a conservative who is in touch with the concerns of our district,” she said. “I know the people of this district, have a passion for them and share their concerns.”

In fact, both candidates consider themselves staunch conservatives. But there is something of a moderate-conservative split developing in the party.

Within the Placer County Republican Central Committee—which is the workhorse of the local Republican party—the hard-right contingent and moderate wing are in open war over the party’s direction and how to approach virtually every task.

For example, there’s an argument about whether to rent space to Allard for his campaign from the GOP headquarters—which would bring needed revenue, but risk the implication of an endorsement, which no candidate currently has.

And there are ongoing disputes about how the local party spends money on outside campaign consultants. The Placer GOP committee was cleared of wrongdoing by the California Fair Political Practices Commission in December 2009 after an investigation involving state Sen. Jeff Anderson and a series of back-and-forth donations between him and the committee. And there are new fights over plans to hire a consulting firm called Headquarters Partnership—which is owned by two members of the Placer Country Republican Central Committee.

As Doolittle’s once-firm grip on the region wavered under the weight of the Jack Abramoff scandal, the breaks within the local party ranks accumulated. In 2007, Gaines, citing concerns that Doolittle could not defeat Democrat Charlie Brown in 2008, announced he’d formed an exploratory committee to run for the GOP nomination for Doolittle’s congressional seat.

That resonated like a shot across the bow. Suddenly, the once-unquestioned hegemony of the Doolittle machine was being openly questioned, not by the perceived “liberal” media, but by party stalwarts instead.

Eventually, the onslaught was enough for Doolittle; in January 2008, he held a press conference announcing he would not run for re-election for the seat he’d held since 1993. Dogged by years of reporting on the Abramoff scandal, which eventually linked his former staffer, Kevin Ring, Doolittle’s once-firm grip on the 4th Congressional District and its various players evaporated.

Doolittle was named as an unindicted co-conspirator but was never charged formally in the case. He is currently working as a lobbyist for the city of Loomis.

When asked how the post-Doolittle era compares to a few years ago, committee member Spencer Short shared his thoughts.

“John had a way of bringing people together and working through issues. The central committee has had some issues that haven’t fairly been addressed,” he said. “Those issues need to be critically approached and discussed honestly.”