In the foothills, Representative John Doolittle hovers over local government and party politics with a presence that shapes government at all levels
In his big blue Ford F250, Rex Bloomfield coasted down out of the foothills, following a loaded logging truck west through the two-lane curves of Highway 193 between Newcastle and Lincoln. Bloomfield, a third-term Placer County supervisor, wore sleek-looking sunglasses, jeans and a short-sleeved dress shirt. With the truck, he easily could have been mistaken for one of the many builders and developers at work in the county. Instead, Bloomfield is a grade-school teacher in Auburn—and, as an elected leader, he belongs to a vocal minority that believes the county’s unchecked development is making Placer County an unattractive place to live.
As he wound past farms and rolling golden hills, Bloomfield continued along the highway until it flattened out on the north side of Bickford Ranch, one of the biggest and most controversial planned developments in the Sacramento suburbs.
“It’s a classic leapfrog type of development,” he said, turning off onto a dirt road next to an orchard where workers harvested peaches. He followed it to the top of Boulder Ridge, a former ranch where one of the country’s largest home builders, Miami-based Lennar Corp., has plans for 1,800 homes. “They go in the middle of the country and just put a very suburban-looking development surrounded by very bucolic farms.”
When the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the plan, Bloomfield ended up on the lonely end of the vote.
Votes like that have gotten Bloomfield in trouble in Placer County, California’s second-fastest-growing county, behind Riverside. As the most preservation-minded of five board members, Bloomfield’s environmental leanings have gotten him on the wrong side of the county’s powerful development interests and the Republican establishment.
And Bloomfield has found himself running up against the most powerful political figure in the foothills: Representative John Doolittle.
In Doolittle’s 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Rocklin Republican has risen swiftly. As Republican Conference secretary, Doolittle, 53, ranks sixth in the House leadership. He meets weekly in the Beltway with the rest of the leadership team, including Speaker Denny Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and often with President George W. Bush.
At the same time, Doolittle takes an unusual amount of interest in local politics back home. In Placer County, Doolittle’s influence on local races is unmatched. A nod from the congressman means a great deal to those lucky enough to get it, whether support comes in the form of an endorsement or a check for tens of thousands of dollars.
For years, Doolittle has worked to reshape the Placer County Board of Supervisors, but he’s also helped candidates who adhere to his conservative Republican, pro-growth values in El Dorado and Nevada counties. And most surprisingly, he’s endorsed people in low-level races usually below the radar for a political figure of national importance, backing city-council, school-board or even flood-control-district candidates. In one supervisor race in Nevada County, a mass mailing by Doolittle is credited with helping to tip an extremely close race toward a conservative challenger, ending that board’s domination by liberal supervisors.
Roseville Mayor Rocky Rockholm, for example, is a longtime friend of Doolittle’s who won his council seat four years ago with Doolittle’s endorsement.
Doolittle is a hard-right conservative, so how people judge his involvement often depends on whether their ideology matches his. The way fellow conservatives see it, he’s just showing strong leadership. But to Democrats, moderate Republicans and those who fear development is out of control in the foothills, Doolittle is a power-hungry ideologue who won’t rest until he commands every politico in his district.
Doolittle is a pro-development force at home. In addition to backing reliably pro-growth candidates, said Sierra Club Conservation Coordinator Terry Davis, “he’s always been dependable for seeking federal funds for whatever projects would facilitate growth in Placer County.” Davis, who serves on a Placer County open-space committee, said Doolittle used his clout to line up federal funds to help pay for a major road project in the Foresthill area east of Auburn that opened up new land to development.
In the current two-year election cycle, development interests contributed $69,781 to Doolittle committees, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks political fund-raising.
Republican political consultant Dave Gilliard, who first worked for Doolittle 20 years ago, said the congressman likes to support candidates who share his philosophy, including support of things like limited government and low taxes. “He feels it’s not only his right, but his duty to do that,” Gilliard said.
One GOP political consultant, who did not want to be named, said it’s uncommon how Doolittle “controls people all the way down to school board.”
Linda Hall, chairwoman of the Placer County Democrats, is one of many locals who feel Doolittle has created his own personal political fiefdom by handpicking like-minded pro-growth Republican candidates and installing them in nonpartisan local offices. “He has a stranglehold on political activity in our part of the state,” she grumbled.
Bloomfield, a Democrat turned independent, is one of those who complain about Doolittle’s suffocating domination of all things political and what that means for the county.
Bloomfield pushed preservation from the start. He first got involved with politics when a developer proposed hundreds of new homes near his house in Meadow Vista, a rural area 10 miles north of Auburn. Later, he decided to run for a Placer County supervisor seat as a “sacrificial lamb” in 1992. “I ended up winning that election. Don’t know how,” he said.
On the board, Bloomfield became a reliable vote for preservation, and he missed out on the big checks from development interests in later campaigns. By being perceived as anti-growth, the Sierra Club’s Davis said, Bloomfield got Doolittle’s attention. “Rex Bloomfield has been enemy No. 1 for Doolittle, and he’s targeted him time after time,” he said.
In 2000, when Bloomfield ran for re-election, he faced Bruce Kranz, a former county Republican Party chairman and a retired state park ranger now working as an aide to state Senator Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley. Kranz enjoyed the backing of Doolittle and the local party apparatus. He said Doolittle encouraged him to run, but didn’t recruit him, and that the two “agree on many issues,” such as private-property rights. “There’s no Doolittle machine,” Kranz said in a phone interview, in anticipation of the question even coming up.
Kranz raked in the developer money—and then mortified local preservationists by campaigning as someone who would “stand up to greedy developers,” as one campaign mailer put it. Another mailer portrayed Kranz as a preservationist and dinged Bloomfield for taking developer money.
And on election day, a Doolittle political action committee (PAC), which had collected large, unregulated sums from developers, gave Kranz an astounding $50,000. It is believed to be the largest campaign contribution in the county’s history.
It was, preservationists say, one of the most egregious examples of the powerful congressman’s interference in local elections.
But Bloomfield avoided a risky runoff election against Kranz—by just 12 votes.
Later, Bloomfield said, he bumped into Doolittle at an event at the Roseville Galleria. “I said, ‘Boy, you spent a lot of money trying to get rid of me,’ and he said, ‘We’ll just spend more next time,’ right to my face,” Bloomfield recalled.
This year, Kranz ran against Bloomfield again. Because of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reforms, Doolittle couldn’t write any more $50,000 checks, but he did appear at a Kranz fund-raiser. Kranz had better odds this time. In addition to some political missteps by Bloomfield, redistricting made the seat harder for him to keep. The district, which stretches from Auburn to Lake Tahoe and is Placer’s biggest and most rural, had taken in more conservative voters by extending its western boundary.
Kranz had a great deal of support from development interests, who coughed up almost half of what he spent to get elected. Kranz said that when the final tallies are released next month, his statements will show contributions of more than $200,000—an amount usually seen in state legislative races, not those for posts in medium-sized counties.
Though his was the most expensive supervisory campaign in Placer County history, Kranz brushed off any suggestion that he’ll be a puppet for the developers who dug deep to get him on the board. “Just because you take money from developers doesn’t mean you’re going to vote with them,” he said. “They support the candidate they feel will be with them on the issues.”
Doolittle’s meddling with local elections has gone on for years, but this year’s election could be the first time that candidates elected with his help form a three-member majority that can control the Placer County Board of Supervisors—something that worries preservationists.
In addition to Kranz’s election this year, another Doolittle ally appears poised to grab a seat on the board. Auburn City Council member Alice Dowdin, a Republican, is in a runoff this fall in which she’ll try to finish off Jim Holmes, also a Republican. Before the March election, Doolittle gave Dowdin $5,000 and paid for phone banks to call voters on behalf of both her and Kranz. In addition, Doolittle’s PAC, by then under the control of his campaign treasurer instead of Doolittle himself, gave $5,000 to both Kranz and Dowdin.
Dowdin, who finished first in the March election, said she’s not all that close to Doolittle. “The congressman and I agree on some issues, but we don’t agree on everything,” she said, noting that Doolittle supported her but didn’t appear at any of her events. “I’m more liberal on social issues.” Dowdin said she has both Republican and Democrat backers and that she supports a “balanced approach” to growth. (The Sierra Club’s Davis said Dowdin’s “votes have been consistently pro-growth.”)
Ted Gaines, who earned a second term on the Placer County board by winning outright in March, is another Doolittle ally. When he first was elected in 2000, Gaines trounced Granite Bay volunteer and preservation activist Sandy Harris, another Republican who couldn’t touch her opponent’s massive $161,000 war chest. Gaines, who did not return calls, also took $10,000 from Doolittle’s PAC.
Harris said a third candidate—whom she wouldn’t name—was scared off because he didn’t have the backing of Doolittle and local party insiders. “He was thinking about running until the last minute, and he backed out,” Harris said.
Together, Kranz, Dowdin and Gaines could control the five-member board. And in a county where politics is about growth more than any other issue, that scenario worries preservationists like Harris.
“I think we’re going to see a big change in what’s going on with this new board, in its attitude toward development,” Harris said. “We’re all a little nervous.”
Davis, of the Sierra Club, put it more bluntly. “If [Doolittle] is successful in electing this third far-right vote to the board, it’s really going to change the landscape,” he said, predicting a pro-growth body that would take cues from Doolittle.
Like Harris, Placer County Supervisor Harriet White, a Republican who steps down from the board at the end of this year after two terms, resents her party’s influence on the nonpartisan board.
When she first ran for the board in 1996, she recalled, Doolittle and Tim Leslie, then a state senator, sent out letters on behalf of her opponent, Ron Lichau, “saying what a good Republican Ron was.” That modest effort on Lichau’s behalf didn’t change the outcome. He lost.
“I talked with John about it later, and John said, ‘Oh, you know, Ron’s done a lot of work for me, and I thought I had to pay him back,’” White said.
White, who calls herself a moderate Republican, said she never sought support from Doolittle or Leslie. “Why would I want them to endorse me?” White asked tersely. “The seat is a nonpartisan seat, and the only people I care about are the people in my district.”
White faced George Williams, another Doolittle-backed opponent, in 2000. “When I ran for re-election,” she said, “Doolittle actually bought himself the candidate. He’d been looking for somebody to run against me. He put money into his campaign, as well as in-kind services, and we know from the mark on the campaign fliers and the style, that it came right from the Superior California Fund,” the Doolittle PAC—which also gave Williams $10,000.
“He wants the kind of Republicans on boards and city councils that he thinks will vote the way he would,” White said. “He doesn’t necessarily tell them what to do; he just knows that they’re more conservative than the average bear.”
In the fall runoff to take over her board seat, White has endorsed Holmes over Dowdin.
A third Republican candidate for the seat, Dave Mackenroth, lost to Dowdin and Holmes earlier this year. In a county where one party dominates political activity, and one figure dominates that party, Mackenroth found himself on the outside.
Mackenroth, an attorney and self-described “mainstream Republican” found it hard to campaign without Doolittle’s support.
Doolittle has a great deal of pull and uses it to get other elected officials to line up behind the candidate of his choice, Mackenroth said, and those who don’t have Doolittle’s support will find it impossible to get endorsements from those who do. “It’s hard [for Republicans] to get the cooperation of the Republican Party if you have not been given the nod by Mr. Doolittle,” Mackenroth said.
This year, Doolittle went so far as to lobby Nevada County supervisors to appoint a Republican activist to replace the retiring clerk-recorder. The board initially appointed the candidate, Fran Freedle, but later reversed itself after controversy arose about Freedle’s lack of experience.
Doolittle’s interest in local politics extends to even lower levels of government.
In 1998, Doolittle jumped into an election for the American River Flood Control District board, backing a pair of candidates who were friendly to his longtime holy grail: building Auburn Dam across the American River.
As Doolittle rose in Congress, he became obsessed with pushing for construction of the Auburn Dam. For Doolittle and other dam supporters, the dam was always a flood-control issue. Environmentalists, who see the issue differently, always have said that the real purpose of the dam was to assist in opening up more of the county to development by bringing water to new subdivisions.
Local flood-control leaders Karolyn Simon and Clyde McDonald, the incumbents, didn’t support the dam. Their opponents, Tahnya Ballard and William Stein, were backed by Doolittle and other local Republicans. Although the flood district was outside of his congressional district, Doolittle even helped raise money for Ballard. But it wasn’t enough. The incumbents kept their jobs.
Simon, who still sits on the board, chuckles now about such a powerful figure getting involved in her “little dinky” flood-control district. “It was really kind of laughable in a way,” she said. “We think that Doolittle and his associates spent about $70,000.”
Doolittle’s own political career is kind of a fluke, an improbable odyssey that started with an incredible stroke of luck.
Doolittle was born in Glendale, but his family later moved north to the sleepy suburbs around San Jose. He went to high school in Cupertino and moved over the hill for college at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz. He earned a law degree from Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law in 1978. After that, Doolittle worked as a legislative aide to then-state-Senator Bill Richardson, a Republican gun-rights advocate from Arcata.
In 1980, Sacramento Democrat Al Rodda was running unopposed for another term in the state Senate. Republicans couldn’t bear to let Rodda have a free ride, so they put up Doolittle, who was just 29.
Jerry Brown was governor, and Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature, but the political pendulum was swinging to the right. Two years before, Californians had voted overwhelmingly to trim property taxes with Proposition 13. And 1980 was a good time to be conservative, as Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory helped Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate and gain 33 House seats.
In Sacramento, the unknown Doolittle stunned the political establishment by winning a slim victory over Rodda, a 22-year veteran. But after Doolittle took office, Democrats unveiled their legendary 1981 redistricting plan, which used creatively drawn districts to squeeze out Republican lawmakers.
Doolittle found himself dumped into a Democratic district, where he lost to then-Assemblyman Leroy Greene in 1982. But by a quirk of redistricting, Doolittle was able to keep his original seat until 1984, when he won another term by beating Ray Johnson, a Republican turned independent from Chico.
Doolittle remained in the Senate until 1990, when Republican Norm Shumway retired from Congress. For that seat, Doolittle—who, like Shumway, is Mormon—bested Patty Malberg, a Democrat from Lincoln. He beat her again in 1992, and he hasn’t had a serious challenge since.
If Doolittle has been able to reshape the local political scene at home in a way that no other elected official could, one reason is that he and the district were made for one another. Placer County has the highest percentage of Republican voter registration of any California county. Doolittle is both well-liked and well-known in his district, according to GOP pollster Steven Kinney, who has tested the congressman’s name in the heavily Republican area.
Doolittle’s vast 4th District stretches from the Sacramento suburbs to the Oregon border. It includes the Orangevale area, a devoutly Republican section of Sacramento County, and all of El Dorado, Placer and Nevada counties. It also takes in the sparsely populated regions to the north, including all of Sierra, Lassen, Plumas and Modoc counties, and part of Butte County. Of Doolittle’s more than 640,000 constituents, nearly half live in Placer County, where extremely fast growth rates have pushed the population to nearly 300,000. El Dorado County, with about 170,000 people, and Nevada County, with around 100,000, account for most of the remaining residents of the district.
Throughout the years, Doolittle earned a reputation as smart, ambitious and sometimes ruthless. While Doolittle was still in the state Senate, he and his political consultant were fined by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for sending illegal mailers on behalf of a Democratic opponent.
The congressman also is known for keeping reporters at arm’s length. In response to interview requests for this story, Doolittle’s staff said the congressman wouldn’t talk to SN&R. Though Doolittle was at home in the district for the Fourth of July break, his staff wouldn’t reveal any information about when and where he might appear in public.
GOP activist Tom Jones, president of the Republican Congress of Placer County, said Doolittle isn’t the typical back-slapping politician. “I don’t think he gives a whit about what people think about him,” said Jones, who has supported Doolittle in the past and has known him for two decades.
Jones said Doolittle has been a formidable force. “There’s no question he plays to win. If you’re running for office, and he’s supporting someone else, you’re in for a tough race,” Jones said. “Because he’s got a candidate like Kranz, that is almost a clone as far as ideology goes, against a guy [Bloomfield], that’s just about the opposite, for John it would be very important for him to help the district elect somebody that’s going to be more sympathetic to his positions.”
Though Doolittle’s seat is about as safe as it could be, there was one notable challenge against Doolittle. Two years ago, Bill Kirby, a Republican doctor from El Dorado County, ran against Doolittle in the primary. Kirby had no political background, but Doolittle was forced to defend his seat. Vice President Dick Cheney even flew out for a Doolittle fund-raiser. At the same time, a group of moderate Republicans ran as a slate for seats on the Placer County Republican Central Committee, a fiercely conservative committee that once voted not to endorse the re-election bid of the moderate Republican Governor Pete Wilson.
In the end, Kirby and the moderates spent a combined $25,000—and all of them were repelled.
Kirby, a lifelong Republican who’s still angry enough about the race that he labels Doolittle a “dangerous man” and a “vicious right-wing fascist ideologue,” ended up ditching his party last year, out of disgust about the Iraq war. He re-registered as decline-to-state.
Doolittle and the conservatives spent around $50,000 on their slate of 21 candidates.
“[The moderates] forced us to spend money,” Placer County Republican Party Chairman Ken Campbell said. “It’s too bad that money was wasted,” he added.
Campbell, a conservative who is close to Doolittle and ran for chairman at his urging, discounts any suggestion that Doolittle’s involvement in the committee campaigns indicates that there’s a Doolittle political machine running the show. “Completely false,” he said, noting that there are moderate Republicans on the committee and that everyone works well together to run one of the most effective GOP central committees in the state.
Campbell said he and Doolittle talk about candidates for the committee or other offices. “John will call me up and say, ‘Who are the good candidates?’” On a trip to Washington, Campbell said, “John asked me about people who’ve been hard workers and faithful.” But at the same time, Campbell said, Doolittle has better things to do than worry about local candidates. “You’re talking about Osama and the war on terror and cutting taxes and the budget,” he said.
And that is exactly the funny thing about Doolittle: As a top member of Congress, he still monitors everyone back home, from the board of supervisors to the local Republican central committee.
Dale Smith, vice-chairman of the preservation group Friends of Placer County Communities, is one of the keenest observers of what he calls “the profound impact that big money has on our community.”
Last year, he and Bloomfield pushed the board of supervisors to adopt a campaign-finance-reform measure that would dilute the impact of unlimited contributions like the ones that Doolittle passed to Kranz in the 2000 race. The proposal went nowhere.
Doolittle doesn’t disappoint the development interests that pour the most campaign cash into Placer politics, Smith said. “Whenever he comes out in support of something, it’s a pro-growth stance,” he said, citing Doolittle’s support for the Auburn Dam “to get water to South Placer.”
Smith, a former foreign correspondent for ABC News, is a lifelong Republican who raised money and produced TV and radio spots for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. He laments Doolittle’s control over local politics in the foothills—which he expects to increase if Dowdin wins the runoff this year.
“Whenever a county like this becomes captive of one single politician, it doesn’t matter whether he’s Democrat or Republican. It can’t be good for the county,” he said.
Among California’s 53-member congressional delegation, only one other House member is known to take as much interest in shaping the political scene at home in his district: Bakersfield Republican Bill Thomas, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Republican Representative Doug Ose, whose Sacramento-area district lies just southwest of Doolittle’s, said there’s nothing unusual about endorsing and otherwise supporting local candidates—something he’s done for plenty of local and state candidates from his district. When Dave Cox was running for the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, Ose served as his finance chair. “A lot of these people are my personal friends,” Ose said. “Typically, I’ll let them use my name, or I’ll headline a fund-raiser for them if they request it.”
Representative Bob Matsui, on the other hand, seems like Doolittle’s opposite. The Sacramento Democrat and 25-year House veteran rarely spends much time getting involved in local races.
Doolittle spokesman Richard Robinson said the congressman sometimes recruits candidates. “If he comes across someone that he feels will be particularly effective in local government, he’ll talk to him or her about running,” Robinson said. “He has a First Amendment right to endorse and financially support any candidate who he feels will work in the best interest of the region, and so he exercises that right.”
Republican insiders, who shy away from being quoted about Doolittle, generally say his interest in shaping local politics is ideological more than anything else. Republicans who adore his political style and his brand of conservatism and those who loathe it both say it’s because Doolittle can’t stand to see local offices filled with people who aren’t conservative Republican believers like him.
When those on the outside of Doolittle’s circle talk about his influence on local politics, the word “machine” often comes up. Political machines, which thrive in areas like Placer County where one party dominates, tend to reflect the iron will of one or two top figures who bring loyalists up through the ranks of the central committee and local offices to higher positions, recruiting and grooming along the way. That’s certainly the case with Doolittle, who has worked hard to bring fellow ideologues to prominence.
The reclusive Doolittle has an obvious taste for far-right candidates, a sweet tooth for developer money, and a need to control the local political scene at home. But for those outside his orbit, it’s impossible to know for sure whether it’s all three of those things—or none of them.
Auburn Sentinel columnist Joe Carroll, a Democrat and former aide to Johnson (the Republican state Senator who was defeated by Doolittle) has been watching foothill politics for more than 40 years. Doolittle wants to make sure his “ideological buddies” occupy local posts, from school board up to board of supervisors, Carroll said, and that those buddies can control local land-use decisions. Doing so keeps the flow of money coming from the development interests who plow more campaign cash into local elections than any other group. “Why did Willie Sutton stick up banks? Because that’s where the money is,” Carroll said, chuckling. And in Doolittle’s domain, he added, the dollars flow on his command. “Once it’s known Doolittle is backing someone, everyone lines up to give money.”
Asked if Doolittle’s dominance of local politics has achieved machine status, Robinson offered a roundabout answer. “Congressman Doolittle works real hard to elect good people to local office, and he doesn’t apologize for that,” he said, swerving around the question.
But though Doolittle “feels it’s critical to have effective local representation,” Robinson explained, that doesn’t mean he tells people how to vote. “Occasionally, he’ll call and express an opinion.”
Nothing unusual there. But in Placer County, no one’s opinion counts more than Doolittle’s.