Capital clash

Extremist Republicans are crushing dissent within their own party, creating a state Legislature that can’t work

Illustration by chris seddon

Email sent: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 4:52 PM

Subject: Invitation to Regional Foster Care and Adoption Day

To: Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks)

“F—k you, you tax-hiking f—k. Take me off this list. I don’t give a s—t what this particular cause is for. Fix the goddamn state budget first. That’s what we elected you to do you miserable c—t rag.”

Niello is a rare breed in the Capitol these days: He’s a Republican who refused to sign the near-obligatory no-new-taxes pledge foisted on incoming GOP politicians. In fact, he voted for temporary tax increases last February as a last-ditch method of keeping the state solvent and was willing to stand up to the voices of extremism that have, increasingly, come to dominate the grassroots of California’s Republican Party apparatus.

It’s not that Niello doesn’t believe in many GOP principles—he’s staunchly anti-big government, believes California’s businesses are hobbled by too many regulations and is convinced that environmentalists have too great a say in shaping public policy. But, at his core, he’s a pragmatist. When push came to shove, he was willing to show flexibility in the face of an unprecedented collapse in state finances.

“Obviously, I believe one should have a core set of principles,” he said, “but you do have to be flexible in certain circumstances.” In most situations, that would simply be politics 101; in California today, it’s almost revelatory.

California, Niello believed, risked “skidding out of control.”

“I voted to raise taxes in February, still out of a distaste for raising taxes. But I was driven to cast the vote because of a much more significant concern of negative economic consequences. The state would have run out of money in March, and we would have stopped paying bills and seen economic calamity up and down the state.”

Local Assemblyman Roger Niello is staunchly anti-big government, doesn’t like regulations and is convinced that environmentalists have too great a say in shaping public policy. But he’s public enemy No. 1 to extreme activists within his own party.

He looked at the options, foresaw a disaster at the end of the skid, and voted to increase taxes to avert it. Niello looked to his right, however, and saw anti-tax activists “who would have preferred to see the state crash and burn.”

“They think that in the chaos of such an occurrence that somehow the Republicans could emerge as the sane fiscal party and regain control of the state. I respond that I don’t think the phoenix that would arise would be a Republican phoenix. It was a prospect that, frankly, scared the hell out of me.”

Not surprisingly, the 5th District assemblyman is now the unhappy recipient of large amounts of off-color correspondence, the kind Niello might print out to show a reporter but can’t bring himself to actually read aloud. After all, he explains disarmingly, sitting at a desk in his Capitol building office, a middle-aged man with receding salt-and-pepper hair and glasses, there are females on his office staff.

Other GOP tax compromisers—Sen. Dave Cogdill, Sen. Abel Maldonado, Assemblyman Anthony Adams and a handful more—have experienced similarly venomous reactions, accused of betraying a sacred oath in their quest to keep the state solvent. Their arguments that they are simply doing what needs to be done to keep California’s government above water don’t carry weight with much of their own grassroots, nor with too many of their colleagues.

For much of the Republican Party these days—both in California and, increasingly, in the country as a whole—ideological purity vis-à-vis taxes has become all-consuming; purity has become a greater political virtue than constructive pragmatism. Barry Goldwater once famously said that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Today’s GOP hard-liners have a similar philosophy: Extremism in defense of tax cuts is no vice. It makes for a good sound bite.

Unfortunately, as Niello and the other GOP pragmatists have concluded, during times of crisis, it also makes for bad governance.

GOP heads on a platter

“Don’t make pledges,” said Assemblyman Anthony Adams, himself a no-new-taxes-pledge signer who has since seen the light, ruefully. “Pledges are dangerous, because you can’t tell the future.”

Agree not to raise taxes, and you risk an eruption of outrage, particularly from anti-tax rent-a-mobs from Orange County and elsewhere in Southern California, mobilized by the far-right radio program The John and Ken Show out of Los Angeles, if you later modify your position to meet unpredicted, maybe even unpredictable new realities. Tea Party goers might have spent this past summer focusing most of their bile on federal policies and politicians, but there’s been a healthy amount left over to direct against state officials, too.

Since voting to raise taxes in February, Adams has, he explained, been “paying hell from the extreme element of my party—a bunch of Orange County extreme activists whom I don’t directly represent.” These activists tried—though recently failed—to generate enough signatures for a recall election on his Assembly seat. And the conservative desert newspapers on the outer boundaries of his district have fulminated against his position in their editorials.

Assemblyman Niello again: Once he had broached the topic, in January of 2009, of possibly voting for a tax hike, “John and Ken, in their best shtick, went absolutely apoplectic, and as a result so did their listeners. We started receiving huge phone volume, most of it highly abusive—you think it, out of the dictionary of American slang they threw out. Seventy percent was from out of Southern California.” Later on, in a bizarre blending of political outrage and savvy entertainment strategy, John and Ken, on air, drew names from a hat to decide which Judas figures within the party to target for recall campaigns.

A moderate Republican, Assemblyman Anthony Adams voted to raises taxes in February in order to help keep the state solvent. He has since been punished by from the extreme faction of his party.

Senior figures within the state GOP, such as the Orange County-based Jon Fleischman, party vice chairman and publisher of the conservative online Web site FlashReport made it their mission to hand tax-raising Republicans their heads on a platter. Adams recalls how Orange County and desert anti-tax activists would “disrupt my events, try to occupy my time, and engage me in frivolous, time-wasting pursuits. They’re incredibly abusive of a recall process largely intended to permit voters to remove somebody convicted of a crime, not to remove somebody who cast a vote they don’t like.”

But, in reality, the rigid anti-tax movement extends far beyond Southern California. In fact, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the unto-death defender of Proposition 13 and the granddaddy of the nation’s anti-tax revolts, is headquartered right here in Sacramento. And while the association claims to be nonpartisan, it’s clearly a force to be reckoned with for anyone hoping to win elective office under the state GOP banner. Cross the HJTA and you risk a blizzard of criticism.

There is, says a longtime Sacramento GOP insider who asked to remain anonymous, a “jihad mentality” amongst a stunningly large part of the party’s base when it comes to opposing taxes. Many members of the Republican caucus are so opposed to big government, the insider reported, that these days they wouldn’t even vote for a budget if it was written by the GOP itself. Isn’t that a problem for a party that aspires to govern the country’s most populous state? Well, the insider replies, the party hasn’t had a state majority in decades, and is unlikely to get one any time soon. The majority of its members have, quite simply, gotten comfortable with being the obstreperous, uncompromising party of opposition.

Niello’s GOP legislative colleagues might have been unfailingly civil to him when he cast his vote to keep California solvent, but that didn’t mean they had the courage to join him. And while the state party tabled a measure to censure all those who voted in favor of the tax increases, it did pass a largely symbolic resolution denying party funds to their re-election campaigns. Civil, they might be, but not enough to prevent Niello and his small band of renegades from being sent to Coventry by the anti-tax brigades.

Playing to the margins

California is teetering on the edge. Its public services are a shambles, its once-vaunted educational system, starved of adequate tax dollars for decades, is a national laughing stock—a half century after the Master Plan made the state something of a higher education utopia, it ranks 40th out of the 50 states for post-high-school educational participation. The state’s government can’t pay employees full-time wages anymore, and its lousy bond rating would be funny if it didn’t have the potential to further torpedo state programs for decades to come.

State legislators have been applying Band-Aids to gaping holes in the budget for years now; with Democrats unwilling to make deep spending cuts and Republicans unwilling to tolerate more than cosmetic, temporary tax increases. Legislative leaders cobbled together a series of temporary fixes and salves to the wound this past spring and summer, when the gap could no longer be covered over with Band-Aids, and they will likely have to make wrenching cuts to core government services again next year as state revenues continue to lag far behind spending.

It’s not that the land of California is poor. It’s not that the people of California are, taken as a whole, beggared. By most measures, this is a spectacularly affluent, innovative and successful corner of the world. The state has a nearly $2 trillion economy. And yet, somehow, with the legislative process crippled by partisanship and paralysis, the institutions of government are crumbling; the machinery of governance, and the ability of government to raise adequate revenues to fund vital public programs, is grinding to a halt. In short, California is at risk of becoming a First World economy with a Third World quality of governance.

And, bizarrely, while California’s problems are regarded with amazement by national commentators, in many ways the national Republican Party these days is taking its tactical cues from the Golden State’s GOP: using the threat of filibuster to block reforms, opposing any and all tax increases, denouncing any and all new social spending as reckless.

A couple months back, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that the national GOP, having lost the White House and been consigned to minority status in both houses of Congress, was starting to behave like the California GOP. And that was, expostulated the Nobel prize-winning economist, an entirely scary prospect.

Krugman furthered that California had been rendered ungovernable by extremists hijacking the GOP and pushing their legislators—perhaps harassing would be a more evocative description—to block any and all moves toward sensible budget and tax reform. Would the nation now follow suit?

Some members of the party, like former GOP leader Jim Brulte, think Republicans in California have largely lost the habits of governance.

It’s a valid question. After all, America’s version of democracy is a carefully calibrated dance, a pas de deux, between two umbrella parties. Almost all ideological disputes, almost all shades of the political spectrum have, traditionally, been accommodated under these umbrellas. The system works when neither party is too dominated by its extreme fringes; when a majority of voters believe both parties are responsible enough to govern and they make their election-year decisions based on who would best meet the specific needs of the moment. It falters when the extremes come to dominate and, as a result, middle-ground voters lose confidence in one, or both, parties’ capacity to assume the reins of governance.

Increasingly, that’s what’s happening in California. Since most legislative districts in the state are hopelessly uncompetitive in general elections, all the real drama is played out during the primaries. And in primaries (elections in which turnout is considered decent if only 30 percent of registered party voters turn up to the polls), political observers believe it’s generally the more extreme activists within each party who come out to vote. The result? Candidates win their parties’ nominations—and secure a clear route to Sacramento—by playing to the margins rather than the center.

In the Democrats’ case, that means pushing for ever-larger social spending, whether or not there’s money in the state’s coffers to pay the bills. In the GOP case, it means the election of legislators who would prefer to be waterboarded rather than affix their signature to any new state taxes.

The combination of political cowardice, from both ends of the spectrum, is lethal. For years now, budget holes have gotten bigger, and the tricks used to paper over the financial gaps more daring. Neither political party had the will—or the stamina—to make the hard choices that had to be made, and so, said moderate GOP political consultant Richard Temple, “They faked it.”

For Temple, it’s a crisis of foolishness that is now reaching a boiling point. “The public doesn’t want draconian cuts and it doesn’t want tax increases,” he argued. “So, what do we do? Ultimately the members of both parties have to come to some compromise that neither side will like. In the meantime, the problem just gets worse, and so their ultimate solution is going to be more and more painful. They can’t fake it anymore. It’s so large you’d have to be a blind man not to see it.”

Election-year sound bites

While both parties bear much responsibility for the crisis, the Republicans have, over the past year, shown the most intransigence. In the spring, as the situation deteriorated on an almost hourly basis, the Democrats, taken as a body, showed more willingness to tolerate brutal spending cuts than the Republicans did to compromise on revenue raising.

Many observers, and old-timers within the party, believe that that’s because the Republicans in California have largely lost the habits of governance, having been a minority party in the state for decades. Since there are far more safe Democratic districts than safe Republican ones, the Republicans can rarely push for a positive legislative agenda. Over the last several years, argues Jim Brulte, one-time Republican Party leader in both the Assembly and the Senate, and currently a Rancho Cucamonga-based political consultant, “[Republican lawmakers] didn’t come to the table with a governing proposal.”

But since the budget and tax increases require a two-thirds vote in both houses—and the public supports keeping this Gordian knot tied in place—those same Republicans can serve as wreckers, their refusal to do the hard work of responsibly thinking through budgets that might actually fly continually plunging the state Capitol into stalemate. “There is no political reward in California today for a legislator to work to bipartisan solutions. The reward is to posture for your core constituencies,” Brulte explains in disgust.

You want to pass a budget? many of today’s cadre of GOP legislators basically goad the governing Democratic Party. Well, we’re not going to budge, so it’s on you to come up with cuts of a magnitude to keep this sinking ship afloat. You want to include any tax increases in your fix? Well, we’re going to make sure the voters know, again, it’s all on you. “You have elected officials who aren’t interested in speaking truth to power,” Brulte believes. “They’re elected and don’t want to do anything to offend base constituencies. They posture for their core constituencies and are afraid to take the heat.”

In fact, Republican legislative aides knew, in the run-up to February’s budget vote that they had more than enough Assembly members and senators willing to step up to the plate to vote for temporary tax increases; but they also knew it would play better to the base to let the Democrats take the heat. So they released just enough members from their no-new-taxes pledge to get the budget passed and kept the rest of their people “protected.”

The anti-tax brigade has made its presence well-known in Sacramento this past year and, not surprisingly, has caused most GOP legislators to decide they’d rather be waterboarded than affix their signature to new state taxes.

That might make for good gimmick politics, for effective election-year sound bites, but playing the embarrass-your-opponent game during a crisis of the scale California is currently experiencing is surely no substitute for responsible government and honest leadership. “We’ve got to get away from sound-bite politics and find ways to respect voters and not talk down to them,” Assemblyman Adams argued. “The easy thing is to talk down to them.”

Adams, who recently announced that he will not run for re-election, believes that, these days, there’s a growing chasm between political pragmatists within the GOP and “what I call political purity, those who believe if you can just become pure enough, the most conservative, that’ll create a shining light, a beacon on the hill that draws others to you.”

Getting elected vs. governing

What’s ironic about all of this is that while the vast majority of California’s electorate are either Democrats or non-Republican-leaning independents, on the issue of taxes, the public is actually more simpatico with the Republicans than with the Democrats. And yet, election year in, election year out, despite the electorate’s suspicion of Democratic positions on taxes, they elect the donkeys as the dominant party to govern the state.

In a sense, though, they pen an addendum to the contract. Something to the effect of: Just because we like you on social policy and just because we like you more than the others guys on your education and health-care priorities, don’t think that means we’re going to trust you as far as we can throw you when it comes to raising our taxes.

Simply put, because there’s so little trust in the abilities of legislators, there’s also almost no public willingness to make it easier for them to raise taxes, be it on individuals, on businesses or on specific commodities, to get the state out of its budget crisis.

So, does that give Republicans a free pass on the budget mess? Not really. Politicians have to lead at times, rather than simply blindly follow public opinion. “Getting elected and governing are two different things,” explained political consultant Richard Temple, who acknowledged that he would advise a GOP candidate to stress his or her anti-tax credentials if they want to survive the party’s primary process, but who said he would then urge those same figures to morph into pragmatists once in office. “Sometimes you have to do the painful thing—give medicine to the public that doesn’t want to get it. Once you’re in, you have to do the right thing, which is to come up with some solution that’s real, and it may not be pretty. It requires compromise.”

Sure, majorities in California oppose taxes—but Field Poll data also shows a majority erroneously believe that the state can cut $25 billion from its budget simply by eliminating fraud and inefficiency and that public services wouldn’t suffer.

That’s just plain wrong. You could fire every state worker and still not achieve $25 billion savings. Cuts this large inevitably undermine schools, universities, public safety, they wreak havoc on the provision of necessary social services and hobble the state’s ability to protect its environment and nurture its residents’ quality of life. Californians might not like paying taxes, but they also don’t want to live in a state with public services of a quality somewhere between those of Louisiana and, say, Kazakhstan.

It’s the job of legislators to help educate the public, to talk through the issues adult to adult. That’s what the dominant wing of the GOP is failing to do these days. And that’s what’s driving its moderate wing crazy.

“I am opposed to pledges,” said Niello of his party’s embrace of the anti-tax oath. “That’s why I didn’t sign the tax pledge in the first place. You’re making a commitment on behalf of someone else’s agenda. You absolutely lose control and I’m not interested in giving someone else control of how I think.”

“Somewhere along the way,” said Assemblyman Anthony Adams combatively, “the Republican Party ceased to be the party of limited government and lower taxes and just became the party of no new taxes. You have to be able to sustain government to provide basic public necessities.”