Death and tax associations
Conservative groups like the Sacramento Taxpayers Association struggle to stay relevant in a changing America. Is this the end of the GOP as we know it?
Kayla Wright’s blond hair flecks the shoulders of her revolutionary-red sweater. The El Camino Fundamental High School student smiles easily during a sunstruck tea party rally, holding a matching sign beside a white-haired man with a glum expression and a charcoal cross scrawled over his forehead. The older man hefts an American flag over the shoulder of a pristine white smock that drapes his body. The gold crucifix dangling around his neck suggests it’s a priestly robe, but he looks more like a Ku Klux Klansman without a hood.
Wright notwithstanding, the Grand Old Party is showing its decrepit age. She interns for the Sacramento County Republican Party—on whose website this tea party rally shot is featured—but the youngster is proving to be more of an exception than the rule. Like the SCRP, another stalwart conservative group, the Sacramento Taxpayers Association, is struggling to get younger, more diverse and stop the membership bleed out.
It hasn’t been easy.
While the SCRP ducked multiple requests for comment, the Sacramento Taxpayers Association’s Bob Blymyer was more than willing to discuss his group’s challenges. As the candid Blymyer talks, it becomes clear this local bastion of fiscal restraint is at a similar crossroads to the one facing an entire conservative movement.
Since its heyday of the 1970s—when the then-named Sacramento County Taxpayers League boasted 400-plus members—the group’s membership has steadily fallen to about 150 today, and it isn’t getting any younger. Along with bodies, the association is also hemorrhaging relevance.
The STA’s last major success was its opposition to a rail-yard arena deal last year.
“If anything, that was our coup de grâce,” says Blymyer.
But the association’s most recent campaign against Measure U showed little impact at the polls, and some of the organization’s more central members have prominent roles in other, more active groups such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Eye on Sacramento. The association’s newsletter output has also dwindled, from a dozen issues in 2006 to two last year.
Efforts to engage a new generation of fiscal conservatives, meanwhile, have fallen flat.
“We just don’t seem to have that appeal,” admits Blymyer, the group’s vice president of administration and a former executive director. Blymyer says a brief dalliance with “a Facebook” went nowhere and that the College Republicans club at Sacramento State University showed only “marginal” interest in the association’s mission.
“I was very surprised,” he says. “As a result, I’m reluctant to even reach out [again].”Fountainhead of youth
In effect, the local association’s struggles mirror that of the Grand Old Party—currently trying to crack the riddle of how to get younger and more diverse.
Statewide, the prospects aren’t encouraging. According to a recent study from UC Davis, a record number of young adults in the state registered to vote for last year’s election—the majority online—and are more willing than ever to flout party affiliation.
“[If] this trend continues, a younger electorate will mean even smaller percentages of both registered Democrats and Republicans,” said the study’s author, Mindy Romero, a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
The trend is affecting both of this country’s major political groups, but it’s hitting Republicans hardest. Of the young adults who registered last year, most generally affiliated themselves either with the Democratic Party or no party at all. Republicans placed third.
Lauren Lombardo is part of that coveted electorate. The 18-year-old economics major is young, bright, female and “a lifelong Republican.” In many ways, she’s the cure for an ailing GOP. There just isn’t enough of her kind of medicine going around.
For Lombardo, economic and socially conservative values are why she feels at home in the College Republicans club that apparently spurned Blymyer’s advances. While Lombardo has no intel on what happened there, she says her club is having the same trouble attracting the fiscal conservatives of tomorrow.
“I feel we can relate to what they’re going through,” Lombardo tells SN&R. “On a college campus, of course the vibe is a little bit more liberal.”
Besides struggling to fatten their ranks, both conservative groups have other signs the pendulum is at least temporarily swinging the other way. The college chapter saw its campaign efforts on behalf of GOP lion Dan Lungren and up-and-comer Peter Tateishi—and against Proposition 30—fall flat. But Lombardo says she won’t start worrying about the overall health of the Republican Party unless the Democrats win big during the 2014 midterm elections, when the precocious sophomore will be all of 20.
The Sacramento Taxpayers Association may not be able to wait that long.Old and getting older
Inside the association’s modest headquarters on the second floor of a converted walk-up in south Sacramento, two white-haired ex-transit officials talk about old buses.
In a lot of ways, the 52-year-old association is like an ancient transit rig itself: delivering fewer people to a place they once thought they wanted to go.
For the past five years, the STA board has shuffled presidents and executive directors around like a game of musical chairs, something Blymyer wants to steer away from in the future—if there is one.
Joe Sullivan, 87, is the group’s latest returning executive director. He sees America “becoming a socialistic nation” that will ultimately “fall into anarchy which will than evolve a dictatorship.”
Those sentiments are in the association’s latest newsletter, covering September through October 2012, but they don’t seem to be appealing to anyone with both feet planted in 2013 and beyond.
Other than one 14-year-old “boy genius” member, Blymyer says the association has two or three members in their 30s and “a whole bunch” in their 50s and 60s.
“I get the idea that other taxpayer groups are facing the same thing,” Blymyer surmises. “People born after 1980 have a different view of government’s role.”
When the then-taxpayers league got its start in 1961, it came together as a result of a handful of Elk Grove farmers who were pissed off about life in pre-Proposition 13 California. The fledgling group began attracting more of the area’s business elite—executives from the region’s top banks, hospitals and retail sector. But at some point Sacramento’s captains of industry stopped signing on.
Blymyer blames a flattened economy for chasing away AT&T, a former corporate sponsor, and possibly the Campbell Soup Company, which is shuttering its local plant in favor of one in New Jersey.
Blymyer also says tremendous growth in the public sector has populated the area with people who may be less sympathetic to the association’s values, especially when that association rages against inflated pensions.
“That seems to have hurt,” Blymyer says. “Public workers are less interested in a taxpayer group than private workers.”
The association is now the smallest Blymyer can remember it being, and last year’s name change—from the Sacramento County Taxpayers League to the Sacramento Taxpayers Association—hasn’t been a marketing bonanza.
Oddly, the STA’s refusal to weigh in on individual political races could have something to do with the group’s flagging fortunes.
“If we got into supporting individuals, it would destroy the integrity of the association,” he argues. “If we did endorse candidates, we probably would get a little bit more exposure overall, but it might also cause ill feelings. It’s hard to say.”
Whatever the answer may be, the association better figure it out quick, says Sacramento State University political professor Kimberly Nalder.
Nalder, director of the school’s Project for an Informed Electorate, says the latest data suggests that people settle into their political values during their mid-20s.
“After that,” she adds, “there’s very little change in one’s political philosophy.”
All of which means if groups like the STA are having a harder time finding young people who identify with its message—or if there are fewer of these right-minded folks around—the future probably won’t look any brighter.Voice of reason
Over at association headquarters, Blymyer is keenly aware of his organization’s conundrum.
Bright and friendly, Blymyer isn’t one of the anti-tax extremists Nalder believes has “worn out its welcome” with average Americans.
A light-rail nerd and longtime Sacramento Kings fan who must be pretty anxious right now, Blymyer sees the STA’s role as holding elected city and county officials accountable to how they spend the public’s dime. To keep doing that, he knows his association has to adapt.
“Any group that’s unwilling to change is headed for disaster,” he says.
The association’s uncertain footing regarding advances in technology and social have stymied efforts to attract the next generation of fiscal conservatives. Those obstacles still flummox an executive board made up almost exclusively of gray-haired white men.
Lombardo suggests the association take another stab at social networking and do a better job of articulating how its mission fuses with the concerns of young independents and graduating seniors.
“There’s definitely more out there than just Facebook,” she said.
Blymyer promises future board meetings on the subject and plans to devote more of his time to outreach. He’s even willing to consider some of the algorithmic tricks that made the president’s campaign such a microtargeting success.
“We haven’t really taken any steps to do anything about it,” Blymyer offers.
That’s not entirely true.
The association did recently attract more than 200 online inquiries, but it was for a part-time office job advertised on Craigslist.
At least the association can still get some love as a job creator.