Grand ole picnic

Placer County Republicans unite for Bush but divide over Oller

Rico Oller celebrates his Second Amendment rights at a Republican jamboree.

Rico Oller celebrates his Second Amendment rights at a Republican jamboree.

Photo By Jason Probst

Coming from Sacramento, it’s a mile-long right turn off McCourtney Road to get to Ken and Sandy Campbell’s place outside of Lincoln, a 284-acre spread with low hills and comely blue oaks dotting the landscape.

The pastoral setting, next to the fastest-growing city in the state, was fitting for the Placer County Republican Central Committee’s August 14 fund-raising barbecue.

“This is all to help re-elect President Bush,” said Ken, the committee chairman.

The paradox of a place that was once so small that Highway 65 was built through the town instead of around it, and that is now tripping over itself to keep up with growth, is much like the Republican Party itself in Placer County. The city, like the party, is still struggling to strike a balance between contemporary and traditional values in the wake of fast-changing circumstances.

Still, there are issues that brook solidarity—such as the necessary re-election of President George W. Bush in November, which explains the 450 adults and children who gathered underneath the “Polecat Tent.” But on the local level, the question of who should succeed Assemblyman Tim Leslie when he is termed out in 2006 shapes up as something not everyone who gathered under the roof agrees about.

Outgoing 1st District state Senator Thomas “Rico” Oller’s aspirations for Leslie’s 4th District seat could force a round of intra-GOP ugliness in the 2006 primary (Leslie is up for re-election in 2004, and the seat is considered safely his). Oller, who currently lives in San Andreas, would need to relocate to the district, which is composed of Placer, Alpine and El Dorado counties, as well as part of Sacramento County.

Placer County Supervisor Ted Gaines already has locked up key endorsements to fill the seat, from Dave Cox, Leslie and some three dozen city and county officials, all of whom are featured prominently on Gaines’ campaign brochure. Two years’ advance planning is the rule of thumb, in these days of limited seats, and the horse out front early has a serious edge.

Once overlooked as a quaint brotherhood of dependable but woefully outnumbered conservatives, Placer County is now the one place in California where a Republican can go to the well without waiting in line (behind an ass). Orange County isn’t what it once was (Bob Dornan most definitely has left the building), and California’s 54 electoral votes are practically a lost cause except to the most optimistic of pollsters.

But Placer County remains staunchly Republican, the kind of place where an impressive collection of GOP potentates can gather undisturbed to help re-elect a president. Still, too much of a good thing can lead to odd behavior, some of which fizzled to the surface during Saturday’s barbecue. A combination fund-raiser and festival, the GOP family picnic attracted notables like Senate candidate Bill Jones, former gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, Assemblyman Dave Cox and state Senator Sam Aanestad.

Jones, who faces incumbent Barbara Boxer in November, should have been the star of the show. Standing at the podium, he spoke of how he met with Bush on August 12 and told him “we can win California.” Jones elicited big applause from the crowd of 450 by insisting that Republicans “are as close to the Democrats as we’ve ever been.” Folks chuckled when he quipped that “the great thing about running against Barbara Boxer is you make all kinds of new friends.”

An avuncular figure with his Western-style belt buckle, Jones surrendered the stage to other speakers—including state Senator Chuck Poochigian, of Fresno; Cox, of Fair Oaks; and Simon.

It was Oller, not Jones, who got the most attention from the podium, as speakers roasted him with a series of one-liners. But the mood changed noticeably when Simon issued a prophecy.

“I’m sure Rico will not stay out of office for too long,” he said.

Half the crowd applauded, while the other half just sat there, suggesting the underlying conflict that nobody really wanted to talk about: Oller wants to return to Placer County—he represented the area back when he was in the Assembly —and there doesn’t seem to be too much anyone who opposes the idea can do about it.

In a day defined by election-year pomp and circumstance, this moment proved to be an uncharacteristically honest litmus test. People either clapped for Oller’s future prospects, or they didn’t.

The Democratic Party may have its share of unapologetic iconoclasts, but at least in the Northern California GOP, Oller has the corner on the market. The state senator is the embodiment of the uncompromising Republican ethos, with just the whiff of a shotgun blast permeating an otherwise Reaganite sensibility.

Oller has been accused of many things, ranging from dirty campaigning (one mailer in the March 3 congressional-district primary attacked Dan Lungren’s immigration credentials, depicting what appeared to be illegal immigrants jumping over a fence) to bear poaching (he allegedly swapped tags on a bear kill with a friend). Other controversies include a restraining order, filed by his wife, Londa, in 1988 but subsequently retracted; the two reconciled shortly afterward. Oller is regarded by friends and foes alike as uncompromising and hardheaded. But nobody ever doubted his political savvy or his ability to tap into a conservative base.

Oller’s move last month to initiate fund-raising for the 4th District Assembly seat, where incumbent Leslie will be termed out in 2006, has created a curious dilemma in Placer County GOP circles, where Roseville Republican Gaines already has secured key endorsements for the seat. His claim had been staked, and seemed safely so, until Oller thrust himself into the race.

Oller’s own ambitions fell short in March, as he abandoned a safe re-election bid for a second and final term as state senator, instead opting for a bigger prize, the 3rd District congressional seat (see “Republican family feud” by Jeff Kearns, SN&R Cover, February 12). Battling Lungren and Mary Ose—sister to the incumbent, Doug Ose—Oller came up 2,691 votes shy (3 percentage points) in a bitterly fought race.

Cox secured the party’s nomination for Oller’s Senate seat, instead. Oller is eligible for one more term in the Senate and another in the Assembly.

That bitterness spawned baggage, causing one GOP official to stress that Oller’s past habit of rough campaigning is why some party members won’t back him against Gaines, especially after the chain whippings exchanged between Oller, Ose and Lungren.

“It got very nasty,” said one GOP insider. “I think that may be part of what people are reeling from. Rico only has one term left in the Assembly. I think there’s a longer-term vision if you go with Ted.”

Other party handicappers feel that Gaines might be better served to wait until 2008—when Oller is termed out in the Assembly. But neither man seems able to back down now. And despite Gaines’ endorsements, Oller maintains that he is “90 percent” sure he’s going to run. Something’s got to give.

Bill Jones makes hay while the sun’s still shining.

Photo By Jason Probst

Despite his penchant for dipping snuff while mixing with the Bubbas, transitioning adroitly between hunting anecdotes and the minutiae of public policy past and present, Oller still manages to vex the suburban strains of a Republican Party trying to mesh traditional values into contemporary packaging.

It is, in a sense, a party caught between the new-car smell of negative-effect-free candidates like Gaines, who have the resident polish, delivery and credentials, and Oller, a veteran pol who knows his place in the party stratum as its legislative stick.

Oller does not skulk behind code phrases like “controlled immigration” where “illegal aliens” will do. It’s that kind of bluntness, his unwillingness to hide behind softer terms, that endears him to people who feel that the Republican Party has tried too hard to cover up its rural roots.

He also is worth an estimated $10 million, thanks to a successful insulation-and-drywall business. This makes it somewhat troubling to the bluebloods in the party who cannot resolve a man who uses words like “dadgum,” walks slightly bowlegged and fears nothing that walks on fewer than four legs.

He also makes a lot of enemies.

When other candidates shirk before the prospect of bucking party fealty in the ongoing political sagas in Sacramento, Oller does not.

He voted against Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget, while Cox and Leslie voted for it, though with well-expressed reservations worded into their press releases with no small degree of contrition.

Such is the calculus of dues, which generally are paid back in the form of endorsements. But in an ironic twist, Gaines, a relative newcomer, acquired those while Oller was mulling over what to do after losing to Lungren.

“It’s an adjustment, the idea of getting out of office, but I’ve just been pounded by people wanting me to get back into it,” Oller said.

Radio talk-show host Eric Hogue, who also is rumored to be considering a run, weighed both candidates’ prospects in a phone interview after the event.

“I think Ted brings somebody who has been supervisor in Placer County and has done a pretty good job,” he said of Gaines, who has served two terms on the county board. “He’s been working with business and environmentalists and understands what the free market is about. [But] Rico has been inside the beast. He’s experienced, and when you’re the minority party, you want people who know how to do things inside Sacramento. There are two good guys here.”

As for himself, Hogue said that, for now at least, he’s not interested in entering the race.

Gaines’ swift move to secure high-profile backers prompted Oller to announce his entry into the race in July.

“Rico’s goal is to knock them all out early, with serious fund-raising,” said Bill Bird, Oller’s communications director.

But Oller is left with precious few names to stencil onto his campaign fliers. Representative John Doolittle has backed both men in the past. “I probably wouldn’t endorse anybody,” he said. Alluding to a recent SN&R cover story [”Boss Doolittle” by Jeff Kearns, SN&R Cover, July 22], Doolittle said, “If we had a machine, as they would suggest, we’d have already picked the candidate.”

None of this bothered Oller as he made his way out to the shooting range, where the picnic-lunch ticket included three free blasts at clay pigeons. Asked if he minded a picture being taken of him in action, he smiled.

“Nah, they already know what I’m about,” he mused, happily strolling up to a collection of shotguns like a kid in a candy store, before settling on a Browning auto-loader.

He nailed all three and then took time to mix and mingle before heading back to the barn and barbecue. The first of the big-name attendees to visit the shooting range, he attracted a small crowd, bringing the near-dead shooting stations to life with a Norman Rockwell-esque folksiness. Oller seemed perfectly at ease, whether talking about border policy, fire-district fees or bear-hunting tactics.

This everyman aspect, something many politicians strive for, appears to come naturally to Oller. Having moved quickly up the legislative ranks, he emerged in 1996 as a first-term assemblyman, after a bitter primary battle against Roseville’s Kirk Uhler. Ironically, it was Uhler’s father, Lew, who spearheaded the 1990 passage of term limits in California. Oller served in the Assembly until 2000, when he won his current position in the state Senate.

According to political consultant Sal Russo, term limits have made politicians “preoccupied with where their next campaign is.”

“What I think the term limits has done is made people content to hang out with their (political) base and completely unwilling to reach out and solve problems,” added Russo. “You’re criticized for straying from a narrow point of view.”

Still, by the time Oller took the stage, the barn was only half-full. They’d slipped away in threes and sixes, following the departures of Simon, Jones or whoever had motivated them to come.

Oller made a perfunctory speech, tossing out some anecdotes about his time in office, but he didn’t mention 2006, the Leslie seat or the strange dynamic of longtime political allies who are endorsing a rival candidate. Or the fact that Tom McClintock has been meeting with a number of legislators, including Oller, hoping to garner their endorsements for lieutenant governor.

Perhaps he didn’t need to remind them. When you’re Rico Oller, people remember who you are.