Right to blame

GOP hard-liners are at the drawing boards right now, figuring out how to keep their party narrow in 2006

Think of 1958, so distant in the past that the Los Angeles Times ran a story that year about Alaska finally being voted the 49th state, another about a treaty being arranged to permit direct passenger flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and another about Russia launching a rocket that nearly reached the moon—“farther than any object man has sent from the Earth.”

One thing that didn’t make headlines—because the import of it wouldn’t become clear for years—was the news that 1958 was the last time Republicans controlled the Sacramento Legislature, aside from an oddball year here and there.

It was the year California went Democrat, and the state never looked back.

I mention 1958 because of the hectoring under way by the California GOP activist hard-liners, whom pundits have dubbed the “circular firing squad” because of their corrosive effect on their own party in the Golden State.

Even without the hard-liners, Republicans have a tremendous uphill battle to ever regain California, since the state’s demographics tilt younger and more liberal than much of the nation. But as I watch Republicans gear up for the 2006 election season, I see them once again taking actions that will guarantee they get nowhere at election time in California.

As a Democrat, I technically shouldn’t give a rip. But, as I’m a fiscally conservative Democrat, it is my fondest political desire that California return to a two-party system. I’d like to see sanity and democracy restored to the Legislature.

Our vastly overpaid legislators (new salary: $110,800) earn an approval rating near 20 percent. That’s ironic, because the voters who gleefully hand them these flunking grades also passively return these pols to office each year. (But that’s a story for another day, involving the gerrymandering of voting districts by the parties, which then carefully spoon-feed voters a preselected party hack who crowds out normal folks who might have run for office.)

The problem is that we’ll never get a two-party system back in California until the GOP decides to quell the arrogant far right, which acts as the tail wagging the dog of its party.

Exhibit A: I heard the other day from a conservative Republican who sends journalists and party activists a mass e-mail of his thoughts on Sacramento politics. In it, he declared that Republican state Senator “Abel Maldonaro [sic] was a Hillary Clinton wannabe,” for choosing to run for state controller so soon after becoming a senator. In another missive, the pundit declared that Keith Richman, a moderate Republican assemblyman running for state treasurer, deserved the nasty “Republican In Name Only” (RINO) anti-award given him recently by the Club for Growth for opposing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2004 decision not to raise taxes.

First of all, the GOP leadership in California is so lily-white it might as well be 1958. Instead of whining that he is running for a higher office too soon, they should fast-track Maldonado (see how easy it is to spell?) and send money his way to make him a player for controller. It’s not affirmative action—it’s GOP survival.

But some Republican activists are nothing if not blind to a changing world. They prefer the high-tech approach of crossing their fingers. That should bring new faces into the party. As for Richman getting the RINO award, it’s worth noting that Schwarzenegger probably works more closely with Richman than any Sacramento Republican except the two minority leaders.

But it wouldn’t be a circular firing squad if the Club for Growth actually cared whom the governor respected on the Republican side of the aisle.

Exhibit B: At the recent annual Los Olivos weekend gathering of Republicans, Gary Mendoza, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, announced that he is running for insurance commissioner. He caused a stir when he said that if moderate Republican Silicon Valley multimillionaire Steve Poizner, who also is seeking the Republican nod for insurance commissioner, were to beat him, Mendoza would not back Poizner against the Democratic candidate. I wasn’t present, but Mendoza’s quotes were flying over the Internet. Mendoza called Poizner’s supporters the Gore-Lieberman wing of the Republican Party and accused Poizner of being a Democrat trying to buy a Republican spot in an election.

Poizner’s crime? He gave money to some hated Democratic causes and candidates—fairly routine behavior for Silicon Valley’s highly creative and less-than-orthodox Republicans. Exactly what decade is the GOP stuck in? Or maybe they think we should be more Midwestern and follow the party “rules.”

I’ve known Mendoza since his days in Los Angeles City Hall. He’s a moderate Republican and a nice guy. So, if he’s attacking Poizner, just imagine what the far right is saying about the despicable multimillionaire. (Imagine, further, what it is saying about Abel Maldo-whatever and that obvious socialist, Keith Richman.)

I’ve never seen a political party that more richly deserves its place in history than the California GOP. Non-ideologues and moderates like Richman, Maldonado and Poizner closely mirror the Republican voter, who is most often a moderate. The hard-core right wing, some analysts say, represents perhaps one-third of Republican voters. Unfortunately, that third dominates primary elections, while the silent middle often stays home and goes unrepresented.

The far right doesn’t even realize it is the party’s problem—not Poizner-Richman-Maldonado. Look at it this way: If the state Constitution had been written a bit differently to require a primary as part of a recall election, Arnold would not be governor. In a primary vote, hard-liners would have chosen the conservative Senator Tom McClintock over Arnold. Because he’s too conservative for most Californians, McClintock would have lost the later statewide vote to Cruz Bustamante, the deeply unimpressive lieutenant governor.

Now, GOP hard-liners are at the drawing boards, figuring out how to keep their party as narrow as possible in 2006. It turns out that there’s a great deal of potential damage to be done.

Among other ideas, hard-liners are whispering that Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minuteman Project along the Arizona border, would be a terrific replacement for U.S. Congressman Christopher Cox of Orange County, who just got tapped by President George W. Bush to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.

I’m not going to smear the Minuteman Project, like so many media, some of whom seemed disappointed that no illegal immigrants were shot. I believe that somebody with a voice (besides talk radio) needs to call attention to the porous border with Mexico. Plus, it gives immigration-obsessed Lou Dobbs something to freak out about on CNN.

However, the idea of promoting the lightning rod Gilchrist for anything reminds me of an effort by hard-liners at the state Republican convention a couple of years ago to elect a very conservative former gun-store owner to chair the California Republican Party.

Luckily for the party, moderate Republican lawyer Duf Sundheim was elected instead. Had the buzz-cut-sporting former gun-store owner been elected, the media would have published endless variations on a tale of a gun nut running the California Republican Party.

Hard-liners never see that sort of thing coming. They continually put forth easily demonized Newt Gingrich types, handing the media examples of Republican extremism—and then are stunned when it all backfires.

I am one of those (apparently rare) Californians who admire the two-party system. I want the two parties to fight back and forth, to be forced into public debates over big ideas and to ultimately hammer out deals because both sides realize they have things to gain and lose.

Sure, California elects Republican governors. So what? Regardless of who is governor, our full-time Legislature—the 120 highest-paid state legislators in the nation—is a study in failure, as are all one-party systems.

Year after year, for example, the Legislature ducked the job of fixing workers’ comp—despite rate hikes of up to 1,000 percent that were killing small businesses. The Democrats acted only when threatened by Schwarzenegger, who was ready to seek voter passage of tougher reform. Legislators wring their hands over overcrowded California housing—and then pass laws that restrict housing construction. Legislators praise high-school graduation tests but back down when they hear how many kids will fail to graduate. Legislators bluster about California’s super-high gas prices (even holding some amusing public hearings to “learn the cause”). News flash: The Legislature wrote the laws that slashed California gas production and led to our massive price increases.

In a one-party system, logic is the first casualty. What if Republicans had been in charge of the Legislature virtually every year since Alaska became a state and also had controlled the congressional delegation and two U.S. Senate seats for many years?

Things would be just as terrible. Maybe worse. Instead of having the most crippling gas prices in America, California would have oil drilling all along the coast.

One-party systems hurt everyone. That’s why the public has taken over the legislative process via the use of ballot measures. On average, Californians approve about 40 percent of the measures they face each election year—including many issues the lawmakers gutlessly ducked.

There are some smart folks inside the California Republican Party, but they seem to vanish during election season. Rather than acknowledge the widely mixed and moderate views of even its own GOP voters and finally start to promote moderate candidates who can win statewide races, the GOP is still rushing to the safety of its circular firing squad.