Skin game

White-like-me Republicans take on diversity-or-die Democrats in another race to the extremes

It should be a ripping good show in Sacramento in 2005, since the only place more torn by debilitating race, gender and cultural tension than the California State Assembly and California State Senate might be a high-school cafeteria seething with rival gangs.

I realized this when I saw two lists of recent appointments announced by Republican and Democratic leaders to top jobs and committee chairmanships coveted by elected state senators and Assembly members in Sacramento.

To sum up, the Republicans are wallowing in the 1980s, still knuckle-dragging with a crew of white Anglo-Saxon men, only slowly adding women and minorities. Equally out of touch, in a different way, are the Democrats, stuck at an imaginary 1960s peace protest where Latinos, blacks, Asians and gays control things—and icky WASP men are quashed.

In Sacramento, the parties reflect Californians about as accurately as a cracked, moldy old mirror.

This is why little of value will be accomplished by the California Legislature, which has just launched its 2005 session with enough hot air to blast a man around the globe.

The Republican Party of California and the Democratic Party of California are owned by fringy special interests, which spend money to elect the very folks who are then awarded the top leadership spots by the party leaders. It’s a nasty little circle of mutual admiration.

The result is plain: an extreme over-preponderance of white, Christian, ultraconservative men among the Republican legislative leadership; and an extreme over-preponderance of urban, ultra-leftist ethnic and gender warriors among the Democratic leadership.

Who among them will speak for the California majority—the hardworking middle-class taxpayer who is neither an ideologue of the right or the left and doesn’t care about a politician’s religion, skin color or sexuality?

You’ll need a microscope to find that particular politician in 2005.

Our legislators, hurtling toward the extremes like a political big bang, don’t care that Californians describe themselves largely as “moderates”—not as liberals or conservatives. Nor do our legislators care that, aside from the singular behavior of black voters, who vote together as a racial monolith in elections, Californians do not vote in rigid racial or ideological blocs.

So, it’s particularly galling to see two lists, released on the same day before the holidays, by Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, that reflect Sacramento’s unfettered racial, ethnic, gender, religious and cultural divisions in all their dark glory.

Ackerman’s list looks like a conservative-white-guy signup sheet from an evangelical society mixed up with a membership roster for exurban Rotary. (Note: Ackerman did not control every appointment. Some Republican appointments are made by the majority Democrats. But even those chosen by Democrats accurately reflect Senate Republicans: conservative white guys.)

Take Dennis Hollingsworth, who appears on Ackerman’s list as the vice chair of Budget and Fiscal Review. Hollingsworth is capable of great charm. Yet, Hollingsworth begins many of his comments in the Legislature with an attack on abortion rights, regardless of the topic at hand. He’s such an ideologue that he’s easily baited by Democrats. It’s not productive, and nor is it good for his party.

Other white guys selected include Jim Battin and Roy Ashburn, vice chairmen of the Rules Committee, and Jeff Denham, named chairman of Agriculture. White guys for vice chairman include: Bill Morrow of Veterans Affairs, Energy and also of Judiciary; Sam Aanestad of Appropriations; John Campbell of Business Professions and also of Labor; Battin of Elections; Denham of Government Organization; Bob Dutton of Government Modernization and also of Revenue; George Runner of Health; Dave Cox of Local Government; Bob Margett of Natural Resources; Ashburn of Public Employment; Chuck Poochigian of Public Safety; and Tom McClintock of Transportation.

Republicans did drum up one Latino—the moderate Abel Maldonado, who will be vice chairman of both Human Services and of Education.

But honestly, it’s a veritable sea of conservative white guys.

Still, we can’t neglect the Democrats. Beginning in the 1980s, the Democrats began building a Tower of Babble based on race, ethnicity and gender that has become increasingly unjustifiable and impenetrable.

One former Democratic consultant in Los Angeles told me, “What started out as a reasonable strategy, to bring minorities into office, has gotten out of control. Democrats divide the state up by race to the point where each [legislative] seat in Sacramento is designated by skin color. You can’t run if you aren’t the color. Voters don’t like it. We could lose the middle class to the Republicans, just as the South lost it to the Republicans.”

I was disappointed but not surprised when Núñez announced his 14-member non-white-guys-plus-gals leadership team of five Latinos, three blacks, two Asians, three white women and one gay man.

Núñez excluded moderates from the Democrats’ leadership team, reaching into a pool of green newcomers and urban leftists.

The only arguable moderate is Majority Floor Leader Dario Frommer, who once told me he is a “raging moderate.” But he’s not, really. He votes against pro-business initiatives and for anti-business laws. He votes for new taxes and against true budget cuts. I’ve seen little moderation from Frommer.

The rest of Núñez’s non-white guys plus gals includes, for Latinos, Majority Whip Lori Saldana, Rules Committee Chairwoman Cindy Montañez, Rules member Joe Baca Jr. and Rules member Joe Coto; for blacks, Majority Whip Karen Bass, Democratic Caucus Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas and Rules member Mervyn Dymally; for Asians, Speaker Pro Tempore Leland Yee and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Judy Chu; and for gays, Budget Committee Chairman John Laird.

Technically, Laird—a member of the Legislature’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus—is also the sole white guy.

Laird and Núñez were in a group I have dubbed the “Squawk Box Seven.” These highly partisan Democrats met in secret on July 21, 2003, to strategize ways to further delay the disastrous, nearly month-late state budget under former Governor Gray Davis—and then try to blame it on the Republicans.

Unbeknownst to them, their scheming accidentally was being broadcast over a live intercom throughout the Capitol, was heard by hundreds of people and was widely publicized. Now, these folks are in charge.

So, Sacramento is worse than a gang-ridden school cafeteria. Now what?

I find it interesting that, after making a terrible mess of its party, the California GOP seems to have reached the seventh stage—of acceptance. Republicans finally admit they will remain a minority party as long as they don’t broaden their tent. Moreover, they are acting upon it.

Jim Brulte, the powerful former California Senate minority leader who was forced out by term limits, now openly discusses the fact that his party is far too white-bread for California.

Brulte told me, “Look, I describe myself as a pro-life, anti-gay-rights, pro-gun, pro-business, anti-environment guy. But if [moderate Republican Senator] Bruce McPherson hadn’t been there with me in the Senate, I would have been the liberal in the Republican Caucus. Me!”

Despite his conservative views, Brulte realizes how absurd that fact is. He’s a conservative modernist. He was admired in Sacramento for trying to recruit minorities and women for office.

Now, he’s a private consultant to businesses at California Strategies and also is chairman of the Bench-Building Program of the California GOP, which helps elect minority Republicans to school boards and city councils.

Said Brulte, “We now have minority Republicans on school boards and on city councils … and two Latinos running for district attorney. … Next, we’ll move them up to higher office. I know we have to reflect California. I look at the Republicans in the California delegation to Congress, and what do I see? I see 20 white males—every one of them a white male. That has to change.”

I think it’s refreshing that the Republicans are being open about this longtime fatal flaw.

By contrast, the Democrats in Sacramento have yet to admit to their own bad tendencies in the opposite direction. Why should they? They’re in the catbird seat with California voters. So, now, they are pushing further and further left. Key Democratic leaders in Sacramento already have announced a plan to push for gay marriage and for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

Tony Quinn, a political moderate and co-publisher of the California Target Book, which assesses California politics, says the recall of Davis “was set off by the Democrats’ leftward tilt in the Legislature. Yet, we can see that these legislators clearly did not learn that lesson.”

Quinn suggests that the Democrats easily could alienate enough voters to begin losing other key statewide races to the Republicans, such as attorney general, state treasurer, controller and secretary of state. He thinks Núñez “is a weak speaker” who doesn’t get it.

“The Democrats are creating a major problem for themselves with white voters, as well as an emerging problem with Latinos,” said Quinn. “When you look more closely, recent elections show the Democrats have atrophied. The growth in votes is in Republican areas where George Bush picked up points in 2004 with Latinos, over what he got from Latinos in those areas in 2000.”

It took Republicans 30 years to admit their problem in California. I wonder how long it will take the Democrats.