The white elephant

Those Republicans are putting on a new face, and at least one of them is of color

Illustration By David Wagner

Republicans like to say they are modernizing. But, were it not for the remarkable behavior of Bill Back at the recent Republican Party state convention in Sacramento, the buzz-cut-sporting, ultra-conservative retiree who used to sell weapons at gun shows would now be the face of California’s Republican Party.

The struggling Republicans were saved from four years of awful press and backsliding only because of Back’s classic right-winger psychological blunders at a dinner debate with moderate Republican Silicon Valley lawyer Duf Sundheim.

What happened at that dinner and in the days since gives us the first look at whether Republicans can fight back to regain a toehold in California, threaten U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s seat or win the state back for George W. Bush in 2004.

At the debate on February 22 to determine whether Sundheim or Back would become the state’s Republican chairman, Back went for Sundheim’s jugular before a crowd of delegates—well-heeled contributors and members of Congress—after each man had signed a pledge not to thrash the other.

During his litany of attacks on Sundheim, Back sniped: “He is a member of the country-club Republicans who write checks. Fact! Fact! Fact! … My opponent allowed his campaign to play the race card [against me] that has tarnished this party and every member in it. Fact!”

Although the widely liked Back realized he’d screwed up—from the scattered hisses and gasps—and tried to correct course with folksy, self-deprecating wisecracks, he’d hung himself high. The next day, he lost the election to Sundheim, as twitchy operatives for President Bush—fervently praying that Back would lose but publicly praising his loyalty—looked on.

One observer from Washington explained, on condition of anonymity, “I don’t know what sunk Bill quicker: lashing out at Duf in a fashion that everybody is sick to death of in this party or attacking the people in the room who give the money by calling them country-club Republicans. Until that moment, Back was the winner.”

And that is plain scary … and telling. Back is popular in Republican circles for his down-to-earth reliability, but he is a troglodyte. He is so out of step with the times that, after U.S. Senator Trent Lott sank himself with racially insensitive comments, word leaked that Back had sent a memo to 500 Republicans in 1999 featuring a position paper in which a writer grossly dismissed the country’s history of slavery.

Long before the February vote for party chairman took place, one high-placed Republican adviser explained to me, “The president needs Duf Sundheim to win. It’s understood that President Bush can never stand on the same stage with Bill Back because of the memo. It’s not possible.”

The party chairmanship is a crucial job. The chairman directs the growth of the party through registration drives and support of candidates. Most importantly, the party tries to win California for the president. But warring far-right conservatives have torpedoed nearly every effort by the party to broaden its base here.

After Back’s memo scandal, Sundheim—who is from the sensible Lincoln Club and occasionally has given modest sums to Democrats such as New Jersey’s Bill Bradley—was buried in endorsements from conservative and moderate Republican politicos. In a historic vote, the entire California Republican U.S. congressional delegation endorsed Sundheim.

After all the fawning, Sundheim was expected to win hands-down. But Back and the right-wingers, in typical blind fashion, did not care if Back’s outrageous memo and fame as a political fossil crippled the party’s reputation with years of negative news coverage and late-night TV ridicule.

Back launched a furious, volunteer campaign to win the 1,000 delegates. The halls of the Sacramento Convention Center and Hyatt Hotel rang with small marching bands and organized chants. By that Saturday night, when Back and Sundheim debated, the insider word was that Sundheim was losing.

The minimizing of slavery, apparently, easily had slipped to the back burner.

But then Back’s nasty attacks backfired, and Sundheim won by a decisive 666 to 489 (the vote exceeded the delegation count because of proxy voting). After it was over, the two men joined arms in unity, pledging to attract minorities and women.

With the perfectly normal Sundheim leading the party instead of a redneck former gun peddler, now the party will have some modest chance of doing so.

In part, that’s because, in addition to Sundheim’s win, the delegates gave a razor-close upset to a startling new vice-chairman: the hip, moderate and photogenic Mario Rodriguez, an up-by-his-bootstraps Mexican-American from San Clemente.

Rodriguez, who jumped into the race only five weeks before the vote, was elected vice-chair over an Orange County woman. Incredibly, he is the first Mexican-American ever to hold such high office in the California Republican Party.

The last Latino state party officer was the rich Tirso del Junco, an old-school conservative of Cuban descent who was president in the early 1990s and refused to endorse Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, a military brat, got his start at age 18 with a $300 car from his father. He worked his butt off and now owns a specialty advertising agency that places logos on promotional products. He has 12 employees and 30 sales reps. He said, “My beliefs always clicked with Republicans because I never believed in handouts and I only wanted an opportunity to succeed.”

Yet Republican officials and activists are woefully unaccustomed to dealing with Mexican-Americans. The convention showed just how awkward party insiders are when dealing with Latinos who are not rich Cubans.

At one point, Rodriguez gave a speech in which he quipped that he would take on Art Torres, the smarmy chairman of the California Democratic Party. Rodriguez, who met Bush when serving on the federal Social Security Commission, cried to the crowd: “I assured the president we would win California in 2004 for him! Let me tell you, Arturo Torres, here I come!”

Rodriguez flashed a brilliant grin. But the sea of white delegates stared dumbly, their friendly, puzzled faces struggling to get the joke. Who in the living hell was Arrrturrdo Torrrdezzz?

I didn’t see more than 20 or so who laughed, immediately understanding that Rodriguez was using the Spanish pronunciation for the unpopular Torres.

“Well,” Rodriguez told me later, laughing, “we have a lot to share with one another in this party, and I intend to do just that. It’s my mission to become the bridge as I bring Latinos into the fold.”

So, whassup? Are moderates surging back in control of the Republican Party in California, making things look good for Bush in 2004? Are Republican leaders finally grasping the modern, many-hued world?

Good Lord, no. I counted the black, Latino and Asian delegates for California—on my fingers. At the dinner, I spotted 26 Asians, 18 blacks and 19 Latinos. At the speeches, where only delegates were allowed, I counted 14 blacks, 21 Asians and 11 Latinos. This out of 1,000 people. And this after years of Republicans yapping about “reaching out.” With my pale, freckled skin, I felt positively ruddy by comparison.

It’s a scandal perpetuated by California Republican officeholders who appoint most delegates—almost never selecting minorities because, as a number of officeholders insisted to me, only active volunteers should be rewarded spots. One exception is Republican Senate leader Jim Brulte, who pointedly selects women and minorities. (Another problem: Hard-right conservatives who lose races are allowed to appoint delegates and pick them as glaringly white as they can get them.)

What a pigheaded way to perpetuate a party’s slow death.

Nevertheless, Sundheim and Rodriguez are not your parents’ Republicans. Democrats should look alive. Sundheim’s Lincoln Club has given big sums to mayoral races—working with fiscally conservative candidates who were Democrats and convincing them to go Republican. If that keeps up, one Democratic stronghold—mayorships—could become a battleground.

Rodriguez may threaten the Democrats even more because the elected Dems in Sacramento keep tilting farther left. Unlike archeological specimen del Junco, Rodriguez has the moxie and personality to draw non-leftist Latinos to the Republicans.

Polls say Mexican-Americans support war against Iraq, are more religious than most Democrats, are less trusting of government and welfare than other ethnic groups and vote pro-business on measures involving growth. They greatly admire Bush, who gave an interview on the Telemundo network in February in which the president spoke in Spanish.

Since their election, Rodriguez and Sundheim already have begun working to become the Dems’ worst nightmare.

“We are going to go into the barrio because the people who live there are not going to run to us, but they are open to us,” said Rodriguez. “We are going to physically be present in places the party has not been comfortable before. And we hope that makes the Democrats very uncomfortable.”

I’ve heard it before. Nevertheless, I was stupefied when the conventioneers avoided hysteria over the proposed recall of Governor Gray Davis, by officially backing the recall but doing little else. Workshops about how to follow campaign-finance laws and how to understand polling statistics drew crowds of 300, but the workshop on the Davis recall drew only 45.

Who knows? Maybe the party really is going to start acting adult. Maybe it is finally embarrassed that its members don’t deal with Latinos. Maybe it is finally sick and tired of its hard-right conservative wing yanking it into the past. Maybe it’s finally sick of itself.

I know the rest of us are.