The newly announced California Assembly’s Republican leadership team is, as I reported, a “who’s who” of “Republicans in name only” (RINOs) — a poke in the eye of party activists. No matter how riled the party’s dwindling number of voters become, it’s clear that GOP leaders are doubling down on the kinder, gentler approach that has left them with only 25 percent of the state’s electorate. They may soon be surpassed by “decline to state.”
This internal party vote is significant because, just as the moribund party had been showing signs of life, its own leaders scuttled the progress the party had made in taking advantage of widespread public anger at tax-hiking transportation votes.
In July, California GOP Assembly Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley and six of his Assembly colleagues voted to extend the governor’s cost-raising cap-and-trade system that’s designed to fight global warming. In response, GOP county officials and grassroots leaders called for his removal from the leadership position. Rumblings turned into a groundswell, and in late August, the GOP caucus finally replaced Mayes with Brian Dahle, from a small town east of Redding.
Dahle was far from the most conservative legislator vying for the position, but Mayes’ ouster was seen as a win for the conservative base. There seemed, finally, to be a price to pay. But Dahle’s leadership roster features none other than Chad Mayes as assistant Republican leader. Dahle elevated Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, arguably the most liberal Republican in the Legislature, to the No. 2 slot of deputy Republican leader. (Chavez has a 75 out of 100 rating from Planned Parenthood and a 29 percent rating from the California Labor Federation.)
The leadership team also includes another supporter of the cap-and-trade, Heath Flora of Ripon, who was named assistant Republican leader. He’s closely allied with the state’s labor unions and won his seat with strong union support. The other choices are unlikely to ruffle any feathers, but include none of the members favored by conservatives. Dahle didn’t even throw them a bone.
It’s hard to read these appointments as anything other than a loud, public rebuke of those who pressured Mayes to resign his post.
Republicans weren’t just angry that Mayes voted for a measure expected to raise gasoline prices by as much as 63 cents a gallon by 2021 (based on a Legislative Analyst’s Office review). They fumed that he got nothing for it. He didn’t rein in the ham-fisted California Air Resources Board, which gains expansive new powers in the deal. He didn’t tout intelligent alternatives, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would reduce emissions without raising anyone’s taxes.
He rolled over. Then he was ubiquitous at Democratic photo-ops celebrating the “victory.” He basked in the praise of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called him the future of the Republican Party. Never mind the bleak future that Schwarzenegger mapped out for the party when he was governor. Mayes unctuously lectured Republicans about the party “repelling” voters and becoming “more insular and ideologically pure.” He said the GOP needs to “begin to move toward Californians.” It had the feel of someone angling for a “strange new respect” award.
Sure, there’s always a need for serious debate about how — or even whether — the state GOP can become relevant again. I’m not a defender, or even a member, of the GOP. But the party has become far less ideological and insular in the years I’ve been covering it.
It’s hard to argue seriously that today’s California GOP is a right-wing hothouse oblivious to changes in the electorate or that it hasn’t gone to great lengths to broaden its message. Actually, there are only a handful of philosophically minded conservatives left in either caucus. And, besides, leaders need to inspire people to follow a set of principles and policies, not hector them about their failures.
Furthermore, Mayes bumbled the game of politics. Mayes’ critics say he “tactically should have insisted that all politically vulnerable Democrats vote for the controversial bill before any Republicans did,” wrote Los Angeles Times’ columnist George Skelton. Indeed. Sadly, the GOP’s eager support for the bill allowed Democrats in GOP-heavy districts to vote “no” and then position themselves as the voice of the taxpayer in the next election.
“That was a mistake,” Skelton concluded. It certainly was, and it is unforgiveable for a party leader whose key role is to elect more Republicans. The GOP’s pick-up of a single seat in each house is all that’s needed right now to deprive the Democrats of their supermajority. That should be the leadership’s top priority, given that supermajorities can raise taxes at will. Instead, Mayes has made it easier for one vulnerable Orange County Assembly Democrat in particular to fight to retain her seat.
Mayes’ efforts also takes the steam out of a GOP effort to recall an Orange County Democratic senator who cast a deciding vote for a 12-cents-a-gallon gas-tax hike in April. It’s hard to drum up support to recall a guy who voted for that hike, while Republican leaders are patting themselves on the back for a move that raises gas prices by five times that amount.
The state GOP is in an unwinnable pickle, and there’s no clear solution. But at least Republican activists now know what the new Assembly leadership thinks of them. They can make of that what they will.