State senator burned out by polarization

Fed up with a lack of compromise, Republican Sen. Bill Emmerson says he's lost his passion for politics and it's time to leave.

State Sen. Bill Emmerson says he's so fed up with the California Legislature that he's giving up and getting out.

The Hemet Republican says his legislative fire no longer burns, his passion for politics has cooled.

"I'm totally frustrated, and it's time for me to move on," the 68-year-old lawmaker told me. "I'm done."

Emmerson especially cites political polarization as a reason for vacating Sacramento. Ideological extremes, combined with powerful interests on both sides, too often stymie problem-solving, he complains.

It's an increasingly familiar lament, particularly among veteran pols who remember when disagreeing factions actually were willing to compromise and capable of doing it.

Emmerson expresses hope that two recent voter-approved election reforms — open primaries and independent redistricting — "will create a better relationship in Sacramento." But he's not waiting around. He's resigning Dec. 1.

Now, frankly, I'm always skeptical when an elected official suddenly quits a job that he had worked hard to win. Especially when he drops the announcement, as Emmerson did, late on a Friday afternoon, as if he were trying to draw as little attention as possible.

"I wanted to talk to my staff," he says. "It's just how it worked out."

But after all those long evenings addressing civic clubs, schmoozing strangers, hitting up moneybags for campaign dollars? Something else must be going on! A better job beckons? Something in the personal life?

No, the senator insists. It is what it seems.

"My health is perfect," he says. And so is his wife's. He has no job commitment, although as an orthodontist, he always has been interested in healthcare policy.

Not running for another office? "No nothing. I've just had it."

In his announcement Nov. 8, Emmerson put it this way: "I have always felt that one had to be passionate about their work. In these past few months, my passion has waned and my constituents deserve a senator with the level of commitment that I once had."

OK, that's ample reason enough to pack up and go home.

And it's understandable. Being a member of the California Legislature truly can't be as stimulating and enjoyable as it was a generation or two ago — back when Emmerson first entered the Capitol in the early 1970s as a legislative aide to a moderate Riverside Republican, Craig Biddle.

Biddle was a respected pragmatist who enjoyed good relationships across the aisle. And Emmerson was cut from similar cloth.

Helped by the California Dental Assn., he was elected to the Assembly in 2004, then moved up to the Senate in a 2010 special election. He easily won reelection last year and wasn't termed out until 2016.

But Emmerson — vice chairman of the Senate Budget Committee — says he began souring on the Capitol in 2011, when he and four other Senate Republicans tried to cut a deal with Gov. Jerry Brown on taxes. They weren't even trying to raise taxes, just extend some then-existing levies. And legislators weren't actually going to extend them anyway — only place them on the ballot for voters to decide.

Antsy Republicans wouldn't go along, however, because they were afraid of the tax boogeyman.

Emmerson and his small group attempted to compromise with the Democratic governor — if he'd give them public pension reform, or business regulatory relief, or a spending cap, they'd try to sell the tax election to other GOP lawmakers. But no sale — neither to the GOP nor to labor.