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California Republicans face backlash for backing climate change program

After weeks of escalating criticism, Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes still doesn’t have any regrets over bucking his party to support California’s cap-and-trade program on climate change.

There’s just one thing Mayes would have done differently: He wishes he had attended the ceremony on San Francisco’s Treasure Island where Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation.

“The perception was, ‘He didn’t go because he was getting heat.’ That’s not how I operate,” Mayes said, explaining his absence as a scheduling conflict. “When you do the right thing, it’s a good idea to stand by that.”

Whether he did the right thing is a question that has engulfed California’s struggling Republican Party.

For Mayes and his allies, voting for the global warming legislation was a bid to show voters that Republicans are serious about tackling an issue important to Californians. The final law prevented more stringent regulations by extending the cap-and-trade program, which requires companies to buy permits to emit greenhouse gases.

But for conservative critics, the entire episode was a betrayal of party principles and a tactical blunder. In their eyes, Mayes did nothing more than help liberals increase costs for California businesses and then take a victory lap. They accuse him of providing political cover to Democrats in the state Capitol while ignoring the wishes of his caucus, the majority of which opposed the legislation.

Perhaps worst of all, they said, a grinning Mayes posed for chummy photos with Brown and top Democratic lawmakers after the vote. Shawn Steel, one of California’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee, called it “repugnant.”

“What Chad has done is given us a big fat skunk on our plate, and he’s really hurt the party,” Steel said.

The dispute has led to the rare spectacle of top state Republican officials openly campaigning to oust a member of their party from a leadership position. County chairs, local committees and powerful donor groups have called on him to step down — including the GOP leaders of his home county of San Bernardino — and the state party’s board of directors is expected to vote on the issue Friday.

At a weekend tea party gathering in Fresno, the party’s most conservative activists called for Mayes to be challenged by another Republican in the 2018 election.

Tim Donnelly, a conservative former assemblyman who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014, called on tea party members to take Mayes down.

“I think every single Republican in the state of California should make it their business to make phone calls for whomever is going to primary Chad Mayes if he doesn’t resign his seat,” Donnelly said Friday night.

Mayes can be removed from his leadership post, which he has held for two years, only by a vote of his 25-member caucus. That could happen when lawmakers return from their summer recess on Aug. 21. He faces an internal challenge from Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear) — and maybe others.

Jim Brulte, the party’s state chairman who held the same leadership post when he served in the Assembly and Senate, gave Mayes some advice: Once these challenges gain steam, they’re hard to stop. Mayes confirmed the conversation; Brulte declined to comment.

Obernolte and Mayes met Friday to talk about caucus leadership, according to sources with knowledge of the conversation, and Mayes left the meeting planning to remain in his position.

The acrimony over cap and trade has also complicated routine negotiations over extending a routine fundraising agreement between the state party and legislative Republicans, threatening an important tool for filling campaign coffers for next year’s races.

Although Mayes has been the focus of criticism, some of the seven other Republicans who voted for the legislation have been under fire as well. Right-wing activists entered the district office of Assemblyman Marc Steinorth (R-Rancho Cucamonga) and didn’t leave until the California Highway Patrol arrived. Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), who drew attention for his emotional speech before the vote explaining his support for cap and trade, faced angry comments from constituents during a town hall meeting last month.

The internal disputes could cast last month’s vote to extend cap and trade in a much different light. The bipartisan deal had been hailed by supporters as opening a new chapter in California’s environmental leadership, one that could enjoy broader support than in the past. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rare Republican who has championed the fight against global warming, said his party had “moved forward in a big step.”

But the harsh criticisms could force lawmakers back into their partisan foxholes when it comes to climate change.

It’s a familiar cycle for California’s beleaguered Republicans. Trapped in a shrinking legislative and electoral minority, their only shots at relevance have come through working with Democrats. That often leads to recriminations when Republicans cross party lines to support proposals that don’t fit conservative orthodoxy.

“There is historically a tension between being relevant as the minority party, and achieving success on the margins — as opposed to being 100% doctrinaire,” said Rob Stutzman, a former Schwarzenegger advisor.

The bitterness in the Capitol deepened last week when Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), who stepped down as Mayes’ deputy caucus leader last month to protest his handling of cap and trade, was booted out of her third-floor office. With one day’s notice, she was moved into a cramped fifth-floor space known as “the doghouse,” a common landing ground for lawmakers who run afoul of their leaders.

Mayes denied the move had anything to do with disagreements over cap and trade, but it sparked another outcry. Prominent conservative blogger Jon Fleischman said he deserves to lose his legislative seat in addition to his leadership post.

Despite the internal furor, the public blowback against Republicans who voted for cap and trade could be limited. Some of the deep-pocketed organizations that usually fund opposition to environmental policies, such as the Western States Petroleum Assn., supported this year’s legislation.

Mathis was flanked on stage at his recent town hall by business leaders who described his vote as “courageous” and called the legislation “a hell of a deal.” Dorothy Rothrock, who supports the legislation as president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn., described their presence as a “show of force.”

The response from the crowd, however, was mixed. One man accused Mathis of having “stamped a ‘D’ at the end of your name.” A woman called the assemblyman “mindless, spineless Mathis.”

But it’s unclear how deep anger about the cap-and-trade vote runs with voters in the lawmakers’ districts. Rothrock noted that the town hall was sparsely attended.

“There were many more seats than there were people,” she said. “I was expecting a line out the door.”

More than half of Californians said they hadn’t heard anything about the 5-year-old cap-and-trade program, according to a recent poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. But once the program was described to those polled, 56% said they were in favor, including 54% of voters who aren’t registered with a political party and 32% of Republicans.

Nearly three-quarters of Californians support last year’s law requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, according to the same poll.

Given the strong support for the state’s goals, some Republicans said it’s better for them to find a way to have a voice on the issue rather than simply opposing every Democratic proposal.

“We have to be open-minded to these issues,” said Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon), who also voted for the cap-and-trade legislation. “We can’t just say, ‘It’s a hoax,’ and move on.”

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Some Republicans who voted for the legislation have highlighted the concessions they extracted from Democrats in return for their votes. For example, the final deal includes a proposed constitutional amendment that will be on next year’s ballot. If voters pass it, Republicans would gain greater influence over how the state spends billions of dollars in cap-and-trade revenue.

Getting involved on global warming could pay political dividends, Mayes said, making his members more appealing to a broader swath of voters.

“The Republican Party has to change in California, or we’re going to continue down the spiral we’re currently in,” he said.

His staff has a cartoon in their Capitol office illustrating a corporate boardroom with charts showing plummeting profits and sales. One person in the cartoon pipes up, “What if we don’t change at all… and something magical just happens?”

It remains to be seen whether Mayes will follow in the footsteps of previous top Republicans by facing political consequences for controversial votes. The most notable example in recent years was when Dave Cogdill, the late Republican state Senate leader, joined with Democrats and Schwarzenegger to support temporary taxes during California’s financial crisis in 2009.

His caucus called a late-night meeting where he was stripped of his leadership position.

Mayes has hung onto his post so far, heading off a coup attempt shortly after the cap-and-trade vote. But he knows another challenge is possible.

“I serve at the pleasure of our caucus,” he said. “As I know of today, the majority of people in my caucus want me to continue to be the leader. That could change in minutes.”

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Twitter: @chrismegerian

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSeema

Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report from Fresno.

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An earlier version of this article reported that San Diego County GOP Chairman Tony Krvaric said Assemblyman Chris Mayes deserved to lose his legislative seat in addition to his leadership post. Krvaric only wants Mayes removed from his leadership position. It was conservative blogger Jon Fleischman who said he deserved to lose both.
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