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Travis Allen hopes voter anger over the gas tax will propel him from GOP backbencher to governor

Travis Allen hopes voter anger over the gas tax will propel him from GOP backbencher to governor
Republican gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen speaks on repealing the gas tax increase at a conference of the Tea Party California Caucus in Fresno last summer. (Silvia Flores / For The Times)

As he sometimes does before a life-changing decision, Travis Allen grabbed his surfboard and took to the breakers near his Huntington Beach home the day he decided to run for the state Assembly in 2012.

Now, the Republican backbencher hopes to ride a wave of taxpayer anger into the California governor’s office.

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Allen has amassed a statewide following of conservatives by leading the charge to persuade voters to repeal increases in the state’s gas tax and vehicle fees approved last year by the Democratic majority. But along the way his brash actions have alienated some members of his own party.

After watching almost all of his bills die in the Democrat-controlled Legislature over the last six years, Allen’s frustration reached its peak in April 2017 when he and other Republicans were on the losing end of the gas tax vote. That defining moment set him on the path to run for governor.

“It directly influenced my decision,” Allen said in an interview. “The only way to truly stop the Democrats and take back California was to take that top spot and become the next governor of the state of California.”

Allen’s vehicle to the highest state office was to be a ballot measure he proposed in May 2017 that would have repealed the gas tax and vehicle fees. But that effort foundered, and he has had to pivot to endorse a separate repeal initiative launched in September and backed by Republican businessman John Cox, a rival in the race.

Along the way, Allen’s actions have ignited a feud among California Republicans, with some charging that his primary motive has been to use the gas tax issue to boost his political fortune.

Repeal of the higher taxes and fees is supported by 51% of registered voters in the state, including 80% of Republicans, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times statewide public opinion poll released this week.

Allen’s initiative was bogged down in a court fight. Initially, a judge sided with his objection that Democratic state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s language for the title and summary of the initiative was misleading because it did not make clear the measure would repeal taxes and fees. But an appeals court sided with the attorney general, and the state Supreme Court declined to hear Allen’s appeal.

With time running out, Allen did not file any signatures by the deadline to get the measure on the ballot and ended up pledging his support for the separate repeal initiative backed by Cox and Republican members of Congress.

Allen infuriated some fellow Republicans last month when he used $300,000 donated by a real estate firm to his pro-repeal committee to make radio and video ads touting his candidacy for governor while urging elimination of the new gas tax. Allen denied the ad promoted his campaign and said it wasn’t improper.

It happened at a crucial time when the second initiative drive was short of cash needed to collect sufficient signatures, said Republican Carl DeMaio, a leader of that ballot measure campaign. He calls Allen a “snake-oil salesman,” alleging the assemblyman used the gas tax to rally voter support for his gubernatorial bid without doing what was needed to get the issue on the ballot.

“He did everything he could to set up a side show to promote his name and not do anything to support the effort to repeal the gas tax,” said DeMaio, a former San Diego City Council member and conservative radio talk-show host who has endorsed Cox. “It undermined the viability of our initiative.”

Allen said the new initiative drive benefited from the momentum he created when he started rallying voters to repeal the gas tax months earlier, and he said he delivered “tens of thousands” of signatures for the second measure.

Last month, the second drive turned in more than 900,000 signatures, and backers are waiting to hear from elected officials to determine whether there are the 585,407 signatures of registered voters needed to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

Allen, who was a financial planner before he was elected, said he would be doing those who donated to his repeal campaign “a huge disservice if I was to transfer any funds to a campaign committee involving John Cox,” whom he called a “failed politician.”

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Cox, in turn, filed a complaint with the state political watchdog agency alleging Allen misused the $300,000 contributed to the repeal campaign to improperly promote his candidacy for governor.

Allen’s role in the subsequent petition drive was downplayed by David Gilliard, a Republican political consultant behind the newer initiative.

“He was the first, but his measure was flawed and never got off the ground. He was inconsequential in our campaign,” Gilliard said.

Another leader of the latest initiative drive, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., offered a polite assessment of Allen’s efforts.

“I think his heart was in the right place, but that [initiative] did not really look to us to be really viable,” Coupal said.

Allen was one of 10 California legislators to get perfect scores last year from Coupal’s group for votes against taxes, but the association has endorsed Cox as a conservative voice with better funding and campaign organization, and therefore a better chance to win.

“Travis has unquestionably been a very solid vote for taxpayers,” Coupal said. “He’s very articulate, and I think he has a future.”

Other conservative Republicans, including former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who ran unsuccessfully for governor four years ago, give Allen the benefit of the doubt on his initiative efforts.

“Repealing the gas tax is smart politics,” Donnelly said. “It was very smart politics on the part of Travis Allen, and I believe he was very sincere about it.”

Donnelly credits Allen for exciting conservative grass-roots activists in much the way that President Trump did, although Trump has endorsed Cox in the contest for governor. That endorsement was a setback for Allen, who had campaigned as the only top candidate to vote for Trump in 2016.

The California Republican Party did not endorse either candidate because neither won the 60% of the vote of delegates needed for state GOP backing.

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Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine), who formerly sat next to Allen on the Assembly floor, admires Allen for leading on the issue. Choi said that it was too much for Allen to run an initiative drive while campaigning for governor and that the court ruling was a major setback.

“Some people said that he was using that [ballot measure] for his own good,” Choi said. “In my judgment, he was not abusing that opportunity. He tried, but the reality did not allow him to pursue that.”

Allen’s confrontational style and propensity to speak more than his share on the Assembly floor has divided fellow lawmakers. But Choi, a former Irvine mayor who has endorsed Allen, said the assemblyman’s passion is real.

“He is one of the most conservative Republican Party members that I have seen,” Choi said. “He is not afraid of speaking up on the controversial, very ridiculous bills being introduced on the floor. A lot of people are afraid of speaking, but he was the one all the time standing up and speaking up.”

Allen does not hold a leadership position in the Republican Caucus. His biggest role is as vice chairman of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economic Development and the Economy.

His success rate with bills has not been high, which is common among Republicans in a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

Of the 94 Allen bills that have been acted on, 87 failed to pass, two were vetoed by the governor and five were approved and signed into law.

Most of the bills signed into law were incremental changes to existing laws.

Asked about his legislative accomplishments, Allen cites a failed attempt to stop “sanctuary” laws protecting immigrants in the country illegally and his push for a law preventing California state government agencies from awarding contracts to companies that participate in a boycott of Israel.

As in the dispute over Allen’s handling of the gas tax fight, he has detractors for the way he handled the latter bill.

The contracts law was originally proposed in a bill introduced by Allen, but that legislation died, and Democrats led by Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica introduced a similar measure that was approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor in 2016.

“It was a long fight, and the Democrats eventually stole the bill,” Allen said.

Bloom said the legislation was the top priority of the Legislative Jewish Caucus, with the understanding it would be carried by a member of that group.

“Mr. Allen got off to a bad start when he attempted to go around the caucus with his own bill,” Bloom said. “Nevertheless, after trying to work with him but finding it impossible, his bill was sidelined.”

Despite the strong bipartisan support for the Bloom bill, the Democratic lawmaker said it “was a challenging piece of legislation that, I am convinced, would have failed had Mr. Allen been left to his own devices.”

Nearly two years later, Allen still smarts from having his bill taken over by Democrats. That control by the Democratic majority motivates Allen as he runs for governor and continues urging voters to repeal the gas tax increase.

“I realized I wasn’t able to beat Jerry Brown and California Democrats as a legislator,” he said. “But I could beat them as a citizen through the ballot initiative process, which is exactly what we’re doing.”

12:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information on Allen’s work to repeal the gas tax.

This article was originally published at 12:05 a.m.

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