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National Perspective : Congress : Conservatives Seize Control of State’s GOP House Caucus

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California’s Democratic and Republican congressmen have been at each other’s throats for so long, it is all but impossible to get them to sit down together. And now it seems that relations within the state’s GOP delegation may not be much better.

Only hours after Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Highland) turned back a concerted challenge to his position as the House’s third-ranking Republican leader early this month, he suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of his own California GOP colleagues.

The cross-fire pitted the party’s hard-line conservatives--led by Reps. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) and Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove)--against a more pragmatic faction headed by Lewis and Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego).

BACKGROUND: At issue were obscure, but politically sensitive, positions on House and Republican Party committees. The underlying struggle was over which wing of the party will control the 19-member Republican caucus during the critical reapportionment process. California stands to gain seven congressional seats through redistricting.

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For the next two years, at least, the conservatives will call the shots. They knocked Lewis off the party committee that chooses the GOP lawmakers who will serve on House policy committees. He was replaced by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) on an 11-8 vote.

The Orange County contingent and its allies--including three newly elected lawmakers--grabbed virtually all the House Republican Conference and California delegation positions selected during the strained two-hour organizational meeting.

The victors defined the contest as the have-nots versus the haves.

“It just didn’t occur to them that slaves would rise up,” crowed an Orange County lawmaker. “They have always thought of us as the Three Stooges.”

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For some, the behind-the-scenes machinations, multiple meetings and arm-twisting that preceded the vote exemplified the intense frustration of House Republicans, who have never known anything but minority status.

OPPOSING VIEWS: But the tug-of-war also reflected swirling tensions within California politics.

Redistricting--always a delicate exercise in political survival--assumes even larger proportions after passage of Proposition 140, which limits Assembly terms to six years and state Senate terms to eight.

Faced with mandatory retirement, state lawmakers now have increased incentive to draw new congressional districts in which they might be elected to Congress.

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Among the assignments wrested away by the GOP insurgents were several liaison positions between the delegation and the state lawmakers who will draw new congressional district lines. Rep.-elect John Doolittle (R-Rocklin), a state senator with close ties to Assembly conservatives, replaced Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), a Lewis ally, as the delegation’s point man on redistricting.

The pivotal Republican in the reapportionment process will be Gov.-elect Pete Wilson, who must sign the redistricting plans into law. Ironically, those in the delegation who are closest to Wilson--personally as well as philosophically--were among the losers in the shake-up. Titles aside, they are still likely to have input in redrawing the districts.

DEMOCRATS: California Democrats, meanwhile, saw their 26-member delegation--the nation’s largest among Democrats--divided when Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) spearheaded a movement that ousted Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro) as chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee.

One California Democrat said a colleague from another state told him, “I don’t mind that you’re getting 52 (House) seats, because you’ll act like two states anyway,”

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“Now,” the Californian quipped, “maybe it’s four.”


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