MAN IN THE NEWS : Ross Johnson--He May Have Met His Match in Wilson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During a recent charity roast, Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson took his turn to rib the honoree--the governor, who just days before had unveiled an ambitious plan to save wildlife, wetlands and forests.

Some conservatives couldn't attend the event, the lumbering bear of a man told Gov. Pete Wilson. They were out "hunting spotted owls with AK-47s."

"But let me tell you, Pete, they're not bad eating," joked Johnson, the only lawmaker to score a zero on an environmentalist score card last year. "You roast them over an old-growth redwood fire (and) it tastes kind of like a cross between a condor and a bald eagle."

Even in jest, there's no hiding the obvious differences between the governor and his Republican counterpart in the Assembly. Both in style and substance, the pugnacious former steelworker from La Habra is a sharp contrast to the genteel, Ivy League-educated Wilson.

Those differences have never seemed more dramatic--or been showcased more publicly--than during the ongoing budget fight in which the uncomfortably shy Johnson is taking on his party's standard-bearer over $7.7 billion in proposed tax increases.

While Wilson and most other Sacramento politicians viewed the hikes as a painful necessity to balance the 1991-1992 state budget, Johnson angrily balked. And he rallied his fractious, 31-member caucus to hold the governor's $56.4-billion spending plan hostage in the Legislature's lower house.

On Thursday, Wilson broke the resistance when he enticed nine Assembly Republicans--including two of Johnson's top lieutenants--to join with Democrats and approve the spending plan. Although votes still remain to be taken on controversial tax increases, last week's spectacle left many wondering if the 51-year-old Assembly Republican leader may be on an endangered species list himself.

"This could be his last stand," said a member of his caucus.

Just weeks before the budget crisis galvanized them, Assembly Republicans already were on the verge of ousting Johnson as leader after 2 1/2 years in the post. Fueled by personal differences and grumblings from younger Republicans, the coup fell just one vote short.

Even if he remains in power, some friends and foes say the unyielding conservatism that Johnson personifies is increasingly out of sync with Wilson's new wave of pragmatic Republican politics--if not California itself.

"Since Ross Johnson was elected, we've had a 25% increase in population statewide, we've had a doubling of population in senior citizens and children, the state has given away $200 billion in tax relief to the richest 1%, the corporate few and special interests," said Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D-Castro Valley), a liberal who counts Johnson a friend.

Those kind of changes, said Klehs, require a political response that's "a little bit more flexible than Ross can stomach right now."

Nonsense, sputters Johnson. "I am not a 'caveman,' you know," he said last week, bristling at the nickname that has become attached to him and other right-wing Assembly Republicans. "Believe it or not, I have a college education, I have a law degree.

"I'm reasonably intelligent and I represent the views of my constituency pretty accurately. Collectively, we represent the legitimate point of view of millions of Californians."

Johnson's politics are grounded in Proposition 13, the 1978 taxpayers initiative that swept Johnson into the Legislature on a tide of anti-government sentiment. His mission and that of the other so-called "Prop. 13 babies": Slash government spending and defeat taxes. Other assignments included fighting abortion and punishing criminals.

The conservative brand of property-owner populism wears well on Johnson, the former ironworker who put himself through Cal State Fullerton in eight years. With the temperament and appearance of a bulldog, Johnson "looks like he could head-butt his way through a redwood stand," a political columnist recently wrote.

An introvert, he has been prone to outbursts--such as the 1989 incident when he referred to Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana) as "Sen. Torquemada," a reference to the bloody prosecutor of Jews and others during the Spanish Inquisition. A contrite Johnson was later publicly rebuked by the entire Senate.

"He's a man who is very inside himself, and that marks him more than anything else," said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach). "And when he lets it come out, it sometimes comes out like Mt. Vesuvius."

But it was his conservative credentials and what some colleagues hail as an uncanny ability for political gamesmanship that put Johnson in line to become Assembly Republican leader in 1988 when his predecessor and best friend, Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), stepped down under the cloud of an FBI investigation.

One of Johnson's first moves was an ill-fated attempt to join with dissident Democrats and overthrow Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). That opened a rift with Brown that surfaced again two weeks ago when the leaders got into a shouting match during closed-door budget talks.

These days, Johnson almost as often finds himself at odds with the Republican governor, although he voted for him and says he continues to be a loyal Wilson supporter.

But while Johnson's ideological conservatism fit in well with former Gov. George Deukmejian's politics, he has become a liability to the more moderate and pragmatic Wilson.

The former San Diego mayor is an advocate of abortion rights and has strong environmental credentials. In contrast, Johnson is strongly anti-abortion and was given a "0" rating last year by the California League of Conservation Voters for opposing 18 environmental bills.

Johnson's biggest threat, however, comes from within his own caucus where more moderate members are slowly replacing archconservatives that have either died, quit or moved on to other public office. His relationship with some in the caucus was made all the more difficult after he opposed some of the newcomers in their elections.

Even those who agree with Johnson's views have become disenchanted with their leader's reluctance to become more of a player in the Democratic-dominated Legislature.

"The whole idea (in Sacramento) is to work on a strategy and get the job done, not kick back and do nothing," said Assemblyman Tom Mays (R-Huntington Beach), who resigned as caucus secretary earlier this year.

But that is what Assembly Republicans did, said Mays, when they ignored the governor's request to submit their spending ideas in February. Rather then jump in with demands for low or no taxes, the group painted itself into a corner by staying silent, he said.

The silence was broken June 3 when, at the urging of Mays and others, Johnson convened a press conference and threw down the gauntlet to Wilson. Flanked by his caucus, he said the 31 Assembly Republicans would hold up the budget and its tax increases past the June 15 deadline if the spending plan didn't contain "structural" changes, such as deep welfare cuts and the suspension of automatic cost-of-living increases.

On Thursday, the coalition crumbled under pressure from Wilson, albeit past the deadline. Now some say that even if Johnson manages to hold onto his leadership job, the outcome of the budget battle could seal the fate of the Assembly's ultraconservatives.

"What we're seeing here is maybe the last battle," said fellow archconservative Ferguson. "The movement of conservatism is going to fade into the background."

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