The Man Behind the Wheel of the Car Tax Repeal Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tightfisted Republican Assemblyman Tom McClintock of Northridge wants to do for government, and by extension for the rest of us, what he does for himself: Save a buck.

"He's just like you. Only cheaper," was his battle cry in the race for state controller in 1994. He circulated a memorable poster--smiling Tom in his cheap suit and bargain basement shoes.

Just the candidate, his campaign said, to rein in the state's "out-of-control state budget."

Except that the voters said "no thanks," electing Democrat Kathleen Connell instead.

Tom McClintock, at age 38--an unyielding, one-of-a-kind disciple of fiscal conservatism who can quote the Declaration of Independence from memory--was out of office and out of the limelight.

Hard to believe now.

McClintock, back in the Assembly since 1996, has lit the match on what Republicans hope will be their most powerful appeal to voters in decades: repeal of vehicle license fees, the so-called car tax.

"That loathsome car tax," as McClintock calls it.

No question about it, said GOP Assembly Leader Bill Leonard of San Bernardino, "he's hit a hot button."

Eyes flashing, posture stick-straight, starchy and self-assured as he orates, McClintock this year took the lead in the Legislature in calling for repeal of the tax, averaging $171 a year per car, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. McClintock puts the figure at $185.

With state revenues overflowing, now is the time, McClintock says, to rid the rolls of the "most hated and abusive tax on the books."

The state can do it, he maintains, without harming funding for public schools--a contention hotly contested by his Democratic rivals.

All of which is entirely in character for the frugal McClintock, a nice guy to most, liberals included, but a terror in his impassioned crusade against what he considers the flagrant overtaxing of Joe Citizen.

"When are we going to realize that California's problems are not the fault of taxpayers for not paying enough taxes?"

It's a question he has asked over and over, beginning in the Assembly 16 years ago. Fiscally too extreme even for most Republicans, McClintock's notions, with rare exception, have gone nowhere. His is often the lone "no" vote on the Assembly's electronic tally board.

But this time, he said, by advocating an end to the car tax, he has caught a popular wave.

"It's the most important reform I have worked on," and not since the groundswell that produced anti-tax Proposition 13 in 1978, he said, has there been such a response.

Democrats say he's wrong, pointing to surveys that show a public preference for investing in schools over receiving a tax cut. Whether a car tax cut is contained in the new state budget will not be known until it is adopted in coming weeks.

Interestingly, McClintock's fiscal rigidness has not rubbed his political rivals raw. His rhetoric is seldom taken personally and several Assembly Democrats respect his consistency and independence.

Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica says her "liberal, progressive, at times radical" tendencies--except in matters financial--can converge with McClintock's.

"I offered a bill to protect battered women against their abusers" some years ago, Kuehl said. On a committee vote, "McClintock was the only 'aye,' either Democrat or Republican. Whether inside or outside the home, he saw [assault] as a crime."

Carole Migden of San Francisco, as far to the left as McClintock is to the right, said she admires "his courage to stand alone."

Bob Hertzberg of Sherman Oaks called McClintock "tenacious" in fighting last year for the San Fernando Valley to split off from Los Angeles. "I like him tremendously."

Not all do.

"He lacks the milk of human kindness" for the poor and needy, said a Democratic legislative staffer who asked not to be named.

Other conservatives "are just as astute as he is," said a Republican critic, state Sen. Cathie Wright of Simi Valley, "even though he gets a bucket of ink" in exposure.

He takes most criticism in stride.

On so-called tort reform, considered GOP gospel, McClintock said he is revising his thinking--toward a belief that not all lawsuits are bad. Whatever he decides, he said, "I'm sure I will annoy every special interest that has weighed in on the subject. I'm very good at that."

Among legislative successes, McClintock shared credit for a $1.1-billion income tax rebate in 1987. A bill of his in 1992 legalized the use of lethal injection in state executions. (The death penalty "IS a deterrent," he declares.)

So it's been a while since McClintock scored a big win, and the vehicle fee proposal also seemed headed nowhere when he raised it in October.

Soon, though, fellow Assembly Republicans took notice, he said, and a "big lift" came in April when Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the 1998 GOP candidate for governor, stood beside McClintock and publicly endorsed abolishing the levy.

Along with anti-car tax movements in other states, in May came the biggest boost of all. Gov. Pete Wilson came aboard by including a 75% car tax cut in his proposed state budget. Since then, Wilson has repeatedly urged its adoption.

Democrats oppose repeal of the fee, at least on the order that McClintock and Wilson propose. They argue that California schools will suffer, that low-income owners of old cars will save but a pittance while the luxury car crowd saves hundreds--and vehicle fleet owners thousands--a year.

McClintock maintains that the major impact lies elsewhere, saying that the cut benefits low-income earners the most, eliminating the tax entirely--in his version--for millions of them.

Democrats in the Legislature concede that some form of tax reduction, car tax or otherwise, may materialize this year.

The prime mover of all this traces his conservative connections to a Republican mother who took him to a Dwight D. Eisenhower presidential rally when he was 4 years old in Westchester County, New York, where the family lived before coming west in 1965.

"Look at the bald man," McClintock recalls his mom saying.

More cerebrally, McClintock takes conservative inspiration from an interpretation of American history from Thomas Jefferson to William F. Buckley Jr.

Addressing a knot of reporters recently in Van Nuys, where he and other politicians were kicking off another Valley secession attempt, McClintock went directly to the Declaration of Independence.

When government strays from the aims of the governed, he quoted, "it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government . . . [more] likely to effect their safety and happiness"--and on he went, quoting the entire passage.

He often does the same to make a point in the Capitol, where an active intellect serves McClintock well among his natural allies.

"Tom McClintock has a special talent to take the Republican philosophy and develop a legislative idea," said Leonard, the GOP Assembly leader. This year, Leonard said, "that idea is the car tax repeal."

Something of a political prodigy, McClintock wrote a syndicated newspaper column while attending UCLA. After graduation and a stint as chief of staff to Republican Sen. Ed Davis of Los Angeles, McClintock was elected to the Assembly at age 26.

In his years out of office, he headed a conservative fiscal policy group and took a position with the Claremont Institute's Golden State Center for Policy Studies.

McClintock and his wife, Lori, have two children, ages 6 and 8.

He has attempted to move beyond the Assembly twice, once running for Congress unsuccessfully in 1992, then for state controller two years later--using the "frugal Tom" theme.

A campaign TV ad at the time showed a kilt-clad "Angus McClintock" praising in a heavy brogue his "cousin" Tom's natural-born thrift. "Tight as bullfrog's behind [he is]. And that, my friends, is tight."

On the campaign poster, the candidate wore a $49 Casio watch with a built-in calculator, the better to add up the billions he could have saved had he won the election.

So now, with car tax fame upon him--bumper stickers proclaiming his name--will success spoil thrifty Tom McClintock?

On a recent Sunday, while off to a political event at a swank hotel in Westlake Village featuring celebrity right-winger Oliver North, McClintock supplied the answer for a reporter.

Taking a quick personal inventory, he noted:

Big hole in left shoe sole.

Origin of well-worn dark suit: J.C. Penney.

Combo watch/calculator: same one shown in '94 poster, still running, still calculating.

Cousin Angus would approve.

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