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His Passion Is Purely Fiscal

Times Staff Writer

Chris McClintock traces her son’s twin penchants for politics and penny wisdom to age 8. The third-grader wanted to ride the bus to presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign office near the family home in White Plains, N.Y.

“He was really into the whole concept of government,” McClintock said, her eyes welling with pride. “He loved it.”

Young Tom McClintock didn’t have to ask his parents for the bus fare. He had it stashed in his piggy bank. So off he went.

Thirty-nine years later, he is a state senator on the ride of his life, running for governor in California’s Oct. 7 recall election. The Thousand Oaks Republican bills himself as the thriftiest politician in the race -- the unequaled enemy of a bloated bureaucracy and a “taxpayers’ advocate” loath to dip into the state’s piggy bank.

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He has sharpened his skinflint image through a career that began when he won an Assembly seat at 26. McClintock ran then, as he does now, not so much against his opponents on the ballot as against Sacramento itself.

In his view, a remote and profligate state government has squandered the promise of yesterday’s California, a remembered idyll of good jobs and affordable houses that lured his parents here in 1965.

“I’ve spent 20 years focusing on the fiscal policies of this state,” McClintock said during an interview in his pin-neat Senate office, under the gaze of a plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson.

“I’ve steered a pretty steady course.”

That course transformed McClintock into a creature of Sacramento.

“He’s not necessarily the guy you want to take to the local pub for a drink,” said Lew Uhler, a McClintock fan who is president of the Sacramento-based National Tax Limitation Committee. “He is such a policy wonk. He reads, thinks and talks public policy.”

McClintock lives in the Sacramento region year-round -- rather than in his district -- which has opened him to charges of carpetbagging. And he accepts taxpayer-financed perks, like free cars and subsidized rent on a second home.

The 17-year veteran of the Legislature also has come to reconsider his early support for term limits, saying they have not cured his colleagues of their big-spending ways.

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“My objective has always been to streamline the state government,” he said. “It’s much easier to do that inside this building than outside it.”

Detractors in both parties say he feeds from the hand he bites.

But the senator and his supporters say that he plays by the rules he inherited -- and that his commitment to reining in a tax-happy Sacramento is as firm as ever.

“Tom has a core group of people who really love him,” said Brian Kennedy, president of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that employed McClintock during his 1992-96 break from the Legislature, the result of a failed bid for Congress.

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McClintock is campaigning for governor as the “true Republican.” He is more conservative on social issues than GOP rival Arnold Schwarzenegger -- McClintock opposes gun controls and abortion -- but his consuming passions are fiscal.

From the day he arrived at the Capitol, his pursuit of a smaller state payroll has been unyielding. He boasts of having voted against every state budget since 1990.

What he calls an adherence to principle, and what some brand as bull-headed inflexibility, has earned him few friends in the Legislature -- and few victories. In the recently concluded 2003 session, he wrote no significant measures that became law.

“Tom sees everything in black and white,” said a prominent Republican lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing the notable wrath of McClintock, who has sought the ouster of several GOP legislative leaders. “That’s not governance.... That’s why he doesn’t get anything done.”

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But McClintock says his achievements have been subtle and significant. He asserts that the cumulative force of his attacks on spendthrifts has nudged the Legislature, though controlled by Democrats, to the right. A case in point, he says, is his five-year battle to slash the state’s car tax, whose tripling by the Davis administration helped fuel the recall drive. Democratic leaders have distanced themselves from the increase.

“My biggest contribution here, being in the minority, is to push the overall agenda in my direction,” McClintock said.

Detractors discount his effects on the state’s affairs, but they concede that the former Boy Scout is a smart, hard-working and well-prepared legislator. While he doesn’t get much passed, they say, not much gets past him, either.

His manner in the Senate’s columned chambers suggests a gracious loner whose skin feels tight at the seams. McClintock keeps mostly to himself, studying the details of bills at his desk. He rarely navigates the red-carpeted room to schmooze, but he has a polite smile for anyone who tries to schmooze him.

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“Tom is what he is,” said Senate President John Burton (D-San Francisco) during a recess in one of the Legislature’s final debates of the session. “He doesn’t just get up to talk just to hear himself talk. If he has something important to say, he says it.”

Two of the 15 Republicans in the Senate have endorsed McClintock for governor: Rico Oller, who is running for Congress in a Northern California district where McClintock’s variety of conservatism is popular; and Dennis Hollingsworth, a staunch abortion foe from Murrieta.

Both say they like McClintock, although they aren’t particularly chummy with him. “What you hear from him in a caucus is what you get from him one on one,” Hollingsworth said.

Other colleagues said McClintock has loosened up a bit over the years. He does occasionally reveal a quick wit, but lowering his guard is clearly a struggle. In interviews, he is uncomfortable speaking about personal experiences outside a political context.

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So it was when questions turned to what must have been a terrifying episode: As an 11-year-old, he got lost for two days in the Sierra after wandering away from his Scout troop. He found his own way back to the trail, where a search team and his frantic parents were waiting.

McClintock recounted the ordeal as he might an annoying two days hunting for a misplaced checkbook. “It was very frustrating,” he said.

But how did he get through those chilly nights? Wasn’t he scared?

“It was more frustration than fear,” he said, shifting in his chair.

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Then: “I supposed it helped my sense of self-reliance.” And with a muted laugh: “I learned it was a pretty good idea to keep camp in sight at all times.”

Laughs aren’t as hard to coax from him on the home front, said McClintock’s wife, Lori. McClintock describes her as “my soul mate

“Contrary to popular belief, he’s easygoing,” she said. “The person I know and the person people think they know are two different things.”

Lori McClintock was chatting with well-wishers during a reception that followed her husband’s dinner speech last week at a state Republican convention at the LAX Marriott Hotel. Across the room, Tom McClintock posed somewhat stiffly for souvenir photos with the faithful.

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“He has a focus that’s almost like he’s mad at the world,” his wife said, raising a hand to her eyes to signify his trademark glare. “But he’s not. There’s a light side people don’t see.”

She said McClintock’s lone pastimes, apart from reading, are their children’s -- scouting and soccer.

She also offered to take the heat for his decision to live in Sacramento. When they weighed whether he should run again for the Assembly in 1996, she related, her one condition was that he not commute between the capital and Thousand Oaks.

“The request I made is that we stay together as a family,” she said.

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Thousand Oaks, a longtime Republican stronghold in Ventura County, is where McClintock’s dollar-squeezing politics first resonated. His initial forum was a newspaper column for the Thousand Oaks News-Chronicle in the late 1970s.

The UCLA political science graduate eventually syndicated the column to nine other small papers. He also headed the Ventura County Republican Central Committee.

His printed scoldings of former Gov. Jerry Brown (“record state budgets”) and paeans to John Wayne (“his character has personified the ideal of a great democracy”) caught the attention of Ed Davis, the retired Los Angeles police chief who was elected to the state Senate for Chatsworth in 1980. Davis hired McClintock to head his staff.

“He’d been a keen observer of the political world since infancy,” joked Davis, now 87 and living in Morro Bay -- and supporting Schwarzenegger. “Tom was an experienced old man when I met him.”

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McClintock’s mother, Chris, agreed with Davis’ teasing depiction. The bus ride to Goldwater headquarters was only the start. On election night that year, he stayed up late to watch the Republican fall to Lyndon Johnson.

“Tom kept score of the electoral votes on a sheet of paper,” his mother said.

The McClintock household was a hive of conservative politics. The senator’s father, who is lately in poor health, studied political science in college before becoming an advertising salesman.

Chris McClintock, a real estate agent, got involved in Republican causes through the California Assn. of Realtors. Tom’s sister, Virginia, who lives in Illinois, flirted with liberalism, then returned to the fold, her mother said.

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High-schooler Tom organized classmates into a statewide Republican group. He wrote precocious letters to the News-Chronicle, which led to his column.

“He was kind of a serious kid,” said Pat Smith, a retired laboratory worker who was McClintock’s Cub Scout den mother. “I ... remember when he was very young that he always read the newspapers.”

His mother fretted about that. “I worried that he wasn’t having as much fun as the other kids,” she said, sitting on a sofa in the modest, ranch-style house in Thousand Oaks that has been the family roost since the move from New York.

“I thought he was never going to date,” she said. “Lori was his first love. They met after he was an assemblyman.”

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Chris McClintock confirmed her son’s signature anecdote -- that as a child he found her crying one day over an unexpectedly large income tax bill. McClintock has said that his mother’s distress convinced him that government was soaking its citizens. The memory has become a crowd-pleaser in his stump speech, along with quotes from Shakespeare and Ronald Reagan.

McClintock has had no trouble persuading voters to send him to the Legislature. He served 14 years in the Assembly -- term limits didn’t apply to the first 8 years -- before capturing his Senate seat in 2000.

Higher office has eluded him, however. In addition to his unsuccessful try for Congress in 1992, he lost two runs for state controller, in 1994 and again last year.

The 2002 defeat hurt most. Steve Westly beat him by less than 1% of the vote, after outspending him 5 to 1. McClintock got little money from the GOP.

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“That’s always been a mystery to me,” he said with a touch of bitterness. But he denied that his refusal to drop out of the recall race is motivated by the party’s slight, as some have speculated.

“There is a series of issues I believe I have to take to the people of California,” McClintock said. “I hate waste.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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How McClintock Voted

State Sen. Tom McClintock says he is most proud of the 1987 Mello-Condit-McClintock Tax Rebate Act, of which he was a co-author, which returned $1.1 billion in tax overpayments to Californians, and of 1992 legislation he carried to require that California’s death penalty be administered by lethal injection. This is how he voted on some other issues:

Sex education: Schools must notify parents before they provide education on sex, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. 1996. For

Ride sharing: Southern California companies with fewer than 250 employees are permanently exempted from ride-sharing regulations designed to clean the air. 1996. For

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Class size: Another grade is added to a 1996 program to limit classes to 20 pupils. 1997. For

Library taxes: Counties can impose an additional sales tax if two-thirds of the electorate agrees. 1997. Against

Welfare reform: Among other changes, recipients may not be on welfare more than five years; able-bodied recipients must work or take job training 20 hours a week. 1997. Against

Health care: Healthy Families program is created to provide medical, dental and vision care for 580,000 children of low-income parents. 1997. Against

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Pain management: Health plans must cover the cost of pain management for terminally ill patients. 1998. Against

Gay students: No discrimination or harassment of students based on sexual orientation is allowed in any schools that receive public funds. 1999. Against

Assault weapons: The manufacture, sale or loan of ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds is outlawed, as are some military-style semiautomatic guns. 1999. Against

Birth control: Health plans that cover prescription drugs must cover prescription contraceptives. 1999. Against

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