‘Sacramento Six’ face conservative backlash
At Pete Peterson’s sausage shop in this Central Valley farm town, customers can find just about any kind of spicy link, from Dakota bratwurst to British bangers.
But one thing out of stock is goodwill for state Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), who represents the mostly Republican area. Cogdill voted last month to raise taxes.
“He’s a loser,” said Peterson, standing behind the counter recently next to a sign touting conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. “A lot of people aren’t working, and the politicians are overtaxing the ones that are. All we can do is vote them out of office.”
Just weeks after Cogdill and five other Republican lawmakers joined the Legislature’s majority Democrats to raise sales and income taxes and vehicle license fees, the “Sacramento Six” are facing a backlash from conservative activists and regular voters alike.
State Republican Party leaders have voted to cut off campaign cash to the six, and three are facing recall threats from furious activists.
Cogdill, 58, is bracing for a challenge in the 2010 Republican primary; a group in his district is trying to find a candidate to run against him. He has already been deposed as Senate minority leader by Republican colleagues, been booted from a big office and had his pay slashed by $17,000 a year.
“I don’t think there is any doubt . . . that our careers are in jeopardy,” Cogdill said.
Having won his last election with 67% of the vote, Cogdill, who owns a real estate appraisal company, does not seem worried about losing next year. But he predicted tough challenges any time he runs for office after that.
Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), whose vote clinched the tax deal, also pictures trouble ahead.
“It’s easy for any political consultant to write a piece of mail against any of us six to say we raised taxes on the people of California,” said Maldonado, 41. “And they are going to use that from now on until I’m a hundred.”
The other Republicans who voted for the increases were state Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield and Assembly members Michael Villines of Clovis, the minority leader in that house; Roger Niello of Fair Oaks; and Anthony Adams of Hesperia.
All six say they voted for the hikes in the belief that failure to act on a $42-billion budget shortfall would have led to catastrophe. Tens of thousands of jobs would have been lost as state-funded construction projects and contractors shut down and the state faced bankruptcy, they argued.
All but Niello had signed a pledge, written by Grover Norquist of the group Americans for Tax Reform, not to raise taxes.
“My biggest regret is that when I signed the no-tax pledge, I really wish there had been a couple of extra words in there: ‘unless there is an emergency,’ ” Maldonado said.
Term limits prevent Maldonado from running for reelection, but he has expressed interest in running for state controller. In the meantime, fundraising has begun at the website recallmaldonado.com, which says: “It’s time to raise some Cain on Abel!”
The website’s creator, David Spady, state director of the anti-tax activist group Americans for Prosperity, said he is still talking to residents of Maldonado’s district about organizing a recall campaign.
The most organized threat is against Adams, who resigned Thursday as chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Party after several members called for him to step down.
Atlas PAC, a self-described pro-business group in Orange County, has filed papers with the state to form a fundraising group called Committee to Recall Adams. Atlas PAC hopes to begin a recall effort against Adams within a month. Putting a recall measure on the ballot requires collecting tens of thousands of signatures.
“We want to send a message,” said Atlas board member Benjamin Pugh, an Orange County attorney. “Enough people are angry that there have to be swift repercussions for somebody who breaks the no-tax pledge.”
In addition, former state Sen. Richard Mountjoy, a Republican from Monrovia, said he is being urged by angry party activists to challenge Adams in the 2010 primary.
Adams, 37, has publicly acknowledged that his budget vote could cost him his political career but said, “It was a decision I made for my district and I stand by my decision.”
Still, having won reelection last year with only 51% of the vote, Adams may be the most vulnerable of the six, according to Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political expert who runs Target Book, a nonpartisan election bible.
The district’s registration “leans Republican but is not safe,” Hoffenblum said. “He has to worry about both a primary and a general election.”
Adams has enlisted the help of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who agreed to attend an April 8 fundraiser for him.
“The governor believes these six people did what was right,” said Adam Mendelsohn, an advisor to Schwarzenegger. “They put their jobs looking out for the state ahead of appeasing fringe elements.”
Ashburn, 57, who hosts a weekly radio show in Bakersfield, is in the sights of a local karate instructor angered by his tax vote. The instructor, Michael Moore, has filed a notice of his intent to mount a recall effort, although he acknowledged the lack of an organization to help collect the 42,376 signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot.
Ashburn, a former member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, is taking the threat in stride.
“It is a privilege to serve in an elected office on behalf of the people of the 18th Senate District,” Ashburn said. “I will always respect their right to elect or un-elect me.”
Term limits prevent Niello, 60, from contesting his Assembly seat, but he has his eye on a state Senate seat he is betting he can win. His Sacramento-area district, he said, is not a political hothouse like Southern California, where two radio hosts have a picture on their website depicting the heads of the six on stakes.
And Niello’s district, where he owns car dealerships, is home to perhaps thousands of state employees who have been sympathetic to his decision.
Villines, 41, noted that the tax hikes are coupled with long-sought Republican proposals such as a cap on future government spending that is subject to voter approval. Even so, he said the compromise was a “bitter pill.”
He said he may leave politics and return to marketing when he is forced out by term limits next year. To provide for a “smooth transition,” he said, he may step down from his Assembly leadership post before his term is up.
GOP analyst Tony Quinn thinks angry Californians may calm down before any of the six have to stand for election or face a recall vote.
In May, he noted, voters will decide six ballot measures tied to the budget, including one that would impose a spending cap and extend the new tax increases for up to two years.
“If voters defeat the ballot measures, a lot of steam would go out of the effort to punish the six legislators, because the voters will feel they have already repudiated the proposals,” Quinn said.
If voters approve the ballot measures, including the tax extension, he said, “it will be a validation of how the six voted.”