Making law by talking ‘war’

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Tim Donnelly crouched into a firing stance behind his chair and folded his hands in the shape of a gun.

Lawmaking, said the GOP assemblyman from San Bernardino, is “full-blown war,” and guerrilla tactics are needed to win the battle against California Democrats’ agenda. As Donnelly sees it, the liberals who dominate state government have betrayed the public with job-killing regulations and crushing taxes.

“We’ve got a .50-caliber with crosshairs and ... we’re going to pick off two or three of them using this issue,” he said.


It had been nearly three weeks since Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson, and Donnelly, California’s lone “tea party” success in last fall’s state elections, was visiting his Inland Empire office.

He had nothing against Democrats, he said. In fact, he and fellow Republicans intended to find Democrats who “actually believe in jobs and understand how jobs are created,” build political bridges to them and pass laws to put people back to work.

But the 44-year-old former member of the Minutemen, who has two antique rifles mounted in his Capitol office, made no apologies for the violent pantomime.

“Where I live, there’s more guns than people,” he said, adding: “Eventually, there will be a day of reckoning -- and I’m hoping that day of reckoning is political.”

Donnelly, a married father of five with a degree in English from UC Irvine, rode voter rage and an anti-illegal immigration platform to victory in November. Saying he wanted to “take the people’s anger and channel it into action ... so that they know somebody’s listening,” he wasted no time creating legislation to import Arizona’s controversial immigration law, block in-state tuition rates for undocumented students at state colleges and fight limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

“I don’t believe in global warming,” he said.

In his suit and tie and sharply manicured goatee, he’s indistinguishable from most legislators -- until you feel his iron handshake, meet his intense gaze and see his collection of Revolutionary War tomes, military histories and plaque honoring the Texas Rangers.


Although his fiery brand of conservatism normally would marginalize him in blue-tinted California, Donnelly’s sound-bite rhetoric and penchant for controversy have won him a degree of attention that some veteran politicians might envy.

He quickly acquired a nickname: The Shredder. That’s what Fox News’ Stuart Varney affectionately dubbed him after a video of Donnelly shredding pages from Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget went viral on YouTube. The lawmaker used a hammer to smash a piggy bank in his next video, to represent what he described as the pillaging of the state treasury by public employee unions, illegal immigrants and overpaid bureaucrats.

“You have to have the right message,” he said. “It has to be short, extremely powerful and bring truth to the people in a way that will shock them.”

One of 14 children, Donnelly came to California after working his way through private high school in Michigan as a janitor.

He was running a small plastics business in the mountain hamlet of Twin Peaks when he jumped into the Assembly race in a district that extends from Arcadia to Apple Valley. Unemployment was rising and foreclosures were emptying Inland Empire neighborhoods. His business was foundering, and he’d canceled his family’s health insurance to pay for his children’s tuition at a private Christian school.

He squeaked out a win in a six-way Republican primary after raising about $16,500 -- less than one-tenth of the top spender’s campaign fund. After winning the primary, his campaign was $14,000 in debt. A political novice who mistakenly thought he’d start getting a paycheck immediately, Donnelly was burning through his savings. In the general election, he beat Democrat Darcel Woods by 20 percentage points.


Five years earlier, he had founded the largest California chapter of the Minutemen. He had become obsessed with border security, in part after reading reports about a fourth-grade boy -- allegedly the son of illegal immigrants -- who had sexually harassed a female classmate at a local school.

He volunteered to patrol the Arizona border. He sought out TV news crews for his first taste of the spotlight -- and reveled in it. He discussed immigration policy with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, taking them on a tour of the makeshift border fence he and his fellow Minutemen built near San Diego.

A self-described “ideologue,” Donnelly goes to great lengths to say that his immigration stance does not make him a racist; his wife, he notes, is Filipina.

He sees immigration as part of a larger agenda that he says policymakers are ignoring as the economy tanks. Unemployment in San Bernardino County is nearly 14%, higher than the state average. One in every 151 households there received a foreclosure notice in February, the latest month for which numbers are available, according to RealtyTrac, an online monitoring service. That is nearly four times the national average.

“In my district, people are on the verge of war. They are on the verge of literally shooting,” Donnelly said. “People are angry that the government has destroyed their livelihoods. That’s very different than saying people are just angry at government because government exists and they don’t want to pay any taxes.”

Few of Donnelly’s bills have gotten any traction in the Legislature; his Arizona-style proposal, AB 26, died in committee Tuesday. But his constituents cheer him on.


“He’s not a radical. We should be enforcing the law,” said Jack Leitschuh, a retired construction worker in Crestline.

On a recent morning, Donnelly met in Irwindale with a group of San Gabriel Valley community leaders who complained about California’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. A water district official said his agency had to schedule its pumping around fish-spawning season because of endangered-species laws.

“So basically what you’re saying is water for humans is becoming an endangered species,” Donnelly said, “and the fish rule the roost.”

“The fish rule the roost,” the official shot back.

Donnelly grumbled that the yellow-legged frog was delaying road repairs near his home in the San Bernardino Mountains. “I’m wondering when we’re all going to line up and revolt against this,” Donnelly said.

Not all his ideas were well-received. An executive from Methodist Hospital of Southern California ignored Donnelly’s inquiry about the cost of treating illegal immigrants. A representative from the City of Industry breezed past his suggestion that the sparsely populated municipality would be a “natural place for sex-offender homes.”

“I know some people think I’m a whack job,” Donnelly said after the meeting.

Many fellow lawmakers aren’t sure what to make of him -- or won’t share their assessments. Assemblyman Mike Morrell, a fellow GOP freshman from Rancho Cucamonga, was one of the few who was willing to comment or even return a call on the subject.


“Tim is definitely a straight shooter,” Morrell said. “You don’t have to worry if you ask him what side of the issue he’s on. He will tell you right where he’s coming from.”

Some colleagues have dropped in to admire his Winchester .32 Special, one of the rifles on his office wall; others are offended by the display. When he invited lawmakers to join him on a recent tour of the border, two Democrats pulled out for fear of being seen in public with him.

At a recent legislative hearing, Donnelly sparred with his seatmate, Los Angeles Democrat Gil Cedillo, over a bill to extend financial aid to undocumented students in public colleges.

Donnelly said he got no such break when he moved here from Michigan: As an “undocumented Californian,” he paid the higher, nonresident tuition at UC Irvine until he established residency, he said.

The legislation, he argued, would “use taxpayer funds to essentially cheat citizens out of an opportunity in the university system,” while establishing a “precedent that will become an incentive” for illegal immigration. The bill passed in committee on a party-line, 6-3 vote.

Still, Donnelly has found some allies. Months earlier, a few Democrats, including Cedillo, praised him on the Assembly floor for bringing attention to human trafficking and sexual slavery, which Donnelly says are byproducts of illegal immigration.


Donnelly is struggling to reconcile his tea-party rhetoric with some of the realities of elected office.

After campaigning on a small-government message, he accepted the perk of a state car. He now drives one of the most expensive automobiles in the state fleet, a 2011 Ford Edge leased at a cost of $32,000 a year.

Donnelly defended his “mobile office” while driving the spotless vehicle to a town hall gathering in Crestline recently, saying it was the best deal for taxpayers because he pays part of the lease and it’s cheaper than being reimbursed for mileage.

“I got a base-model car that doesn’t even have a Sync in it,” he huffed, referring to a hands-free device.

At the town hall meeting, he hashed over local transportation issues with the crowd of about 150, promising action on a number of matters such as road closures, traffic lights and brighter highway lane markers.

Afterward, an aide complained that the meeting had created at least 12 hours of work. “You need more staff,” the aide said.


Donnelly thought for a second.

“If I hadn’t taken that damn car,” he said, “I’d be able to hire more staff.”