It’s drive-time in Los Angeles, and that means radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou are riffing about state politicians.
Within a matter of moments, they refer to various lawmakers as “traitorous pigs,” “con artist” and “Republican dirt bag.” They use gruesome sound effects to suggest the mounting of one legislator’s head on a stake — his entry into the duo’s hall of shame.
The KFI-AM personalities, whose frequent targets are taxes, labor unions and illegal immigrants, not only reach more listeners than any other non-syndicated talk show in California but also have the ear — and fear — of Sacramento’s minority party.
“There is nary a conversation about the budget that does not involve the names John and Ken,” said Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the state Senate leader, who says the pair complicate his party’s negotiations with Republicans.
As Gov. Jerry Brown seeks the handful of Republican votes he needs to ratify his spending plan, his foil is not so much GOP lawmakers as “the Three Johns” insiders’ shorthand for a potent band of anti-tax activists including, in addition to the radio hosts, state Republican Party official and blogger Jon Fleischman and Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
None of them holds public office. Kobylt and Chiampou aren’t even Republicans (they’re unaffiliated), and Kobylt says he’s never met Coupal or Fleischman. But together they work to tug Republicans away from compromise in the Democrat-dominated Capitol. State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a Republican from San Luis Obispo, said some of his GOP colleagues “crouch in fear and hide under their desk” lest they offend these enforcers of anti-tax orthodoxy.
The activists offer no alternative budget plan and say no policy concessions on Republican priorities — such as a state spending cap or a pension overhaul — are worth ceding ground on taxes. If they succeed in blocking the public vote on taxes that Brown’s budget blueprint includes, the governor promises a spending plan containing deep service cuts that he says would have disastrous consequences for the state.
Their response has been, in essence: “Bring it on.”
To them, compromise is anathema. When five Republican state senators announced last week that they were negotiating with Brown, Coupal penned a letter to his 200,000 members that was posted on Fleischman’s blog, FlashReport. Fleischman dubbed the group the “Rogue 5" while Coupal urged all Republicans to call those lawmakers and ask them “politely but firmly to hold the line against more taxes.”
FlashReport is a California version of the Drudge Report. As key votes are cast on the floor of the Legislature, Republicans are often spotted scanning the site to see how they’re being praised or pilloried. When those same lawmakers want the definitive voice on what constitutes a tax, they seek out not the Legislature’s lawyers but Coupal. Kobylt and Chiampou put a megaphone on the debate.
Adam Mendelsohn, a communications director for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said many a budget deal was unraveled by the attention of FlashReport. Republican leaders would take the outlines of a deal to their caucus members, who would leak the details to Fleischman. His followers would put pressure on the lawmakers to oppose the deal.
“We were literally racing against the FlashReport because once they engaged, you could watch Republicans start to fall off and get scared and get nervous,” Mendelsohn said. “You could literally watch the deal fall apart in a matter of an hour, two hours after he would post.”
Fleischman, who is also a paid political strategist and regional vice chairman of the California Republican Party, revels in his inside access. He notes that 37 of the 42 sitting GOP legislators have written for his site. And just about all of them feed him a steady diet of gossip on the sly.
“There’s really nothing that takes place inside a Republican Senate or Assembly caucus meeting that I don’t know about,” Fleischman said.
If Fleischman is the resident Republican gossip, Coupal is the conservative standard-bearer. Soft-spoken and media-savvy, Coupal has spent 30 years fighting budget battles in the name of Howard Jarvis, author of Proposition 13 in 1978.
For some lawmakers, said former Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine, “the most important thing is making sure they have a 100% record with Howard Jarvis.”
Coupal couples his organization’s powerful endorsement with the financial heft and reach of his membership and an even more expansive mailing list, which he uses to rally the faithful. The association spent $3.8 million lobbying lawmakers in 2009 and 2010 and millions more on legislative and other political campaigns.
In the current budget fight, Republicans seemed unable to articulate a response to Brown’s proposal until Coupal weighed in. He called on Brown to ask voters to consider tax cuts along with the tax extensions the governor wants. GOP lawmakers quickly embraced the idea.
Coupal says his group is merely a reasonable counterweight to liberal interests.
“I would say that the Republicans are in no more fear of us than the Democrats are of the unions,” he said.
But Anthony Adams, a former Republican Assemblyman from Hesperia, has felt the Three Johns’ sting. “There doesn’t appear to be any legitimate desire for good government” in their activities, he said.
Together, they helped lead a recall effort against Adams in 2009 after he voted for temporary tax hikes. The attempt failed, but Adams did not seek reelection in 2010.
The group was more successful in a campaign against two other legislators who supported the same taxes: Then-Assembly GOP leader Mike Villines of Clovis and former Senate minority leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto lost their posts after the Johns called on Republican lawmakers to oust them. Cogdill opted not to run for reelection in 2010; Villines lost a bid for insurance commissioner.
Kobylt makes no apologies for any antics or their consequences.
“There is no way to get an audience without packaging it in an entertaining way,” he said. “I think we do a lot of good.... We make it colorful and theatrical. There are a lot of people who are into these issues when we talk about them that couldn’t stay awake when other people talk about them.”
An episode last month highlighted the Johns’ collective sway in Sacramento.
When some GOP lawmakers were preparing to launch an anti-tax caucus in opposition to Brown’s budget plan, they vetted the idea with Coupal. Then they notified Fleischman and spread the word on “The John and Ken Show.” By then, 30 Republicans had enlisted.
State Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), leader of the new caucus, was asked on the radio show what would happen if any Republicans broke ranks to support more taxes.
“My guess,” Strickland told the hosts, “is John and Ken will hold them accountable.”