Gov. Jerry Brown says that Republican Party activists who threaten GOP legislators are subversives. They’re subverting American democracy.
It’s the red party menace, to twist ominous language from the 1950s. It’s menacing our republican form of government, which calls for elected representatives to deliberate and decide.
Republican right-wingers, who increasingly dominate the shrinking party in California, are threatening the political death penalty for any GOP lawmaker who compromises with Brown and dares vote to call a special election on taxes.
The state party, holding its spring convention this weekend in Sacramento, will consider a resolution that brands such Republican legislators “traitorous” and pledges to “support efforts to recall them from office.”
These lawmakers would have “betrayed the principles and platform of the California Republican Party,” the resolution asserts, by allowing voters to decide between extending tax hikes on income, sales and vehicles or filling the state’s entire $26.6 billion deficit hole with spending cuts.
Actually, right-wing activists have been targeting tax-tolerant Republican lawmakers for years, especially popular conservative blogger Jon Fleischman (FlashReport), a regional chairman of the state party.
Referring to negotiations between Brown and five GOP senators to trade pension, spending and regulatory reforms for a tax election, Fleischman writes: “There are no ‘reforms’ to be gotten…worth turning our back on California taxpayers.”
Then there are radio shock jocks John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, the KFI-AM (640) drive-time terrors who paralyze GOP lawmakers by mounting some of their heads on Web stakes.
John and Ken freely admit they’re entertainers, not policy wonks. And they’re out for high ratings. “There’s no way to get an audience without packaging it in an entertaining way,” Kobylt recently told The Times.
But most Republican legislators aren’t entertained, they’re immobilized.
Brown talked about the pugnacity and petrification in an interview last week:
“Some Republicans want government to break down,” he told me. “They want to blow it up. They’re radical. They’re not in the mainstream. They’re in a minority, but they’re very vociferous. They’re threatening to raise money to attack anybody who votes to let the people decide.
“There’s no free debate. It’s intimidating. It’s debate under the shadow of intimidation. And that’s not healthy. I think it’s very subversive. It’s subversive of our basic institutions at a time when we need to pull together.”
Most Republican legislators indeed are intimidated.
Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare has told many people privately that to vote for taxes would be “a career-ender,” according to Brown and others.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Conway as saying, “Assembly Republicans are not part of the negotiations [with Brown] nor do we want to be.”
These days, if you’re a GOP lawmaker, to lead is to duck.
Not every Republican follows, however. There are the so-called Senate rogue five who have been negotiating with the governor.
“It could well be a career-ender, but so be it,” says Sen. Bill Emmerson of Hemet, one of the five. “If we got substantial reforms that created a stable budget for the state of California, then we need to do the right thing. I came here to govern and get California back on track.”
And another one of the five, Sen. Tom Berryhill of Modesto, on Tuesday became the first Republican to acknowledge publicly what most others long have been admitting privately: that it would be a California disaster for the budget deficit to be solved completely with spending cuts.
Berryhill told Times reporter Michael J. Mishak: “If this [tax extension] fails in June, you are going to see catastrophic spending cutbacks that are going to hurt every single city and town in this state. A lot of bad stuff is going to happen.
“There is an urgency on our part to fix this thing before it all goes to heck in a handbasket.”
But Brown has another pressing problem besides in-your-face right-wingers. It’s left-wing labor that is holding back the Democratic governor from reaching a deal with Republicans on public pension and spending reforms. At least two GOP votes are needed in each house to call the election.
Brown’s dilemma is that he needs public employee unions to help bankroll the election campaign. So he can’t afford for them to take a walk, perhaps with key Democratic legislators following. That would crumble the coalition he needs to fill the deficit hole with half cuts, half taxes.
What labor leaders might not realize about Brown is that he’s just the type to turn on everyone if negotiations blow up. He’d probably propose an all-cuts budget that would cripple schools, eliminate many thousands of teacher jobs and severely cut back pay and benefits for civil servants.
Their fear of a spending cap would be folly. There’d be little money to spend.
The smart thing for Brown and labor would be to latch onto a tight spending cap proposed Wednesday by conservative Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) and agree to impose it for the duration of the tax extension.
And the wise thing for Republican convention delegates would be to bury the resolution threatening fratricide. After all, the party isn’t exactly brimming with elected officials. It’s clinging to roughly one-third of the legislative seats and has no statewide officeholder.
But logic and compromise aren’t dominating Sacramento. The dominant factor is fundamental fear.