Paul Priolo remembers the last time Democrats enjoyed a supermajority in the state Assembly. He was the Republican leader. And his strategy was simple.
“I socialized with Democrats,” he says. “That was my key to getting along and overcoming the handicap of their having a supermajority…. They were the leaders and the ones you tried to get next to.
“We’d fight during the day and go out to dinner together at night. But that’s a thing of the past.”
Yes, that’s largely history. Thanks in part to then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s post-Watergate political reform that ended the practice of lobbyists picking up the meal and bar tabs of legislators.
Today, instead of buying $20 dinners for lawmakers as they used to, special interests kick in $2,000 campaign donations at their cracker-and-cheese fundraisers.
But a bigger reason for the nighttime lifestyle change — in Sacramento as elsewhere — was the crackdown on drunk driving.
Increased partisanship and polarization also are at fault. Democratic and Republican legislators just don’t hang as they used to.
“I got along quite well with Jerry, as a matter of fact,” Priolo says. “He was part of our dinner group. We used to gather once a week for a crab feed and Jerry would come quite often. Course, he was uninvited. He just showed up and dominated the conversation. We tolerated him. After all, he was the governor.”
A new Legislature will be sworn in Monday, and for the first time since the 1975-79 era, the Assembly will be controlled by an ironclad two-thirds Democratic majority.
In fact, for the first time in 80 years both houses will be dominated by supermajorities, enough heft for Democrats to pass any legislation without Republican support.
It’ll be one-party control of the Capitol with Democrat Brown again ensconced in the governor’s office. In the ‘30s, it was Republicans who wielded that kind of muscle. Democrats haven’t since 1883.
Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book that handicaps legislative races, was a Republican political staffer when the GOP held only 23 of 80 Assembly seats in the 1970s. (Now they’ll have 25 or 26, depending on a final vote tally, with just 11 of 40 seats projected in the Senate.)
“I remember someone calling a Republican caucus and when all the Republicans got up from their seats on the floor and went to the meeting, you couldn’t tell anybody had left the Assembly,” Hoffenblum says.
I called Priolo, who’s 85, living in Sonoma and no longer a Republican. “Newt Gingrich was the final straw.” He’s now registered as nonpartisan.
In the ‘70s, Priolo was a moderate Republican assemblyman from Santa Monica. The Assembly GOP did seem relevant back then, regardless of feeble numbers. I asked Priolo whether he had any advice for the new superminority.
“Stop stonewalling on everything — being against everything,” he answered. “Find out where you can work together” with Democrats. “You’ve got to sit down and B.S. and find some common ground.
“Personal relationships can go a long way. Course, that might have been my undoing too.”
When the governor and Legislature failed to deliver property tax relief, voters in 1978 passed an initiative, Proposition 13, and ignited a nationwide anti-tax rebellion. Several conservative Republicans — called “Prop. 13 babies” — were elected to the Assembly and dumped Priolo as leader.
“They didn’t like the idea that I did any kind of business with Democrats,” he says.
Legislative camaraderie has been crumbling ever since.
Republicans did crawl back. By 1994, they were strong enough to secure a bare-minimum, 41-vote Assembly majority. But because of Machiavellian maneuvering by Democratic Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco, it took Republicans one year to fully gain control of the house. And Democrats seized it again in 1996.
Then-AssemblyRepublican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga plotted the brief GOP takeover and later became Senate minority leader. Currently he’s being recruited by business leaders and party pragmatists to take over the pathetic state GOP.
I asked him what advice he’d give the few remaining Republican lawmakers.
“Make serious proposals,” he suggested.
“A good idea is a good idea regardless of how many Republicans are supporting it. If it’s really a good idea, the Democrats will steal it and put their name on it. But the Republicans’ goal should be to get good public policy enacted.”
They can claim partial credit.
The current Republican leaders don’t seem to have a precise strategy.
“We will make the best of a bad situation,” Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar says. “It’s uncharted territory.”
“Education is ripe for reform,” he adds. “And we’d like to get some traction with the majority party on regulatory reform.”
Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare wants to rebrand the GOP. Voters have been hearing an inaccurate message, she asserts.
“This whole national tenor about Republicans being anti-women,” Conway continues. “I don’t know where that comes from. It’s certainly not my message.”
Dan Schnur, a former communications strategist for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and current director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, says, “Republicans will wait for Democrats to overreach and then call them on it. But they’ve tried it that way and it hasn’t worked out all that well.
“No legislator is sent to Sacramento to point fingers at the other side. Getting something done is better than simply criticizing.”
Republicans are weak, but they’re not immobile. They can start the long climb back. They can beat Democrats to the punch on practical ideas.