Centrist GOP candidates may offer chance to end California gridlock


SACRAMENTO — For years, running for office as a Republican in California boiled down to one core pledge, bound by a candidate’s signature and enforced with a vengeance: no new taxes.

Not anymore. The state’s new political landscape, scrambled by freshly drawn voting districts and new election rules, has given rise to a handful of GOP hopefuls proudly bucking the anti-tax orthodoxy. Their candidacies have the potential to end years of partisan gridlock here.

It would have been unimaginable in the last election, just two years ago: At least five viable Republican contenders for the Assembly are refusing to sign the no-tax pledge that helped ensure protracted budget negotiations and gimmick-laden spending plans as California limped from one fiscal crisis to another.

The creation of more centrist districts and the end of the party primary system have given candidates — and special interests — an incentive to move toward the political middle. In several contests, the business groups that typically back the GOP have turned away from rock-ribbed conservatives, throwing their support to pledge-free Republicans.

“We need more problem-solvers and less people with single-issue focus,” said Richard Temple, a political consultant who runs Spirit of Democracy California, a business-supported political action committee. “It’s about getting people to come to where you want them to be, not standing in the corner screaming louder.”

Republicans have repeatedly blocked the Democrats who dominate the Capitol from raising taxes rather than continue cutting government services. Only a two-thirds vote of the Legislature can increase levies, and Democrats are two votes short of that threshold in each house.

Republican Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative FlashReport website, views the new political environment — with districts no longer drawn by legislators who packed them with partisans — as a threat to that GOP power.

“My fear is that there are a number of candidates whose threshold for voting for taxes is lower than it should be,” said Fleischman, who calls himself the “self-appointed enforcer” of the no-tax promise in California.

Fleischman said the influx of anti-pledge Assembly candidates, combined with what experts say is a chance that Democrats will gain two seats in the state Senate this year, could produce “a pro-tax supermajority” next fall.

While some business groups are trying to tug Democrats to the center by backing moderates in that party, Democrats have no equivalent of the Republicans’ national pledge. The GOP paperwork is issued, tallied and enforced by Washington, D.C., activist Grover Norquist and his group Americans for Tax Reform. Republicans who violate it are targeted by a nationwide network of activists.

Fealty to the vow was blamed for the demise of a possible deficit-reduction deal between President Obama and congressional Republicans last summer. All but six Republicans in the House of Representatives and all but seven in the U.S. Senate have signed it.

Nationwide, more than 1,200 state lawmakers have signed, including all of California’s sitting GOP Assembly members and all but two Republican state senators, according to the Norquist group.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, blamed Norquist and other conservative activists last year for torpedoing his negotiations with Republican lawmakers to place a budget-balancing tax increase on the ballot. Brown’s predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, also clashed with GOP lawmakers over taxes.

Schwarzenegger, who helped push Californians to adopt the nonpartisan primary and independent redistricting, said in an interview that he was cheered by the new dynamic.

“We want to see the reflection of California in the Legislature,” he said. “The people of California, they’re in the middle. They know the only way the things get done is some compromise.”

On June 5, voters — regardless of any party affiliation — will choose among all candidates on a single ballot. The top two finishers — also regardless of party — will face off in November. The changes were touted by Schwarzenegger and others as a way to reduce the influence of party bosses and extremists.

The Republicans who refused to sign are not saying they’ll raise taxes — that’s the sort of promise that even some Democrats won’t make in a competitive race. One GOP candidate, Los Alamitos Mayor Troy Edgar, rejected the Norquist pledge but made his own anti-tax vow to voters in his district. Others are criticizing those who have ruled it out.

Peter Tateishi, one of two GOP non-signers competing for a seat in the Sacramento suburbs, said his party missed a chance to win big policy victories, such as changing the state’s public pension system, by walking away from tax negotiations with Brown.

“There are very few opportunities in which the minority [party] can advance the ball…and negotiations are one of them,” he said. “I’m not running because I think we need more taxes. But if the governor or the [Assembly] speaker want to have a conversation with me, I need to have everything on the table.”

In a heavily Republican district just to the east, stretching from the Sierra foothills to the shores of Lake Tahoe, the six-candidate field is dominated by a battle between former GOP Assemblyman Rico Oller and Republican Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow, who has also refused to sign the pledge.

Oller is a conservative firebrand who quotes Ayn Rand, spits out the word “moderate” like tobacco juice and finds his political philosophy in a quote from the 1990s film “Tombstone”: “Either fight or get out of the way.”

“The Legislature is so close to being an absolutely Democrat-controlled Legislature that all they need is a few more votes to get whatever they want with respect to tax increases,” said Oller, whose supporters include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “They have to find a Republican who is more morally flexible. I don’t possess that degree of flexibility.”

Bigelow, a soft-spoken rancher whose campaign is backed by business groups such as the California Assn. of Realtors, said he’s opposed to raising taxes but “doesn’t need a piece of paper or a shield or a reminder note about what not to do.”

Other non-signers include Big Bear Lake Mayor Bill Jahn, one of whose two opponents is anti-tax favorite Tim Donnelly, a Republican assemblyman from Twin Peaks.

Another candidate who eschews the pledge is Newport Beach City Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, who dismisses it as “a campaign gimmick that’s devised to elevate the importance and influence of an outside interest group.”

She is backed by many of the same business interests that are helping other centrists.

Daigle and a Democratic candidate are challenging Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa), the favorite of many local GOP officials.

Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party, said he hopes candidates like Daigle don’t throw in with Democrats.

“I would like for Republicans to explain how to bring jobs back,” Del Beccaro said, “instead of going along with Jerry Brown’s desire to have people pay more for Sacramento’s mistakes.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.