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Doug Lasken

Report on the California GOP Spring 2014 convention

Doug Lasken

The convention at the San Francisco airport Hyatt Regency was convivial, fun, optimistic and remarkably well run, considering the consensus among virtually all participating groups that the party is facing a battle for survival.

The awareness of this struggle has inspired each group to argue the key role it should play to “rebuild, renew and reclaim” the party (the convention theme). The forces jockeying for party dominance can be divided roughly into two groups: the far right and the middle (I saw no signs of a left and certainly no far left).

The far right’s views were expressed abundantly in the Tea Party California Caucus and the Conservative Republican meetings. I was frequently in agreement with the “far right” views, and I would argue to the middle and the left that a view is not in error simply by virtue of being far right. Candidates and speakers, self-identified either as conservative or Tea Party, spoke eloquently for positions that should be adopted by the entire party. These include opposition to NSA access to the private lives of Americans, which violates the 4th amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and opposition to Obama’s Common Core Standards, which, by putting publishing interests in charge of school curriculum, violates the 10th amendment right of states to govern education. These issues resonate far beyond the right. Are there any Californians, of either party, who want their children’s location monitored by a government agency every time they play Angry Birds? How many California parents want Pearson Publishing’s bottom line to determine school curriculum, as Governor Brown ordained when he allocated $2 billion in tax revenue (via Prop. 30) to buy new standards we didn’t need? There was also much opposition to AB 1266, a bill signed by Brown that gives California’s transgender students the “right” to use the locker or rest room of their choice. This is intrusive government on a grand scale, and opposition stretches far beyond traditional Republican voters (as a high school debate coach, I can report that my students are puzzled and troubled by AB 1266). The party will throw away millions of potential votes if it ignores these crucial issues

On the other hand, the Tea Party and many conservatives are still focused on their own narrow agenda at the expense of winning elections. Unyielding opposition to gun control, abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and the concept of separation of church and state will ensure defeat of any Republican candidate for statewide or national office. That does not appear to be a concern to the Tea Party, which apparently believes it has God on its side (that is, in some other sense than winning elections). This was brought home in the Conservative meeting, where numerous activists and candidates spoke about returning governance to the “church.” The word “church,” of course, refers only to Christian houses of worship, not to synagogues, temples or mosques. “No biggie,” some readers may be thinking to themselves. Think again: it’s a biggie. I am Jewish, as are many thousands of Republicans. Imagine how I felt when the closing prayer at the Conservative meeting ended with “Lord, bless us with victory, in Jesus’ name.” For those who live far from the cities, where people of all kinds live in close proximity, here’s a lesson: This is a country where the majority are Christian, but it is not a “Christian country” in the sense that the government is officially Christian. We have many religions in America. The founders abhorred theocracy, and they were largely freethinkers. Jefferson was a Deist who put in writing his skepticism that Jesus was divine. The view that the founders never intended separation of church and state is ignorant in the extreme and will doom any statewide or national candidate who expresses it, as well it should.

And while we’re on the subject, whose idea was it to make pork the only choice for the Saturday luncheon? My wife and I were stunned; it was quite insulting. How hard could it be for the party to know a little about its own constituents?

Speaking of the luncheon, the speaker was former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. We were very impressed by her poise and intelligence, though her comments had little bearing on the current crises facing the party. They were mostly foreign policy ideas, like the importance of U.S. involvement in the Ukrainian conflict (a dubious proposition, in my view, and one that would likely garner few votes). She received sustained applause for endorsing the Keystone pipeline and American energy independence. She mentioned the importance of protecting the “private space” of Americans, but did not mention the NSA. Her loudest cheer came when she endorsed “school choice,” which she referred to as “the biggest civil rights issue of our time.” As a 30-year public school teacher I have mixed feelings about “choice” insofar as the term entails a judgment of public schools. Yes, there are plenty of awful public school teachers, and yes, they are too hard to fire under union rules. There are also hundreds of thousands of great teachers. One will find the same mix in charter schools, which are good only when they’re good. If we’re going to fund charters with vouchers, we need to regulate them. The most successful charter near the public high school where I work refuses to take low scoring children, and its founders are in jail for embezzlement- should we really divert tax dollars to an entire class of schools without some sort of governance?

The most interesting focus of the convention was the selection of candidates to run against Brown for governor. Breaking with protocol, the four announced candidates spoke after the general session on Sunday (admirably chaired by CRP Chair Jim Brulte). Each spoke for ten minutes. Here is the gist of each speech:

1. Andrew Blount, mayor of Laguna Hills, opened with a rambling account of his move from Colorado to California, which included a story about his sitting in his underwear in a laundromat while his clothes dried, and a story about how his wife fried the electrical in his house. He ended with, “Politicians should trust people, not the reverse, ” a good thought, but Blount is not expected by anyone to be the candidate, and did not seem to expect it himself.

2. Glen Champ, a highway engineer, told the story of how his brother, a devout Christian, pulled a gun on an IRS agent during an audit, and Champ suggested that this was a righteous act. He described himself as a “Christian soldier, stomping on the devil’s head.” I wasn’t sure if Champ thought he had a chance to be the candidate, but he doesn’t.

3. Tim Donnelly is a more serious contender. He is a forceful and engaging speaker, with the most well-staffed and enthusiastic organization at the convention, ready at all times to waive signs and cheer. He told of his struggle as a small businessman to pull himself out of childhood poverty, and made excellent points about the harms of California’s over-taxation and regulation. As it happens, though, Donnelly has no chance of being governor because of his extreme opposition to gun control, abortion and gay marriage, views held by no more than 30-35% of the electorate, and intensely opposed by everyone else. It doesn’t matter how many people waved signs and cheered for him at the convention; the broader electorate will not vote for him.

4. Neel Kashkari is the surprise of the season. He is a man few had heard of until a few months ago, who made a quick name for himself as a candidate for governor with his acceptance of gay marriage. This was the most practical view I’d heard from a Republican in a while, so I was interested in what else he had to say. As it happened, that was not much. His bio was censored- he mentioned starting his career as a NASA engineer at TRW, but left out his time at Goldman-Sachs and his leadership of the TARP program. He referred to himself as a Bush appointee, but failed to mention that he was also an Obama appointee and that he voted for Obama last year. He also made no mention of gay marriage. The omissions were perhaps understandable given his audience, but there is no way, should he be the GOP candidate, that he will be able to avoid these subjects in a lengthy campaign. His prospects cannot be gauged until he addresses them.

Still, the only one of the four candidates with any hope of winning is Kashkari, because he supports gay marriage and does not talk about stomping the devil’s head, but if the election were held today Kashkari would lose to Brown in a landslide. The message has to be much more forceful than what Kashkari has shown so far; he, and the party, need to proclaim that the Tea Party’s extreme positions are off the table- no more demonizing of homosexuality, abortion or gun control. In addition, Kashkari should seize the opportunity afforded by Brown when he split with his party at the state Democratic convention last week and opposed legalizing marijuana. Most Republicans do not favor legalization, but Kashkari could support redesignating marijuana from Schedule I (meaning there is no medicinal use) to Schedule II (which would allow research on the drug). In this way he could actually compete on a cutting edge issue, something a Republican has not done in a while.

The healthiest thing for the party and its candidate for governor would be an open break with Tea Party elements that hold unpopular views so fervently that they are ready to wreck the party. The Democrats discovered during the Reagan years that they had to openly break with their extreme left wing, which they did through the Democratic Leadership Council, and they engaged in public disputes with the far left, most notably with Jesse Jackson. It cost them some liberal votes, but ensured Clinton’s ascendancy and now Obama’s. This may be bitter medicine for the GOP, but I think it’s clear what the alternative to that medicine is.

The next convention will be September 19-21 in Los Angeles. By then we will know who the GOP candidate for governor is. If it’s Donnelly, you can kiss the governorship goodbye. If it’s Kashkari, there is some hope, but that hope rides on a performance we have not yet seen.

Doug Lasken is a retired teacher for the LA Unified school district, recently returned to coach debate, as well as a freelance writer and education consultant. Read his blog at http://laskenlog.blogspot.com/ and write him at doug.lasken@gmail.com.