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Jon Fleischman

Did The Six GOP Legislators Who Voted For Big Taxes In 2009 Pay A Political Price? Or Not?

I’m a fan of Steve Harmon, who is a political reporter for the Bay Area News Group (Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, etc.) — generally I find him to be a solid reporter, and I enjoy reading his stories.

That said, Steve and I have a running disagreement that centers around whether the 2009 budget deal that saw six Republican legislators vote to enact the largest tax increase in the history of any state (sales, income and car taxes, as well as an axing of a chunk of the child tax credit) caused those six GOPers to pay a steep political price.  These same six Republicans also voted to create a trigger whereby if voters passed Proposition 1A in an ensuing special election, these same taxes which had been enacted for two years would have their sunset date extended two years further out.  California voters rejected 1A by nearly a two-to-one margin thus those taxes were not extended.

In a piece that Harman had published over the weekend (for which, alas, I was not called for a quote), he says, "Of the six Republicans who voted for taxes, only one later went on to defeat in a Republican primary. Two captured GOP nominations in statewide contests, another was elected to a county post and two others dropped out of politics.  The overall theme of the piece is best summed up by it’s title, "Is the GOP’s anti-tax wrath a mere wraith?"

Let’s circle back and look at the political consequences for these six Republican ex-legislators — Assemblymen Roger Niello, Anthony Adams and Mike Villines, and Senators Roy Ashburn, Abel Maldonado and Dave Cogdill.  You can decide if voting for higher taxes as a Republican is a prudent career move.

Assemblyman Roger Niello, at the time, was the only GOPer in the State Capitol to not sign the Americans for Tax Reform "No New Taxes Pledge.  But he was unequivocal with the FlashReport in a 2007 interview, in terms of his opposition to higher taxes.  When State Senator Dave Cox passed away last year (after a long battle with cancer), Niello faced off against conservative Assemblyman Ted Gaines, who had opposed the 2009 tax increases and conservative acting Board of Equalization Member Barbara Alby (who was critical of the tax votes).  The result?  Out of just over a quarter million votes cast for the three GOPers in the race, Niello barely got 90,000 — Gaines is in the State Senate today.

Assemblyman Anthony Adams faced intense negative scrutiny for his vote for the taxes, egged on by what I would characterize as a cavalier attitude about his votes.  A high-profile recall campaign was mounted against Adams which created a stunning amount of negative press in his district.  The recall backers fell just short of the signatures necessary to place the recall on the ballot — but the damage was done to Adams.  In only his second term, Adams decided to call it quits rather than face GOP primary voters again in his district.  In what can only be called an ironic appointment, Adams today serves on the State Parole Board (an appointment from ex-Governor Schwarzenegger that comes with a six figure paycheck) which has the tax-hiking former legislator spending much of his time in state prisons, and driving to and from them.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines likes to say that he resigned from his leadership post just weeks after that fateful vote — but it would be more accurate to say that had he not done so, he would have been removed.  This illustrates the unpopularity of his vote for higher taxes.  Villines ran for Insurance Commissioner, where he enjoyed the backing of the Insurance industry.  Still he almost lost the GOP nomination to a political neophyte Brian FitzGerald who is a staff attorney for the Department of I nsurance (it was weeks after the primary before his he could claim victory).  Villines (like the rest of the GOP ticket) got blown out in November.  This ex-legislator is now doing PR in Sacramento — but has a cool Profile In Courage Award from the Kennedy Library on his desk, a tribute for being a tax-increasing Republican.

State Senator Roy Ashburn, as reported by the Bakersfield Californian, was looking seriously at a run against incumbent Democrat Congressman Jim Costa.  Costa, as it turns out, barely defeated GOPer Andy Vidak.  Ashburn made a decision not to run.  Was this due to his big vote on the taxes?  Longtime Californian political reporter Vic Pollard reacted to the news that Ashburn had decided not to run for Congress by saying, "They usually switch course like that when they learn something that tells them there’s no point in going on, it’s often a poll."  Ashburn is another of the "six" who was rewarded by ex-Governor Schwarzenegger.  He now makes a fat salary and benefits as a member of the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.  (It’s worth noting that the odd series of events concerning Ashburn that started when he was arrested for a DUI after driving away from a Sacramento gay bar took place after his decision not to run for Congress.)

Abel Maldonado would have been facing re-election to the State Senate next year except that he was the other of the "six" that was rewarded by Schwarzenegger for going up on the taxes.  Maldonado was nominated to fill the vacant Lt. Governor’s position last year.  He was was rather unceremoniously promoted "up and out" of the State Senate (with a great many GOPers who voted to confirm him making it clear theirs was a vote to get him out of the legislature).  Maldonado became the GOP nominee for Lt. Governor (the power of even appointed incumbency is strong) — but was shelved by voters last November.  I have to admit that Maldonado was the first GOP nominee I had ever seen booed at the podium as he spoke at the official California Republican Party election night festivities.  Presumably Maldonado is back working at the family ranch.

Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill suffered the most immediate negative impact to his vote for higher taxes when his own caucus rather unceremoniously dumped him from his leadership role right in the midst of the votes on the budget deal — in the middle of the night.  As the leader of Senate Republicans, Cogdill no doubt harbored ideas of running for higher office.  In the end, he ended up filing for County Tax Assessor in Stanislaus County, where he ran unopposed to replace a retiring incumbent.  For practical purposes, this would be retiring into relative obscurity.  He, too, has a Kennedy Center Award on his desk.

While it is instructive and perhaps historically interesting to see what happened to the aforementioned six Republicans who voted for the largest tax increase in state history (I would argue that some where actually architects of it), it is probably worth mentioning that the biggest negative impacts to these votes were to the Republican Party, which suffered a tremendous blow as our firm commitment to higher taxes as a party lost severe credibility with voters – especially conservatives, and of course taxpayers, who are still paying some of those taxes today (and if Governor Brown gets his way, will still be paying them five years from now).

I’ll close this commentary by saying that this whole episode of these six people and their vote for the higher taxes, for me, carried with it an extra level of disappointment and frustration.  While Cogdill, Maldonado and Niello were acquaintances, I enjoyed a positive relationship with each of them.  Villines, Ashburn, and especially Adams were friends.  It was a terrible experience, personally, to deal with their votes, and the ensuing, predictable politics.