One vote by California legislator illustrates fractured state Republican Party

With large swaths of the state unattainable for the party, California Republicans find their numbers at a historic low. With one vote, conservative Republican Assembly Member Anthony Adams became a symbol of the chaos and destructive divisions that mark the state party.
By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009

CLAREMONT, CALIF. -- A few facts reveal just how far the Republican Party has fallen in California.

A Republican hasn't carried the state in a presidential contest since 1988. The last time a California GOP candidate won a U.S. Senate election was in the same decade. Nowadays, Republicans' share of the state's registered voters has shrunk to 31 percent, a historic low.

"There are large parts of the state where the party is irrelevant," said Allan Hoffenblum, a well-known California political analyst who has been a campaign manager for Republicans in the state. "It's not even a statewide party, really."

But few stories better reflect the divisions and disarray among state Republicans than the saga of an obscure Southern California assemblyman.

He was unknown even by political junkies in the region until early this year. Then, with one vote, conservative Assembly member Anthony Adams became a symbol of California Republicans' chaos and destructive divisions. The story of the man who was once regarded as a loyal foot soldier exposed the toxic infighting that has come to define the party.

Now he became the latest straw dog in a fight much larger than anything about himself, an unlikely proxy in a broadening war for the heart of the Republican Party's, one engulfing Republicans nationwide. In New York, conservatives and more moderate party members fiercely contested a congressional seat that had drawn Sarah Palin into the fray on behalf of the party's right. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a darling of conservatives, found himself in a political death match against fellow Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had begun a primary challenge against him. The Adams skirmish was part of a pitched battle led by conservatives furious at those who, they thought, had not demonstrated loyalty to their principles.

When he cast an aye vote for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2009-2010 state budget, which included about $12.5 billion in tax increases, Adams instantly became a pariah in conservative GOP circles -- targeted for political extinction.

Criticism and threats of doom came from unusual sources. His irate mother-in-law, a devout conservative named Bonnie Ebright, called him to say he was betraying his party and country. A hugely popular Los Angeles radio show, hosted by a pair of commentators beloved by the right, responded to news of his vote by demanding his swift ouster. Conservative Rep. Tom McClintock called for Adams's immediate removal from office via California's recall process.

Schwarzenegger rallied to the assemblyman's side at an Adams fundraiser, which merely threw gasoline on the conservatives' fire. The recall effort moved forward. Adams could not quite believe what was happening -- particularly that he had been spurned by the very people to whom, he said, he had devoted his career. He saw the turmoil as symptomatic of a drive coming from "Taliban purist elements" of his party, he said.

"It hurts, but there is a new push by the purists out there," he observed. "This recall [effort] isn't helping Republicans, if you ask me. And we as a party already have problems enough in this state without this."

* * *

Anthony Adams looks like somebody's idea of the archetypal citizen politician. Bearded and portly, he favors bulky colorful sweaters to suits and shirts, and discards ties at the first opportunity. At 38, he is not someone with glittering prospects outside of government. He worked in retail sales for a while, hosted a radio show in a small California market, and has failed the California Bar Exam four times. But he found his calling in politics. He served as an aide for a San Bernardino County supervisor for a while before becoming legislative director for the county. He won his Assembly seat in 2006, aided by widespread support from ardent conservatives impressed when he signed a pledge to oppose any tax increases. "I thought it would be a good thing," he recalls.

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