One vote by California legislator illustrates fractured state Republican Party

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009; A01

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.

Throughout his legislative career, he has faithfully hewed to the precepts of social and fiscal conservatism: opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control and most new spending.

But, during budget deliberations early this year, the exigencies of governance collided with his pledge against more taxes. Suddenly Adams wondered whether he could keep his promise. The state's economy had cratered. The projected budget deficit without new taxes exceeded $42 billion, and that already included deep cuts to education and social programs.

With most Republican legislators preferring additional spending cuts to tax increases, the prospect of a deadlock loomed. It would mean severe pain for people doing business with the state, a tortured Adams told close aides, friends and family members. "State people were not getting paychecks," he remembers. "We faced the possibility of paying those people off in IOUs for quite some time. . . . I thought it was unconscionable not to pay people we owe."

Still, Adams realized the possibly dire cost of going back on his 2006 pledge: "I knew there was no easily defensible position for me."

The signs of trouble were all around him. His persistent mother-in-law, aware that he was flirting with a vote for the Schwarzenegger package, called to protest and to warn of the political disaster he was courting. He knew she deeply loved him, but when they played Yahtzee together, she hammered him: "What do you think you're doing?" Around his 59th Assembly District, which runs from a mix of suburbs east of Los Angeles into what Californians call the high desert, conservative activists vowed there would be severe consequences if he crossed them. A recall, Adams concluded, was a frightening possibility.

At his home in the high desert community of Hesperia, he prayed with his wife, Deanna, for guidance. "The pressure was awful," he recalls.

Finally he made up his mind. Seeing no other way for the state to avert fiscal disaster, he announced before the vote that he would support the budget package, which included higher taxes on sales, income and vehicle registration. After an all-night legislative session that culminated with the Assembly narrowly approving the budget, Adams found himself eating breakfast with a few other renegade Republicans and Schwarzenegger. His cellphone rang. It was his mother-in-law. Weary, he handed the phone to the governor, who told her, as Adams recalls, "Be nice to your son-in-law, please."

* * *

What happened next was the political equivalent of an unchecked California wildfire. Adams received anonymous death threats, prompting the state Highway Patrol to provide him and his wife with around-the-clock protection for three days. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher joined fellow California conservative McClintock in announcing support for the recall effort, which soon included signature gatherers lining up at supermarkets and malls.

But some prominent California Republicans expressed worry. Tom Campbell, a former five-term congressman who is one of three social moderates vying for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination, viewed the crusade against Adams as fueling the perception of a party riddled by disunity. He referred to the recent civil war between Republicans in New York's special election for the 23rd Congressional District, where party conservatives forced a Republican who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage to withdraw from the race. A Democrat ultimately won, in a district once regarded as solidly Republican. He was tired of his divided party losing, Campbell said. Adams "should not be recalled," he added. "I don't think it's good for our party to go into a circular firing squad. . . . It's a sign of a party in decline, not ascendancy."

Not all Republicans were so worried. California GOP Chairman Ron Nehring, who saw Adams's Assembly seat as safely in Republican hands no matter what happened with the recall, pointed to the 19 Republicans in the state's 53-member U.S. House delegation as evidence of the party's strength. Campbell saw chances for Republican inroads in parts of California where he thought the combination of high unemployment and strict Democratic environmental positions offered possibilities for arguing that Democrats were out of touch with working-class supporters. "We just have a lot of work to do," he said.

The daunting tasks include improving the party's rocky relations with many Hispanic voters, who now account for an estimated 20 percent of the California electorate. The relationship was badly strained in 1994, when high-profile Republican leaders fiercely campaigned on behalf of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to deny state benefits and public education to illegal immigrants. The consensus view among Campbell, who opposed 187, and other GOP leaders is that the party's relationship with Hispanics has never fully recovered from that fight.

Alongside such chronic problems, the Adams fracas was simply cause for another Republican migraine, a troubling reminder that nothing so plagues the party nowadays as its schisms. The rifts carry potentially serious implications for the GOP's chances in the California gubernatorial race. Social conservatives have no candidate of their own in the contest for the Republican nomination, having grudgingly conceded the gubernatorial terrain to better-funded Republicans who support abortion rights. But not all of those contenders are kindly looked upon by fervent conservatives, particularly former eBay chief executive and early front-runner Meg Whitman, whom McClintock derisively labeled as "Schwarzenegger in drag."

Like the antipathy toward Whitman, the Adams melee served as a reminder that wounds of old party fights are still fresh. There is absolutely no one in a position to unify the party, GOP leaders say, least of all Schwarzenegger. The governor's successful fights this year included social measures largely scorned by his party, including mandatory registration for handgun ammunition purchases and a bill setting aside an annual day to commemorate the life of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor and gay activist killed in 1978. "The governor was on his own on those measures," Chairman Nehring said coolly.

The ongoing divisions trouble longtime GOP members who are old enough to have served during the party's glory days. Stuart Spencer, a trusted political adviser to Ronald Reagan during his governorship and presidency, questions how Reagan would have fared in a California GOP primary today. Reagan, he said, was about putting together a "big tent for Republicans," wanting to leave room for moderates in his party who occasionally strayed from absolute fealty to conservative ideals. "I'm not sure he could win an election here today; he wasn't that kind of conservative," Spencer said. He added: "Now, if the far right here doesn't like the way somebody has voted on one or two issues, on taxes, they're against them."

Spencer had taken note of conservatives' attempted recall of Adams. "This is somebody who is voting with them more than 95 percent of the time," he said. "It's destructive what's going on."

But McClintock viewed the targeting of Adams as a warning shot to any of his brethren contemplating a trimming of their conservative positions. "That's not acceptable -- people will abandon our party if it doesn't uphold its values," he said.

As for the defense from Adams's supporters that, aside from his vote on the budget, the assemblyman had demonstrated absolute loyalty to conservatives, McClintock shot back: "That's like 'Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?' There is no 'aside from that vote.' . . . We must redeem the party."

* * *

Since the beginning of the struggle, the most ominous attacks against Adams had come from an Orange County lawyer who was helping to lead the effort to oust him. Dubbed the king of recalls, former California Republican chairman Mike Schroeder had already led successful recalls against two GOP state legislators in the 1990s. He argued now that Adams had to be purged to vindicate conservative values.

Schroeder presented Adams with formal papers announcing the recall bid at a fundraiser for the assemblyman. He told Adams that the campaign against him was started on behalf of the citizens of California. "Let the games begin," Schroeder proclaimed.

Adams didn't have much to say to that. "Drive safely," he replied.

Schroeder, who has a reputation for flamboyance, was dressed in a black "Star Wars" T-shirt with an image of Darth Vader on it. He famously sent his business card to a recalled foe once, like a gunslinger leaving a memento. He drew a comparison between the targeting of Adams and the conservatives' battle in New York's 23rd Congressional District: "People lie or abuse their office, and we turn them out. That's what Republicans are doing all over."

By early November, in Southern California, more than 58,000 petition signatures for a recall had been gathered against Adams. The number was far greater than necessary to force an election, and recall organizers awaited only the expected validation of the requisite number of signatures to qualify for the ballot.

At a restaurant in his district, Adams was discussing his political peril one afternoon, in between picking at his food and softly singing along to classic rock songs playing. "I will not allow myself to be intimidated by the extreme purists in our party," he said. He added: "I cast one vote essentially that they didn't like -- one vote."

He paused and contemplatively tapped his finger on his chin, singing along under his breath to the Beatles: "You say you want a revoluuuutionnnn, well, you know, we all want to change the world." He looked up, snapped to, back on track. "This Taliban mentality: it's trying to get rid of people in our party. It makes it impossible to grow the party."

An undeterred Schroeder, buoyant about the number of recall signatures gathered, exuded confidence and fury. "I don't call what he did courageous," he said, in early November. "He lied about the pledge. He committed political suicide. He's gone."

* * *

Republicans on both sides of the divide in the 59th District held their breath over the next week. And then, in late November, something happened that no one foresaw. The California secretary of state's office delivered the shocking news: The recall attempt against Adams had failed after a review of a portion of petitions turned up too many invalid signatures. "My first reaction was disbelief," Adams said, adding: "I hope it means the purists went too far."

Just as in the case of the New York special congressional election, analysts struggled to read the meaning of the latest GOP dust-up. What does it portend for Republicans in California and elsewhere that a beleaguered California assemblyman, fingered for expulsion by impassioned conservatives, has survived, at least temporarily? "I don't know," Adams concedes.

His mother-in-law, Adams said, was "uncharacteristically quiet." In the days that followed, the resolute band of recall leaders announced they would appeal the ruling on the invalid signatures, still hoping the recall could proceed.

For now, all the two warring sides can agree on is that the Adams clash represents another firefight in an ongoing battle for the soul of the party in the state and around the country. But, in California especially, the brawl also serves as the latest evidence of a troubled party, one with a governor spurned by his fellow Republicans, and a conservative wing that, even in targeting its own, cannot seem to impose its will. It is a party adrift in California for the moment, its leaders acknowledge, rudderless.

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