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California and the West | George Skelton

Is the State GOP in Denial, or Has It Bottomed Out?

April 15, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — A prominent Republican stopped me on the street recently to grouse about his party. The GOP "is like an alcoholic," the pol snickered. "We all want him to recover, but he's got to want to recover. And before that can happen he has to hit bottom. We all think he's hit bottom, but he doesn't."

This fellow was talking about the addiction of many Republican politicians to the anti-abortion and pro-gun causes, which leave big hangovers on election morning. He also was grumbling about the GOP's failure last year to offer voters a clear, compelling message.

And, more locally, he was scoffing at Assembly Republicans for their incessant squabbling.

Alcoholism: An interesting analogy, I thought, and pretty much forgot it.

Then a few days later, one faction of the Assembly GOP overpowered another faction--by just 17 to 15--and dumped Rod Pacheco of Riverside as minority leader. This was the third minority leader they'd booted in three years. And it was Pacheco, the Republicans' first-ever Latino leader, the ex-prosecutor whom party visionaries (an oxymoron?) had hoped could reach out to a rapidly growing voter bloc now cozy with Democrats.

Republicans replaced their Latino role model with Assemblyman Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach, an Orange County white guy--and, until recently, a backbencher who had been fighting to avoid the slammer on election misconduct charges.

It wasn't good PR. And as I made the rounds asking what this was all about, one GOP legislator leaned back in his leather chair and observed: "You know, I equate it to being an alcoholic . . . "

Whoa! I interrupted. Have you been talking to so-and-so? No. "We don't think we've hit bottom . . . "

So the Grand Old Party is being whispered about around the Capitol. According to some family members, it's an ideological inebriate and a mean drunk.

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It's hard for an outsider to really know the family secrets. Family members themselves often are in denial. From a distance, it looks extremely petty, especially when the family is shrinking.

Republicans now hold just 32 of the 80 Assembly seats after having lost five last November.

Pacheco's sins depend on whom you talk to.

The anti-Pacheco faction accuses him of being a smart-mouth and strident. "Not a good people-person," they allege. Pacheco once told Baugh--when they were allies--that if he were his prosecutor, he'd already be convicted. He called three colleagues who organized a rally for Texas Gov. George W. Bush "the three stooges."

Humor gone awry, Pacheco says. But, he concedes, "I tend to be a little direct and cut to the chase."

He didn't get along with Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Shock. Why would Villaraigosa want to help a Republican who might whittle away at the Democrats' Latino base? "He doesn't even speak Spanish," Villaraigosa once noted. Says Pacheco: "Guess I'm a second-class Latino."

Critics also complain that Pacheco didn't clearly define the differences between Republicans and Democrats. Probably too much of a centrist.

Pacheco's backers assert his root problem was that he supports abortion rights. He's also not keen on private school vouchers or Proposition 187. Regardless of charm, anybody holding those positions would have trouble leading Republicans.

The 40-year-old lawmaker had been regarded as a potential candidate for attorney general or even governor. Now he has flashing across his office computer screen this observation: "Man makes plans and God laughs."

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For three years in the Assembly, Baugh was a dead man walking. Now he's leading.

In truth, he never should have been charged by the Orange County D.A. with two felonies stemming from his handling of $1,000 in a 1995 special election. The case merely should have been referred to the state Fair Political Practices Commission for a probable fine. And that's where Democratic Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer sent it last month. "Wasn't a close call," Lockyer says.

But before that, Baugh, 36, was considered a jailbird-in-waiting and not worth getting to know. "People thought, 'This guy's shady,' " he recalls. " 'I don't want to get too close.' "

Baugh, however, is upbeat and gregarious. People began to like him.

He also has some radical thoughts for a Republican: There's too much police abuse, druggies shouldn't have to do life under three strikes, HMOs must be held accountable for denied medical care, and the only abortion issue worth fighting is parental consent.

Maybe Baugh does think the GOP has hit bottom. He personally knows the view from there.

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