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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A Standout in an Otherwise Feeble GOP Field

May 04, 2000|George Skelton

The common rap on California Republicans is that they have a weak bench. But this gives them too much credit. It implies they have a starting team. Not these days.

A bench is where players are stashed who can step in for the first team--for a governor, a U.S. senator, a state attorney general. . . . The GOP currently has none of these top positions. Democrats occupy the governor's office, both U.S. Senate seats and five of seven statewide partisan offices.

One of two statewide elected Republicans--Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush--has suffered a potential career-ending scandal. Scratch him as a future governor. The other--

Secretary of State Bill Jones--angered major GOP campaign contributors by defecting to Sen. John McCain after having committed to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Jones is now on the political disabled list.

But there is one healthy player, and he's not exactly a bench warmer. He's the new state Senate minority leader, Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.

Brulte, 44, is the most politically savvy, articulate Republican in the Legislature. Indeed, it's tough to think of a Republican throughout California who commands more respect among politicians of either party.

"He makes things happen in the Capitol," notes GOP consultant Ray McNally. "And he does it without surrendering his conservative principles. Without selling out."

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Brulte's first political job was slapping on bumper strips for gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan as a 10-year-old. Eventually, he became an advance man for Vice President George Bush, worked for several politicians and was elected to the Assembly in 1990.

Quickly rising to Republican leader, Brulte orchestrated the GOP's "takeover" of the Assembly in 1994. But three Republicans sold out to Democrat Willie Brown and Brulte was denied the speakership. In 1996, he moved to the Senate, became GOP caucus chairman and, when Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine stepped down as minority leader for family health reasons last week, Brulte succeeded him without a fight.

It's now his responsibility to improve the GOP's 25-15 disadvantage in the Senate--or at least keep the scarce seats the party holds.

What drives Brulte is political conquest and legislative compromise, not any ideological cause. He brings to the arena congeniality. "I don't provoke people," notes the 6-foot, 4-inch, 260-pound GOP leader.

That means less legislative gridlock.

He's not one to hang up a budget over, say, abortion funding. In truth, no recent GOP leader has, partly due to Brulte's coaxing. He's basically antiabortion but tries to avoid the divisive issue. Same with gun control; he mostly votes against it, but cautions Republicans that they are on the wrong side of history on firearms.

Asked how his party got to this low point, Brulte replies: "It allowed itself to be painted as intolerant. It picked issues that tended to divide rather than to unite. And we're now [in the Senate] trying to focus on issues that unite."

Issues like school accountability, lower college fees, transportation planning. He won't get into the errant, divisive issues--abortion, illegal immigration, affirmative action.

Brulte has his own affirmative action program: He pumped $400,000 from his political kitty into the winning primary campaigns of Republican women and minorities. "I wanted to send a signal that at the highest level of the party, we're prepared to put our money where our mouth is," he says.

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An optimist, Brulte professes not to worry about the GOP's future in California.

"Conventional wisdom is historically wrong," he says. "Three years ago, Gray Davis was pretty much derided. Today he's governor. . . .

"Perception always trails reality. And the Republican Party was in trouble long before people recognized it. We're still in trouble, but we're better off than people think."

The party is financially better off since Brulte became its finance chairman last fall. It was $300,000 in debt; now it has more than $1 million in the bank.

Considered Bush's point man in California, Brulte recruited the candidate for a $2-million-plus party fund-raising dinner. This week, Bush is in California again raising another $2 million for the state and national parties.

Says Gov. Davis' chief strategist, Garry South: "I think the world of Brulte. We're honest with each other. He's never sleazed me. I pick his brain. He picks mine.

"My only concern about Brulte is he's had such a meteoric rise, he's going to think the next step is running for governor."

Not likely. But given their bench, Republicans could do worse.

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