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California and the West

Assembly's New GOP Chief Faces an Uphill Fight

Legislature: The party hopes wealthy conservative Bill Campbell can revive its fortunes with his fund-raising skills.


SACRAMENTO — When a wildfire raged in his east Orange County district four years ago, Assemblyman Bill Campbell got a call from the California Department of Forestry, offering to take him directly to the front lines.

"Won't I be in the way?" Campbell recalled saying, worried he would come across like an opportunistic, publicity-chasing pol.

He ultimately decided the visit to the fire lines was worthwhile. But unlike many of his Capitol colleagues, Campbell, chosen unanimously last week to be the new leader of the depleted Assembly Republicans, has never sought the spotlight.

Deeply conservative, earnest and thoughtful, the wealthy, Harvard-educated owner of a Taco Bell mini-empire in Southern California has never been one to pontificate on the Assembly floor. But when Campbell (R-Villa Park) speaks, fellow lawmakers say it's always worth listening--and not just because he has been known to ply his fellow Republicans with gorditas from time to time.

As the successor to gregarious Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), who is being forced from the lower house by term limits, Campbell will be doing much more speaking soon, waging an uphill fight to defend Republican principles in a political arena thoroughly dominated by Democrats.

"He's a gentleman. I've always liked him," said Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks). "He's not a petty guy. He's someone who tries to solve problems. He's a fellow who is self-made. He doesn't need to be here in Sacramento."

Republicans are practically an endangered species these days in California, and nowhere more so than the 80-member Assembly. The GOP holds just 30 Assembly seats after losing two in last week's election. Democrats, whose gains included a third seat that was vacant and a fourth previously held by an independent, hold a commanding 50.

Making matters worse for Republicans, the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional districts is right around the corner. It's a terrible time to be the political minority.

After an election bruising that left top GOP leaders such as Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) talking about the need to change the party's image, Campbell might seem an odd choice for the Assembly job. He refuses to vote for the state budget because it contains money for abortions, one of many hard-edged, far-right views that has earned him a perfect 100% rating from the California Republican Assembly, a conservative and powerful grass-roots organization.

But no one seems to question that Campbell can represent the interests of the entire Republican caucus, which in any case is more conservative than ever after the latest election.

And Campbell possesses what is perhaps the most attractive attribute for a party leader: He is skilled at raising money. California Republicans were badly outspent in this year's races, in part because Democrats were able to siphon away contributions from big business, the GOP's traditional benefactor. Campbell vows to change that, and to turn their part-time Assembly campaign operation into a more professional outfit, a goal that won him much praise among Republican lawmakers worried about their political future.

"He has a rapport with the business community," said veteran Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino), who has seen Campbell in action at Silicon Valley business events and supported his leadership run. "He knows how to speak their language."

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Pico Rivera, Campbell dreamed of a political life since age 10, when he fell in love with Washington, D.C., while visiting an aunt who worked in government there. But his life initially took him in a different direction.

He graduated with an electrical engineering degree from Loyola Marymount University and went to work for such firms as Rockwell International and TRW. However, he found the engineer's life too solitary.

"I'm a people person," Campbell said.

In 1975, he went to work for a former associate who owned a string of small businesses in Southern California, including a number of Taco Bell franchises. He bought him out two years later.

Campbell, who later earned a Harvard MBA, has enjoyed tremendous financial success from his fast-food investment, but he is not one to flaunt his wealth. His attire consists of casual golf shirts and khakis, and the closest thing to ostentation evident in his Capitol office is the presence of several Taco Bell Chihuahuas among pictures of his family and Campbell with such GOP luminaries as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

He has served in several prominent business groups, including the international board of the Young President's Organization, a networking organization for hotshot under-50 executives. He and his wife, Mary, who have lived in Villa Park for 20 years, have been deeply involved in community affairs, including the Boy Scouts and Catholic St. Norbert's Parish in Orange. Mary has been running the business while Campbell concentrates on politics.

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