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McClintock Convinced Persistence Will Pay Off

Uncompromising and outspoken, he believes his tightfisted ways will resonate with voters.

August 25, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Tom McClintock was the bookish kid with a "Reagan for Governor" sticker on his Schwinn bicycle, the wonkish pol who eagerly joined the just-vote-no "caveman" faction of the state Assembly, the maverick state senator who never saw a new tax he could embrace.

Even within his own Republican Party, he has always been an outsider, consigned to counting his victories indirectly -- as the instigator of ideas that catch on later, usually with someone else's name attached.

"By the time I got to junior high and high school, the term 'geek' certainly applied, and I'm still pretty much the same guy," said McClintock, 47. "But I do feel I've gone from being a lonely voice to one that people listen to."

Bill Simon Jr.'s exit from the recall election over the weekend has given McClintock his moment. As the campaign's prominent fiscal and social conservative, he is now poised either to be a spoiler in the Oct. 7 election or, if votes on the long recall ballot are split just so, to replace Gray Davis as governor.

A new Times Poll last week found that McClintock's support has doubled since early July to 12% of likely voters, behind Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With California's budget balanced only through borrowing and its credit rating at junk bond levels, McClintock believes he is finding an audience for his conservative fiscal positions.

As governor, he says, he would bypass the deadlocked Legislature, if necessary, to balance the budget through executive order and ballot initiative. He would cap government spending, cut California's bureaucracy, contract out for state services and reduce the state's workers' compensation benefits.

Last year, as the state budget shortfall ballooned, McClintock was the only member of the Legislature to vote against salary and pension increases for state prison guards, a package that costs at least $700 million a year. Davis, who received nearly $1.5 million in his first term from the guards' union, signed the bill.

Witty if a bit stiff, McClintock took his frugal notions to voters last fall as a candidate for state controller, using a fictional Scotsman, "Cousin Angus McClintock," to vouch for his being "as tight as a bullfrog's behind, and that, me friends, is watertight."

Though outspent 5 to 1, he lost by a slim margin and pulled more votes than any other Republican on the statewide ballot, including Simon in his loss to Davis for governor.

"From day one, I've said don't count Tom McClintock out," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC political analyst. "He's the true conservative in this recall race. He's a true believer."

Just two weeks into the race, McClintock and Simon were both asked if they would eventually throw their support behind Schwarzenegger to give the GOP its best chance of winning the governor's office. Simon relented Saturday, but a defiant McClintock stood firm.

"Forget it; I'm in this race to stay," McClintock said. "I believe in an election process where we have the campaign first and then the voters get to decide who wins. I know that's at variance with the country-club variety of the Republican Party, but so be it."

Bebitch Jeffe thinks McClintock has the credentials to stay in the race, if not the money. And she said Simon's withdrawal will bring a windfall of free media coverage to "the anti-Arnold."

Even his underfunded campaign treasury has received some help -- swelling by Friday to $312,000 in cash and what his campaign said were pledges of $800,000. Analysts say it will take $6 million to $12 million to run a competitive race. He says he can win with $4 million, and is unveiling his radio and television campaign this week.

"I'm not tilting at windmills," McClintock said in an interview. "But I have found it takes a number of years of persistence to get a new idea to fruition."

McClintock's main new idea is actually an old one: to resurrect tax-activist Paul Gann's cap on state spending, so it could only increase as fast as inflation and population growth combined. Had such a cap been in place the last five years, he contends, the state would have seen a healthy surplus rather than a $38-billion shortfall.

"This is not a revenue problem," he said. "Inflation and population grew 21% [since 1998], and revenue grew 25%. The problem is the 40% increase in spending for the same period."

McClintock knows many of his proposals are not popular. But the tart-tongued, abrasive state senator has never been a consensus builder. He has taken shots at what he sees as excessive spending by both parties for two decades.

He criticized Republican Gov. George Deukmejian regularly on a variety of issues. For a decade, he has railed against Republican Pete Wilson for imposing "the biggest tax increase in American history" when he was governor.

Some arguments between McClintock and Wilson were so strong, legislators who attended the Republican strategy sessions said they watched in awe.

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