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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

His Passion Is Purely Fiscal

For 20 years, the object of Tom McClintock's desire has been a thrifty state government. The quest has tied his life to the capital he scorns.

September 21, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Chris McClintock traces her son's twin penchants for politics and penny wisdom to age 8. The third-grader wanted to ride the bus to presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's campaign office near the family home in White Plains, N.Y.

"He was really into the whole concept of government," McClintock said, her eyes welling with pride. "He loved it."

Young Tom McClintock didn't have to ask his parents for the bus fare. He had it stashed in his piggy bank. So off he went.

Thirty-nine years later, he is a state senator on the ride of his life, running for governor in California's Oct. 7 recall election. The Thousand Oaks Republican bills himself as the thriftiest politician in the race -- the unequaled enemy of a bloated bureaucracy and a "taxpayers' advocate" loath to dip into the state's piggy bank.

He has sharpened his skinflint image through a career that began when he won an Assembly seat at 26. McClintock ran then, as he does now, not so much against his opponents on the ballot as against Sacramento itself.

In his view, a remote and profligate state government has squandered the promise of yesterday's California, a remembered idyll of good jobs and affordable houses that lured his parents here in 1965.

"I've spent 20 years focusing on the fiscal policies of this state," McClintock said during an interview in his pin-neat Senate office, under the gaze of a plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson.

"I've steered a pretty steady course."

That course transformed McClintock into a creature of Sacramento.

"He's not necessarily the guy you want to take to the local pub for a drink," said Lew Uhler, a McClintock fan who is president of the Sacramento-based National Tax Limitation Committee. "He is such a policy wonk. He reads, thinks and talks public policy."

McClintock lives in the Sacramento region year-round -- rather than in his district -- which has opened him to charges of carpetbagging. And he accepts taxpayer-financed perks, like free cars and subsidized rent on a second home.

The 17-year veteran of the Legislature also has come to reconsider his early support for term limits, saying they have not cured his colleagues of their big-spending ways.

"My objective has always been to streamline the state government," he said. "It's much easier to do that inside this building than outside it."

Detractors in both parties say he feeds from the hand he bites.

But the senator and his supporters say that he plays by the rules he inherited -- and that his commitment to reining in a tax-happy Sacramento is as firm as ever.

"Tom has a core group of people who really love him," said Brian Kennedy, president of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that employed McClintock during his 1992-96 break from the Legislature, the result of a failed bid for Congress.

McClintock is campaigning for governor as the "true Republican." He is more conservative on social issues than GOP rival Arnold Schwarzenegger -- McClintock opposes gun controls and abortion -- but his consuming passions are fiscal.

From the day he arrived at the Capitol, his pursuit of a smaller state payroll has been unyielding. He boasts of having voted against every state budget since 1990.

What he calls an adherence to principle, and what some brand as bull-headed inflexibility, has earned him few friends in the Legislature -- and few victories. In the recently concluded 2003 session, he wrote no significant measures that became law.

"Tom sees everything in black and white," said a prominent Republican lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing the notable wrath of McClintock, who has sought the ouster of several GOP legislative leaders. "That's not governance.... That's why he doesn't get anything done."

But McClintock says his achievements have been subtle and significant. He asserts that the cumulative force of his attacks on spendthrifts has nudged the Legislature, though controlled by Democrats, to the right. A case in point, he says, is his five-year battle to slash the state's car tax, whose tripling by the Davis administration helped fuel the recall drive. Democratic leaders have distanced themselves from the increase.

"My biggest contribution here, being in the minority, is to push the overall agenda in my direction," McClintock said.

Detractors discount his effects on the state's affairs, but they concede that the former Boy Scout is a smart, hard-working and well-prepared legislator. While he doesn't get much passed, they say, not much gets past him, either.

His manner in the Senate's columned chambers suggests a gracious loner whose skin feels tight at the seams. McClintock keeps mostly to himself, studying the details of bills at his desk. He rarely navigates the red-carpeted room to schmooze, but he has a polite smile for anyone who tries to schmooze him.

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