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The Fury of McClintock Scorned

Slighted by the GOP in the past, he's taking revenge--and that's sweet for Democrats.

September 28, 2003|Tony Quinn | Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative and congressional campaigns.

SACRAMENTO — GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock is not your ordinary ineffective right-wing politician, of which California has had many in recent decades. He could actually accomplish something: elect the next governor of California. And, unfortunately for Republicans, that person would probably be a Democrat.

Whatever chance Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has to win the replacement election -- and possibly Gov. Gray Davis to survive the recall -- lies with one of California's most ideological politicians.

McClintock, who is running third in most polls, has no chance of winning, though he stubbornly insists he does.

In an effort at Republican solidarity, Bill Simon Jr., the party's 2002 nominee for governor; a group of county GOP chairmen; and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, the San Diego County Republican who financed the petition drive that put the recall on the ballot, have all thrown their weight behind Arnold Schwarzenegger, the other leading Republican in the replacement race.

McClintock's candidacy threatens to divide the GOP vote. It also gives Republicans reason to vote no on the recall to stop Bustamante, thus saving Davis. Numbers being numbers, a division of the vote in the Republican Party all but ensures success for a Democrat, whether he be Bustamante or Davis.

Why would McClintock risk handing the governorship to the most liberal Democratic candidate on the ballot? The answer is revenge -- an irrational emotion in politics that often trumps all others. McClintock is getting even.

McClintock, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1982, has spent almost his entire adult life either holding public office or working in conservative politics. He twice ran for statewide office, losing both times because of defections within his own party.

When McClintock began his political life, he was an inoffensive backbencher in the Assembly minority. But when Gov. Pete Wilson took office in 1991, McClintock became a fiery opponent of his party's governor.

Wilson faced a huge budget deficit his first year in office, which he eliminated through a combination of tax increases and budget cuts. Like McClintock, many Republicans opposed Wilson's tax increases. But McClintock did not stop there. He regularly and bitterly criticized Wilson over the next several years as the governor grappled with the state's recession-induced fiscal woes.

When Wilson ran for reelection in 1994, McClintock was seeking the job of state controller, one for which his knowledge of the state's fiscal structure, if not his temperament, qualified him.

Wilson, however, wanted nothing to do with McClintock, and his allies in the Republican financial community and gubernatorial campaign cut off funding to McClintock's campaign. With Wilson heading toward a landslide reelection, his camp poured unneeded money and effort into getting his allies on the statewide ticket elected. Matt Fong won the post of state treasurer; Chuck Quackenbush, insurance commissioner; and Bill Jones, secretary of state. McClintock achieved something almost no Republicans running for an open seat did in the 1994 GOP landside: He lost to a Democrat, Kathleen Connell, who benefited from not-so-subtle help from Wilson's team.

After a stint at a conservative think tank, McClintock reemerged in state politics as an assemblyman in 1996. He moved up to the Senate four years later, and in 2002 he went after the controller's job again.

And it looked as if he would win. But McClintock had enemies in the state's corporate and business communities -- at one time he threatened to help trial lawyers sue businesses -- and they saw to it that McClintock's campaign stayed starved for funds. As a result, he lost to Democrat Steve Westly in one of the closest races in state history. Just a relative handful of the many political dollars spent on GOP candidates in 2002 would have elected him, but the GOP establishment once again denied him.

So it is hardly a surprise that McClintock deeply resents Wilson and his former associates, who happen to be Schwarzenegger's chief handlers. Making sure that Schwarzenegger is not elected governor, should the recall succeed, would provide McClintock with sweet revenge on the Wilson crowd, and the state senator still harbors a sharp grudge. In an interview last week, McClintock called Wilson "one of the worst [governors] ... in our state's history," while asserting that Schwarzenegger would raise taxes, as Wilson did.

There is a way to deal with McClintock. It is called hardball politics. McClintock was the only one of California's 40 state senators who did not receive a safe district in the 2001 reapportionment, which says something about how his colleagues view him. Next year, he has to run for reelection to the Senate, and he will be seeking votes in a new, relatively moderate district that extends up the coast into Santa Barbara County, where he has not run before. Republicans could defeat him in the primary, or so weaken him that he would lose to his Democratic foe in the general election, likely to be incumbent Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson.

Democrats have little use for the intransigent McClintock. What a great irony if McClintock keeps the governor's office in Democratic hands, and outraged Republicans then drive McClintock out of state politics.

Democrats should be so lucky. But this is a recall full of endless surprises.

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