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Tom Campbell's career is marked by nonconformist approach and few policy successes

The Republican was the mastermind behind Schwarzenegger's failed effort to cap state spending, and in Congress, where he bucked leaders of both parties, he wrote many bills that went nowhere.

May 19, 2010|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento

In the fall of 2005, voters delivered what was arguably the biggest political defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. A key mastermind behind the plan they rejected was Tom Campbell.

As the governor's budget chief, Campbell had guided Schwarzenegger to throw his weight behind a ballot measure that would ratchet down state spending. He chaired the campaign in favor of the measure and appeared in television ads. The proposal was the linchpin of a slate of initiatives the governor promised would bring order to Sacramento.

Instead, the measures brought the governor political chaos. His approval rating plummeted amid charges that the spending controls Campbell had helped draft would eviscerate school funding. The governor backed away from the plan after the election, and Campbell returned to his job as a business school dean.

It was not the first, or last, time that Campbell's intellectual reach would exceed his political grasp.

Campbell, now on his third run for the U.S. Senate, is known for his work ethic and an appreciation for big ideas. He is also known for having difficulty translating those ideas into achievements. Those who have watched his career say he refuses to bend ideologically and sometimes tilts at windmills, which has limited his ability to build the coalitions that are crucial to advancing an agenda. He has a tendency to overreach, they observe, and to refuse to compromise — characteristics that have hampered him in the political arena.

Political scientist John J. Pitney Jr. said Campbell is a stubborn nonconformist — a characteristic that may help him with voters tired of the status quo but doesn't necessarily play well in the halls of power.

"His entire career consists of choices other politicians would not have made," said Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Still, Campbell, 57, has been leading most polls this spring for the Republican primary against former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina and Assemblyman Chuck Devore.

A fiscal conservative and social moderate, he has an impressive resume. He taught law at Stanford and was dean of UC Berkeley's business school. He was a state senator and five-term member of Congress, representing Silicon Valley. He served as budget chief for Schwarzenegger and is now a visiting professor at Chapman University School of Law.

After being elected to the House of Representatives in 1989, he wrote 104 bills, but only two became law. That is about one-third the average success rate of the 51 other representatives from California, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan website

The two Campbell bills that were passed and signed into law during his 10 years in Congress involved relatively minor issues. One clarified that certain volunteers at private food banks are not considered employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The other authorized money for the Peace Corps.

Even after Republicans gained control of Congress, Campbell had poor relationships with the leaders of both parties, whose blessing is typically needed to move legislation.

In 1997, he joined a small number of GOP lawmakers to vote against reelecting Newt Gingrich as House speaker. Campbell said he did not think the vote should occur while Gingrich faced an investigation into whether he had improperly commingled his political and charitable enterprises. Soon after, Gingrich rejected Campbell's request for a committee assignment.

Campbell's stand did not hurt him with the largely upper-class, college-educated and socially liberal voters in his Silicon Valley district, where Democrats had the edge in voter registration. He was reelected a year later.

Campbell also broke with GOP leaders by supporting gun control and abortion rights. In 1998, the House approved a bill to make it a crime for adults to take minors across state lines for abortions. Campbell was one of only two Republicans to vote against the measure, which was vetoed by President Clinton.

Campbell focused mostly on finance issues--tax reform, banking, privatization of public services—but he also liked to jump into foreign policy. He bucked the party leadership on the use of military forces against the former Yugoslavian republic of Serbia in 1999. Insisting that Congress had an obligation to vote on use of the American military there, he pushed to put his fellow members of the House on record (they voted against a declaration of war).

"I felt this was our duty. The leaders of both parties in the House urged me not to do so." Campbell said in a recent interview. "I'm willing to take a position that the leadership might not want me to take. It shows, I hope, a degree of independence that could benefit the people of California."

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