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Making law by talking 'war'

A freshman assemblyman's violent rhetoric draws criticism, but a constituent insists 'he's not a radical.'

April 12, 2011|Michael J. Mishak

Tim Donnelly crouched into a firing stance behind his chair and folded his hands in the shape of a gun.

Lawmaking, said the GOP assemblyman from San Bernardino, is "full-blown war," and guerrilla tactics are needed to win the battle against California Democrats' agenda. As Donnelly sees it, the liberals who dominate state government have betrayed the public with job-killing regulations and crushing taxes.

"We've got a .50-caliber with crosshairs and ... we're going to pick off two or three of them using this issue," he said.

It had been nearly three weeks since Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson, and Donnelly, California's lone "tea party" success in last fall's state elections, was visiting his Inland Empire office.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 13, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly: An April 12 article in Section A about Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of San Bernardino said he leases a state car that costs $32,000 a year. That figure is the total cost of the car, which is leased to Donnelly for four years.

He had nothing against Democrats, he said. In fact, he and fellow Republicans intended to find Democrats who "actually believe in jobs and understand how jobs are created," build political bridges to them and pass laws to put people back to work.

But the 44-year-old former member of the Minutemen, who has two antique rifles mounted in his Capitol office, made no apologies for the violent pantomime.

"Where I live, there's more guns than people," he said, adding: "Eventually, there will be a day of reckoning -- and I'm hoping that day of reckoning is political."

Donnelly, a married father of five with a degree in English from UC Irvine, rode voter rage and an anti-illegal immigration platform to victory in November. Saying he wanted to "take the people's anger and channel it into action ... so that they know somebody's listening," he wasted no time creating legislation to import Arizona's controversial immigration law, block in-state tuition rates for undocumented students at state colleges and fight limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

"I don't believe in global warming," he said.

In his suit and tie and sharply manicured goatee, he's indistinguishable from most legislators -- until you feel his iron handshake, meet his intense gaze and see his collection of Revolutionary War tomes, military histories and plaque honoring the Texas Rangers.

Although his fiery brand of conservatism normally would marginalize him in blue-tinted California, Donnelly's sound-bite rhetoric and penchant for controversy have won him a degree of attention that some veteran politicians might envy.

He quickly acquired a nickname: The Shredder. That's what Fox News' Stuart Varney affectionately dubbed him after a video of Donnelly shredding pages from Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget went viral on YouTube. The lawmaker used a hammer to smash a piggy bank in his next video, to represent what he described as the pillaging of the state treasury by public employee unions, illegal immigrants and overpaid bureaucrats.

"You have to have the right message," he said. "It has to be short, extremely powerful and bring truth to the people in a way that will shock them."

One of 14 children, Donnelly came to California after working his way through private high school in Michigan as a janitor.

He was running a small plastics business in the mountain hamlet of Twin Peaks when he jumped into the Assembly race in a district that extends from Arcadia to Apple Valley. Unemployment was rising and foreclosures were emptying Inland Empire neighborhoods. His business was foundering, and he'd canceled his family's health insurance to pay for his children's tuition at a private Christian school.

He squeaked out a win in a six-way Republican primary after raising about $16,500 -- less than one-tenth of the top spender's campaign fund. After winning the primary, his campaign was $14,000 in debt. A political novice who mistakenly thought he'd start getting a paycheck immediately, Donnelly was burning through his savings. In the general election, he beat Democrat Darcel Woods by 20 percentage points.

Five years earlier, he had founded the largest California chapter of the Minutemen. He had become obsessed with border security, in part after reading reports about a fourth-grade boy -- allegedly the son of illegal immigrants -- who had sexually harassed a female classmate at a local school.

He volunteered to patrol the Arizona border. He sought out TV news crews for his first taste of the spotlight -- and reveled in it. He discussed immigration policy with CNN's Anderson Cooper and Fox's Greta Van Susteren, taking them on a tour of the makeshift border fence he and his fellow Minutemen built near San Diego.

A self-described "ideologue," Donnelly goes to great lengths to say that his immigration stance does not make him a racist; his wife, he notes, is Filipina.

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