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California's GOP Five unfazed by risk of budget talks with Brown

Despite a torrent of conservative criticism, the senators see a chance to reach some key Republican goals in negotiating the California budget with the governor, who needs two of their votes to get his tax-extension measure on the ballot.

March 19, 2011|By Michael J. Mishak and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento -- The most powerful players in California's deep-blue Legislature these days may be a clutch of Republican senators known as the GOP Five.

Amid party-line warfare over Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget, they have bucked Republican leadership — and risked their careers — to wheel and deal with the Democratic governor, who needs two of their votes to pass his plan.

Nearly every other Republican has snubbed Brown, largely because his spending blueprint includes billions of dollars in extended taxes. The five minority-party back-benchers turned Capitol powerbrokers have been hit with a torrent of conservative criticism.

At the GOP state convention this weekend, more than 1,000 Republican activists will consider a resolution to censure lawmakers who vote for Brown's plan. The measure brands them as "traitorous Republicans-In-Name-Only" and calls for their resignations.

But each of the five has reasons for tolerating the activists' ire.

Sen. Tom Harman of Huntington Beach is serving his last term in the Legislature. Among his options after leaving office is seeking a judicial appointment from Brown.

Sens. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo hail from largely Democratic districts where support for the governor is strong.

Sens. Bill Emmerson of Hemet and Tom Berryhill of Modesto say the Republican credo of cutting more government would devastate their districts, which have some of the state's highest unemployment and foreclosure rates.

The group also stands as Republicans' best shot at checking off a conservative wish list that in less extraordinary times would already have been shelved by Democratic leaders. In return for their votes, the five are asking Brown to overhaul public pensions, ease landmark environmental regulations and put a strict cap on state spending.

Success on even one of those fronts would represent a legislative coup that could shape California for years or even decades.

A few Assembly Republicans are also talking with Brown — he needs two of their votes as well — though not in the same organized fashion. Berryhill said his coalition was hatched months ago at a bipartisan mixer in his office. Each legislator took a specific policy area in which to develop negotiating proposals.

Last month, when more than two-thirds of the Republicans in the Legislature formed a "taxpayers caucus" to oppose Brown's budget, the five consolidated their press shops, speaking with one voice in news releases.

"That left us out on the fringe," Emmerson said. "But I came up here to make things happen and get things done…. It's time to govern."

The group began meeting with Brown in secret, hashing out ideas over almonds and wine at large wooden tables in his office and downtown loft. Brown also sat for talks in their Capitol offices. The five saw the sessions as a rare opportunity.

"If President Reagan can go in and negotiate with the Soviets, I figure I can sit at a picnic table with Gov. Brown," Blakeslee said.

With Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga firmly opposed to Brown's plan, the five turned to a Democrat, Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, for help. He approved a $20,000 contract for a consulting firm to assist the group in developing its proposals.

The group of five is going about its task with bravado. None of them seems to fear a repeat of 2009, when a similar GOP cluster faced a backlash for joining with Democrats to pass the temporary tax increases that Brown now wants to extend. Two Republicans lost their leadership posts, another retired in the face of a recall and another lost a bid for statewide office.

Sitting in his Capitol office this week, Harman, who is 69 and termed out of the Legislature next year, said he feels liberated.

"I could retire. I could get an appointment to the bench," he said. Nearby, a plaque honoring Teddy Roosevelt read: "Dare Greatly."

Cannella, a freshman from the San Joaquin Valley and the son of a former Democratic lawmaker, said his participation in the group was natural after serving two terms as Ceres mayor, a nonpartisan post.

"I don't go down a party ideology," he said. "I go down what is best for the people in my district." Democrats hold a 20-point registration advantage over Republicans there.

Likewise, Blakeslee, a former GOP Assembly leader, represents a Democratic-leaning district.

"The people who have approached me," he said, "are glad that we are challenging Gov. Brown to live up to the real reforms that he promised to embrace."

Emmerson, a former assemblyman from a swing district in the Inland Empire, said he longs for the bipartisanship he witnessed as a young legislative staffer more than four decades ago.

"It was a much greater era of working to solve problems," he said.

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