Jim Brulte, shown in 2003 when he was Senate minority leader, is expected… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — "There's no place to go but up," asserted Jim Brulte, whose mission is to save the California Republican Party. "We're on the way back."
Brulte told me that in 2000 at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. He was the state Senate minority leader then. And was he ever wrong!
The California GOP did make a brief resurgence under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was never fully accepted or appreciated by party activists. But in recent years, it has been going down, down, down. In fact, it's in free-fall.
In 2000, the GOP could count at least one statewide elected officeholder. Today, no Republican holds statewide office.
Back then, Republicans were in a minority in both houses. But today, they're in a super minority; Democrats hold two-thirds majorities that allow them to pass anything without GOP support. With Jerry Brown as governor, Democrats enjoy one-party control of the Capitol for the first time in 130 years.
Moreover, 13 years ago, Republicans had nearly 35% of the California voter registration. Now they're down to just over 29%.
And the party is dead broke, in hock by perhaps $800,000, Brulte says. The organization is down to only a handful of full-time staffers. The chairman — unlike his well-paid Democratic counterpart — is an unsalaried volunteer.
Brulte is widely regarded as the wise Republican graybeard of California, although he's only 56 and he's beardless. He represented Rancho Cucamonga for 14 years in the Legislature. Colleagues elected him Republican leader in both houses. His philosophy was conservative, but his forte was pragmatic deal-making.
"He didn't allow his own philosophy to get in the way of being a leader," recalls Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce. "He recognized the need to be in the game. He made the [GOP] caucus relevant."
These days, Republican legislators are virtually irrelevant.
Brulte is a lifelong political junkie who acquired the bug as a 10-year-old slapping on bumper stickers in Ronald Reagan's first gubernatorial race. He became an aide to U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa and an advance man for Vice President George Bush.
After being booted out of the Legislature by term limits — the people's and the party's loss — he became a government affairs consultant, affiliated with one of Sacramento's most influential outfits, California Strategies.
And following last November's Republican debacle — the GOP lost a net seven legislative seats — Brulte was recruited by business leaders and party pragmatists to undertake a rescue mission. He's a shoo-in to be elected state chairman at the GOP convention in Sacramento the first weekend in March.
Why'd he agree to do this? "California is important," he told me. "And a healthy California requires a two-party system.
"Left to their own devices, Democrats will take California to a place from where we may never recover. Detroit was once one of the richest cities in America. Look what one-party rule did to that city.... Democrats do what they instinctively do, which is to try to raise taxes. It's in their DNA."
Yes, a strong two-party system — one that facilitates a problem-solving consensus — is preferable. But a functioning one-party system with competing factions would be better than what we have had in recent years: a liberal majority and a reactionary "Party of No" creating gridlock.
At any rate, the 6-foot-4 Brulte does not envision mounting a soapbox. He sees himself behind the scenes, working on fundamentals, "the most boring Republican Party chair in history."
He wants to create a new fundraising operation. "The party got a little lazy," he says.
Donors also got disgusted.
Essentially, business interests and traditional donors decided to starve the party to force it to rehabilitate into a healthier body. Persuading them to feed the party again, however, may be difficult.
"Contributors don't like to give money to pay for past sins," says Marty Wilson, political strategist for the state chamber.
For example, he says: the sin of "going off half-cocked" to finance a referendum to repeal the redistricting of state Senate seats by an independent citizens commission. The measure qualified for last November's ballot, but the party dropped its repeal effort after wasting several hundred thousand dollars that should have gone to candidates.
Brulte also wants to rebuild other party infrastructure such as get-out-the-vote, data analysis and candidate recruitment machinery that has corroded.
"I don't want to be the spokesman for the party," he says. "I'll do the nuts and bolts."
No question, Brulte is the right mechanic for the job. But let's face it, overhauling the California GOP is going to require more than a tool kit of nuts and bolts.
It's going to necessitate a whole new design — a modern look and sound.
The GOP needs a different message, especially for Latinos. They've been voting heavily Democratic — largely because of Republican demagoguery on illegal immigration — and within months are projected to surpass whites as California's largest ethnic group.
The party also needs magnetic messengers — less-scary candidates who run on economic development, education reform and fiscal conservatism while piping down on immigration, abortion and gay marriage.
"We need a more narrow bandwidth," says state Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar. "More focused on fiscal issues and job creation — less focused on social issues. We need to be more libertarian."
Says veteran Republican consultant Ray McNally: "The party does have a pulse. It's Jim Brulte."
But it also needs a strong voice to lead Republicans out of the sinkhole.