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State senator burned out by polarization

Fed up with a lack of compromise, Republican Sen. Bill Emmerson says he's lost his passion for politics and it's time to leave.

November 21, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Hemet Republican Bill Emmerson says he is resigning from his Senate seat effective Dec. 1 because of his frustration with political polarization in the California Legislature.
Hemet Republican Bill Emmerson says he is resigning from his Senate seat… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

State Sen. Bill Emmerson says he's so fed up with the California Legislature that he's giving up and getting out.

The Hemet Republican says his legislative fire no longer burns, his passion for politics has cooled.

"I'm totally frustrated, and it's time for me to move on," the 68-year-old lawmaker told me. "I'm done."

Emmerson especially cites political polarization as a reason for vacating Sacramento. Ideological extremes, combined with powerful interests on both sides, too often stymie problem-solving, he complains.

It's an increasingly familiar lament, particularly among veteran pols who remember when disagreeing factions actually were willing to compromise and capable of doing it.

Emmerson expresses hope that two recent voter-approved election reforms — open primaries and independent redistricting — "will create a better relationship in Sacramento." But he's not waiting around. He's resigning Dec. 1.

Now, frankly, I'm always skeptical when an elected official suddenly quits a job that he had worked hard to win. Especially when he drops the announcement, as Emmerson did, late on a Friday afternoon, as if he were trying to draw as little attention as possible.

"I wanted to talk to my staff," he says. "It's just how it worked out."

But after all those long evenings addressing civic clubs, schmoozing strangers, hitting up moneybags for campaign dollars? Something else must be going on! A better job beckons? Something in the personal life?

No, the senator insists. It is what it seems.

"My health is perfect," he says. And so is his wife's. He has no job commitment, although as an orthodontist, he always has been interested in healthcare policy.

Not running for another office? "No nothing. I've just had it."

In his announcement Nov. 8, Emmerson put it this way: "I have always felt that one had to be passionate about their work. In these past few months, my passion has waned and my constituents deserve a senator with the level of commitment that I once had."

OK, that's ample reason enough to pack up and go home.

And it's understandable. Being a member of the California Legislature truly can't be as stimulating and enjoyable as it was a generation or two ago — back when Emmerson first entered the Capitol in the early 1970s as a legislative aide to a moderate Riverside Republican, Craig Biddle.

Biddle was a respected pragmatist who enjoyed good relationships across the aisle. And Emmerson was cut from similar cloth.

Helped by the California Dental Assn., he was elected to the Assembly in 2004, then moved up to the Senate in a 2010 special election. He easily won reelection last year and wasn't termed out until 2016.

But Emmerson — vice chairman of the Senate Budget Committee — says he began souring on the Capitol in 2011, when he and four other Senate Republicans tried to cut a deal with Gov. Jerry Brown on taxes. They weren't even trying to raise taxes, just extend some then-existing levies. And legislators weren't actually going to extend them anyway — only place them on the ballot for voters to decide.

Antsy Republicans wouldn't go along, however, because they were afraid of the tax boogeyman.

Emmerson and his small group attempted to compromise with the Democratic governor — if he'd give them public pension reform, or business regulatory relief, or a spending cap, they'd try to sell the tax election to other GOP lawmakers. But no sale — neither to the GOP nor to labor.

It wound up as a colossal lost opportunity for the GOP. Brown went to the ballot himself and got an even worse tax hike for Republicans. And Democrats didn't have to give up anything. There has been some modest pension reform but still no significant regulatory relief.

On top of everything, Democrats won a super-majority in both legislative houses at the last election and no longer need Republicans for much of anything.

"We tried to find a consensus in Sacramento, but it's difficult today," Emmerson says. "It's not like it used to be. People used to work together. It's very difficult now not to let partisan discussion get in the way. It's very frustrating."

He has other gripes, too.

Major legislation often is not written until the last minute and then is rammed down Republicans' throats by Democrats. "The public doesn't have an opportunity to debate it and we don't have time to read it," Emmerson complains.

He believes Brown "generally has done a good job. He did attempt to bring both sides together."

But another tipping point for Emmerson was Brown and Democrats scuttling the state's Healthy Families program for poor people and folding it into Medi-Cal — California's version of Medicaid — which provides fewer services, including for autistic kids. "We didn't need to do that," he asserts.

And his own party?

"They," he says — not "we" — "need to expand their base. It's pretty narrow. Changes are needed in our immigration laws. And they need more ideas about how to make things work better."

Tony Quinn, a Republican analyst who once worked with Emmerson as a Capitol staffer, says: "He just got sick of it. He was getting up at 5 o'clock Monday mornings to fly to Sacramento. He had no support in the [GOP] caucus. Had no influence. Look around there, would you want to stay?"

Too bad. Emmerson is just the kind of Republican the Capitol needs.

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