Meet Blakeslee, The New Swing Vote

SEPT. 9 2010


Anyone watching the Cal Channel’s broadcast of the Aug. 31 Senate budget hearings saw an interesting side to newly elected Republican Sen. Sam Blakeslee. In fact, they literally saw all sides.

“Here we are, fiddling while Rome burns, ignoring the realities of a Golden State which has lost its luster, believing that by simply raising taxes and increasing spending, somehow we will see prosperity,” Blakeslee, the Central Coast Republican who had been sworn in as the senator representing the 15th District just the day before, said during the debate over the Republican’s proposed budget. “And the entire world around us is changing at a rapid pace, and we’re stuck in neutral.”

But as Blakeslee spoke, he began turning around. For a few agonizing seconds, he had his back to the television audience. Then he turned back around.

“We will continue to fiddle while Rome burns until we understand the need to act in a bipartisan manner to bring these jobs back,” Blakeslee continued, turning completely around again. “There are billions and billions and billions of tax revenue that will come our way if we make the right decisions.”

“He’s looking for the camera!” one Democratic staffer exclaimed while watching Blakeslee’s speech. “He can’t find the camera!”

Blakeslee eventually found the camera and stopped his slow spin. But then he did something far more fascinating – Blakeslee voted against the Republican budget proposal, which failed, winning just 12 ayes to 24 noes. Hours later, while talking with reporters in the hall about the day’s budget votes, all of which had gone down in defeat, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg mentioned Blakeslee’s vote when asked what he’d learned.

“I found it interesting that Senator Blakeslee voted against the Republican proposal,” Steinberg said. “That was, that was interesting to me. Which means, you know, I interpret to mean, he rejects the wholesale elimination of these traditional and essential public investments in California.”

Reached a few days later, Blakeslee – who considers himself a “fiscal conservative” – said he voted against the Republicans’ budget because of a campaign promise. “I don’t support the complete elimination of CalWORKS, which that budget called for,” he said. “I promised not to eliminate that during the campaign, and I felt honor-bound to keep my word. And if I’m going to vote for budgets, it’s for budgets I can defend, not merely ones that just want to score political points.”

It’s usually a trite cliché, but right now in the Senate every vote counts. Budgets need a two-thirds majority to vote to pass, and in the Senate that means 27 of the 40 members must vote aye. Though on paper Steinberg has 25 Democratic senators, two – Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, and Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa – are suffering from serious illnesses. Though both have promised to return to the Capitol for a budget vote, doing so would be a serious hardship. But even with them voting, Steinberg still needs at least two Republicans to pass a budget.

“You want an interesting story?” another Democratic senatorial staffer asked me. “Go over and interview Sam Blakeslee. Ask him how he’s going to vote. Will he vote in lock-step with the Republicans on taxes, or will he be a swing-vote like Abel Maldonado? Maldonado played being a swing vote into becoming lieutenant governor. Maybe Blakeslee is thinking the same thing.”

*   *   *

Blakeslee has an unusual background for a senator, to say the least. He was born June 25, 1955 in Ontario in the Inland Empire, but grew up in the quaint central coast town of San Luis Obispo, which really hasn’t changed all that much since his youth. At 19, he married his high school sweetheart, who had just turned 17. Following the birth of their son David, she took off, and Blakeslee raised the boy into adulthood (Blakeslee later remarried).

After first working in construction, Blakeslee went to college, eventually earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in geophysics from UC Berkeley and a PhD in the same from UC Santa Barbara (Blakeslee couldn’t think of another scientist in the Legislature). He worked for Exxon, which sometimes required his presence on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and later as a certified financial planner back in San Luis Obispo. He also did some fairly rigorous theological study, though he did not become a minister. “Wow, I thought I did a good job of burying that,” Blakeslee half-joked when I brought up the subject.

In 2004, when then Republican Assemblyman Abel Maldonado ran for the state senate, Blakeslee ran for, and won, the seat. Blakeslee’s recent Senate victory – a special election called after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Sen. Maldonado lieutenant governor — is merely the latest example of him following in Maldonado’s footsteps.

“I have no plans for the lieutenant governor’s seat but Jerry Brown better watch out,” Blakeslee joked when asked about career keeping pace with Maldonado’s.

From the beginning of his legislative career, Blakeslee talked a tough conservative line. “I am a fiscal conservative,” he told the San Luis Obispo Tribune a month after first getting elected. “I am going to balance this budget.”

That never quite happened – today the state budget is $19 billion in the red and more than 60 days late, and counting. But Blakeslee’s conservative credentials seemed strong enough last year when he became Assembly minority leader after then-leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, fell on his sword after being excoriated by fellow Republicans for agreeing to a modest tax hike as part of the 2009 budget talks.

Still, there are Republicans who question whether Blakeslee is conservative enough. “He’ll vote his district, unless it matters, and then he’s on the team,” said Republican Jon Fleischman, publisher of Flash Report. “Maldonado would vote his district even when it did matter. But Blakeslee has one of the most moderate voting records of all the Assembly Republicans. He spent his leadership trying to win over conservatives.”

According to the 2009 California Republican Assembly Scorecard – which looked at how each legislator behaved during 18 votes and which Republican Party officials swear by – Blakeslee scored 69 percent. While the average Republican score was 81 percent, Blakeslee had far from the lowest score. Assemblyman Tom Berryhill R, Modesto, and Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, each scored 67 percent. Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, scored 65 percent and Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, had 56 percent (Villines, interestingly enough, scored 82 percent).

Of course, that was how Blakeslee acted in the Assembly. Now he’s in the Senate, which is a whole other deal (indeed, he’s still so new that his district office still has an “Assemblyman” sign on the front lawn and a staffer answered the phone with “Assemblyman Sam Blakesee’s office” when I called to confirm an interview appointment).

Though he signed the “No New Taxes” pledge promoted by the Republican Party whereby legislators promise never to raise taxes while he was in the Assembly, Blakeslee never signed a new pledge when he ran for the Senate. That caused, and continues to cause, consternation among Republican officials. It even attracted the attention of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who wrote of his concerns in an Aug. 12 piece posted on

“The Republican nominee in this race, Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, to his credit, has been a steadfast defender of taxpayers during his tenure in the state’s lower chamber,” Norquist wrote. “However, he has yet to indicate that he will continue this commitment if elected to the Senate. With over $600 billion in higher taxes being passed out of Washington in the past year, 15th district voters are looking for candidates that will not pile on with further tax hikes at the state level. The best way for Blakeslee to provide such an assurance to voters is by signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in his bid for the Senate.”

Blakeslee never signed the pledge – and has no plans to do so. “I was in budget negotiations at the time, and considered it an act of bad faith to sign such a pledge,” Blakeslee said. “I felt my record spoke pretty clearly for itself. I don’t believe we should raise taxes, but I do believe we should have tax reform. Some conservatives believe everything that exists now was handed down by Moses on stone tablets. I don’t.”

Tax reform, which Blakeslee would only vaguely define, is clearly important to him. It’s probably the biggest of the three subjects – the others being job creation and government “realignment” – that he wants to take on in his role as chairman of the new Senate Select Committee on Recovery, Reform and Realignment.

“I think I’m the only Republican in the Senate with a select committee,” Blakeslee said. “I feel this is the right time for some major reforms. We have to address the volatility. Whatever budget we agree on should have reforms like tax reform. Steinberg took a stab at it with his tax swap proposal, but he didn’t achieve the larger goal of ending the boom-and-bust cycle.”

Blakeslee said that later this week he’ll start gathering policy people for his committee staff. Getting tax reform proposals into the current budget negotiations seems a bit far-fetched, but not by much. “It’s possible that the budget will be delayed until after the election,” he said, though he refused to predict what might happen. “I don’t see the level of intensity of typically accompanies negotiations. There’s a moment when the posturing ends and the more intense consultations occur – I haven’t seen that happen yet.”

*   *   *

For a legislator quick to identify himself as a conservative, Blakeslee holds some far more centrist ideas. “I want to build coalitions of Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “I want to create a third way to find people in the middle of the political spectrum who can work together.”

He’s also not afraid to cross party leaders on, say, the acceptance of campaign contributions from organized labor – especially public employee unions.

In late January, former state Assembly leader and current Orange County Republican Party chief Scott Baugh promised to turn a blowtorch on any Republican who accepted money from public employee unions – even cops or prison guards. “(F)rom this night forward, no candidate will be supported by this party who receives contributions and endorsements from public employee unions,” Baugh told 500 GOP leaders on Jan. 25. “If you have already taken their money we are not asking you to give it back, but we will look at you with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

Blakeslee, who has taken thousands of dollars from unions representing fire fighters, prison guards and administrative law judges in the last two year (and accepted a dinner worth $80 from California Professional Firefighters in July 2009), said he has no problem with such donations and gifts. “Ultimately, a public employee is a citizen of the state and I have a duty to represent them,” he said. “The test is your votes. I think when you start demonizing your opponents like that, you start down a dangerous path. I don’t think, in a pluralistic society, people should conduct themselves that way.”

Blakeslee similarly bucked the standard Republican line on AB1998. That bill, authored by Julia Brownley, D-Woodland Hills, would have forced grocery store customers to use cloth shopping bags or pay five cents for a plastic bag. Republicans hated the bill, called the bag fee a “tax” and campaigned hard against it. Blakeslee, though he was on the Senate floor during debate on the bill, abstained from the vote.

“Abstaining was my way of trying to telegraph that if they could fix defects in the bill then I might support it,” Blakeslee said. He added that he considered voting for it, but said the bill in its final form would have hurt jobs and needed a longer implementation time line. Rather than vote to kill it (it failed even with his abstention), he stood aside in hopes that it might come back soon in a form he could support.

At a time when Republicans thrust no tax pledges in front of candidates, such ideas are almost radical. For that reason, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found an old San Luis Obispo Tribune article that listed Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner – in which a hardened ex-cop hunts down and destroys android “replicants” – as Blakeslee’s favorite movie. Nor should I have been surprised at his explanation as to why when I asked him about it.

“I admire figures driven by their own internal moral agenda that’s in conflict with a world that values other things,” he said. “But who are also willing to break the rules to do the right thing.”

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