Conway's Discipline Problem

JAN. 7, 2011


State Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway has a real discipline problem. Not with her family, or her staff, but with her Republican caucus, and the ruthless arithmetic that governs it.

Of the 80 members of the California Assembly, just 30 are Republicans. That means Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, only needs a couple Republicans to abandon the GOP’s “No New Taxes” mantra to secure the two-thirds majority needed to raise fees or taxes. “Republicans will go up on tax increases,” one Assembly staffer told me dejectedly. “Two or three votes are all they need.”

During a recent interview in her office, I asked Conway, R-Visalia, how she intended to deal with this situation. For Republican tax-fighters, her answer – while full of tough talk – might not be entirely reassuring.

“I’m not going to threaten or demand,” she said, two smart phones resting on the desk in front of her. “There are wolves at every corner. There’s bait everywhere, and we can’t let those things distract us. I believe in communication with the members. I’m urging them to stay in contact with their constituents. But after talking with members of our caucus, no one will vote for taxes today. No means no – n-o spells no.”

The operative word in all that is, of course, “today.” A lot can happen between now and whenever Perez (and Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg) work out the tax extension ballot measure they’re reportedly planning.

Still, Conway has some factors in her favor. Most notably, the fact that Conway alone stepped up to take over as minority leader.

“Nobody else wanted it,” Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, said. “I wish her well. I’m not sure if it’s a tribute to her strength or courage.”

That Conway is taking over under difficult circumstances is an understatement. The Legislature as a whole currently holds a 9 percent approval rating with the public. Indeed, Conway that said that while getting her car’s oil changed recently, the mechanic asked her, “Are you Connie Conway?”

“Is that a good thing?” Conway said she cautiously replied.

For California Republicans, times have especially been tough. During the November election, when it seemed every state was experiencing Republican gains, in California the Democrats swept every major office and even reduced the GOP Assembly caucus. The axe soon fell on then Minority Leader Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach.

“We lost a seat under Martin,” said Norby. “At least we should have broken even. It wasn’t his fault – you can’t fire the whole team, but I guess you have to fire the coach.”

For her part, Conway is a bit more modest, admitting only that she was the only one who openly said she wished to be leader. “Everybody here has a desire to serve,” she said. “We’re all in a leadership position already.”

Conway, first elected to the Assembly in 2008, is a former Tulare County supervisor, president of the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) as well as swimming, water polo and girl’s gymnastics coach. Though she’s had the minority leader’s job since early November, her office walls still have a lot of blank space. One big item she called attention to but has yet to hang is a reproduction of the famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster commissioned by the British Ministry of Information in 1939 to help improve morale.

Terms limits in the California Legislature mean that even rookie members can quickly find themselves in jobs with some responsibility (indeed, current Assembly Speaker Perez got the top job halfway through his first term). Even still, a few of her choices for her leadership team did perk up a few eyebrows. For instance, Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, and Brian Jones, R-Santee, were named whip and deputy floor manager, respectively, before ever being sworn in as Assembly members.

“You try to look at the potential in people,” said Conway. “Sometimes you try to develop it.”

Conway’s top people, for whatever reason, didn’t really want to comment for this story. Caucus Chairman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert – Conway’s top lieutenant – chose not to comment at all. As for Assistant Floor Leader Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, a spokesperson would only say that “Assemblyman Hagman was part of Garrick’s leadership team and is part of Conway’s. It is his pleasure to be in the service of the caucus regardless of who is leader.”

Conway told me she wanted a mix of rookies and veterans in her team – a more than reasonable assertion – as well as a smattering of beliefs. “It’s okay to have diverse opinions,” she said, “though not on raising taxes.”

One factor that seems not to have been part of her leadership criteria was campaign donations by members to the California Republican Party (CRP) during the 2010 election. Of the leadership team, only Hagman gave substantially – about $33,000 – to the CRP in 2010. In fact, Assembly members Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, and Nestande himself gave less than $1,000 each to the CRP. This is especially ironic given the fact that CRP candidates largely got clobbered in 2010 and that Conway was exceedingly generous both to the party (donating $30,000) and to other Assembly candidates during the campaign.

“Some had donated in the past,” Conway said. “I think most of them are up to speed at this point.”

Conway’s response brings up a larger, more important issue – that of her ultimate goal as Republican leader in the Assembly, which is actually quite modest. “Keeping my caucus together and standing tall for the people we represent,” she said.

Conway may be famous for being approachable and optimistic, but she’s also quite a realist. Indeed, she acknowledged that she will probably never rise higher in the Assembly than “minority” leader.

“We’re never going to equal our friends across the aisle,” she said, referring to the Democrats and their command of union cash and grass roots support.

Conway points to ballot measure results like the passage of Prop 26, which imposed a two-thirds vote requirement on the Legislature before raising fees, and say that the electorate shares Republican fears of tax hikes, but she also seems resigned to Democrats holding sway over the Capitol. “It’s unrealistic to say my goal in two years is to be in the majority,” she said. “I want to get closer, but realistically, I don’t know what kind of sea change that would take. Though the problems we’re having are doing a darn fine job of changing people’s minds.”

PHOTO: Courtesy Assembly member Connie Conway’s office.

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