Huff, Conway skipped ballot verification for legislative junkets

Elvis Blue HawaiiMarch 6, 2013

By John Hrabe

Nero may have fiddled as Rome burned. At least he was in the city when it happened.

The same can’t be said for the leaders of the California Senate and Assembly Republican caucuses, who left the state last November, as Democrats claimed last-minute, upset victories in two legislative races during late ballot counting.

Ron Smith, the Republican candidate in the 36th Assembly district, and Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, the Republican candidate in the 5th state Senate district, each maintained a 2 percentage-point lead over their respective Democratic rivals on election night. It was only later, when late absentee and provisional ballots were counted, that the results flipped, giving Democrats critical pickups in their quest for California’s first legislative supermajorities in 80 years.

Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway and Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff were enjoying special-interest junkets out of the state and country, according to state disclosure reports, while at the same time leaving staff members to handle on-site ballot verification programs in crucial legislative races.  Seasoned campaign veterans, including California’s new Republican Party chairman, Jim Brulte, believe that ballot verification programs are necessary in order to prevent fraud and guarantee that the counting is accurate.

Conway at Hawaiian resort, while ballots were being counted

From November 11-15, when late absentee and provisional ballots were being counted, Conway was the guest of the Independent Voter Project at Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani hotel. In stark contrast to the Norwalk-based Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters, the Hawaiian resort is “located on the white sands of Wailea’s Polo Beach among 22 acres of lush tropical landscape.”

According to her disclosure report, Conway received more than $2,500 in travel, meals and lodging from the special interest group, which “has received financing in recent years from business and labor interests including cigarette maker Altria, Southern California Edison, Eli Lilly and Co., Pacific Gas & Electric, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Assn., Chevron and the state prison guards union.”

Smith, who lost his Assembly race by 145 votes, believes the outcome was manipulated during the counting of provisional ballots.

“[T]here is a political group that has learned how to manipulate the election by playing with provisionals,” the disgruntled Assembly candidate told the Sacramento Bee.

Conway did not respond to’s requests for comment on her decision to leave the state as Assembly races were still being decided.

Huff travels to the Land Down Under 

While Capitol staff members and political consultants were driving down to the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters in Stockton, Senate GOP Leader Huff relaxed on a 13-day trip to Australia and New Zealand. The trip included dinner and drinks at “New Zealand’s most awarded winery,” the Villa Maria Estate. According to his disclosure report, Huff received more than $1,600 in free meals, drinks, transportation and souvenirs.

“Just because I was in Australia and New Zealand, doesn’t mean I wasn’t directing appropriate counsel and staff to monitor the absentee ballot verification in my absence. I was,” Huff told “The election result was not determined until a week after I returned from this trip.  The outcome would not have changed if I had been in Northern California doing anything differently.”

Huff’s version of events is disputed by several high-ranking Republican staff members, who, unlike Huff, were in the state during the entire ballot-counting process. The staff members, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from caucus leaders, said it was “disheartening” to know that the legislative leaders were enjoying luxurious vacations while operatives were tediously reviewing ballots in dreary government buildings. One staff member said the leaders were “completely unaware of what was going on.”

The Senate GOP leader said he had committed to the trip before the close election results came about.

“As for the trip itself, I had made a previous commitment to attend. That promise needed to be honored,” he said.

When told of Huff’s explanation, one high-ranking GOP staff member laughed, “You know from past history of close races that it can take one, two or three weeks to count ballots. Why on earth would you ever schedule a trip during that period?”

Brulte: “Leaders lead by example”

Legislative leaders’ out-of-touch and disconnected management style is in stark contrast to the state’s new Republican Party chairman, Brulte, who raised the issue of ballot integrity programs in his lopsided chairman’s race.  The former state Senate Republican leader received 90 percent of the vote for state party chairman, but still went through a ballot integrity drill to prove a point.

“I believe that leaders lead by example, and we have to be in the precincts working, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our volunteers,” Brulte told reporters on Sunday afternoon at the California Republican Convention in Sacramento. “That’s why I campaigned right up until the votes started to be cast, and that’s why I had ballot integrity people in the counting room to make sure the votes were cast correctly and there was no ballot fraud because I think you lead by example.”

Huff defended his campaign operations as adequate for the modern era.

“The wonder of modern telecommunications meant I was in constant contact with my elections staff, attorneys and volunteers,” he said. “Even Jim Brulte stated that his office will be wherever his phone is.”

Huff also distanced himself from the losses suffered by the Assembly Republican caucus.

“He [Brulte] has also stated that the lopsided presidential election results had much more to do with Republican losses in the [California] Senate than anything else,” Huff said.

Brulte has reserved his toughest criticism for the Assembly Republicans’ “poor execution.”

“We didn’t have to lose those seats,” he told the Sacramento Bee, referring to the devastating Assembly losses. “We got away from the basics. That’s political malpractice.”

In spite of Berryhill going down to defeat and GOP staff members feeling they were thrown under the bus, Huff believes that his trip to the Land Down Under was valuable.

“One of lessons we learned from the 2012 election is that Californians admire elected officials who work with the other party,” he said. “The New Zealand and Australia study trip gave us the opportunity to create friendships that would help us get good policy done this year.”

With a successful ballot integrity program, Republican leaders might not have needed those bipartisan “friendships.”

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