05/10/2013 08:28 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

California Gets a New Democrat: Defection of Recent Rising Star Among Latest Signs of Further GOP Decline


One of the strangest things about California over the past decade is how little impact Arnold Schwarzenegger's two landslide wins for the governorship had on the Republican Party. Instead of a right-wing party moving more toward the center, the GOP became instead, after some perfunctory genuflections toward Schwarzenegger's electoral success, an extreme right-wing party, prefiguring developments at the national level.

We see the ongoing impact of this now, with two of the most prominent Republican figures of the Arnold era -- Iraq War hero-turned-rising-star Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher and appointed Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado -- reacting sharply, in sharply different ways, over the past week to the party's hidebound conservatism. Fletcher became a Democrat. Maldonado, touted as a new moderate face for the party's badly needed renovation, went hard right in the first big move in his ultra-long-shot bid against Governor Jerry Brown.

Maldonado pulled a move out of the old conservative Republican playbook, trying to launch his drive against Brown by running to the right on crime, literally presenting a "Willie Horton"-style figure as a scary-black-man-mug-shot poster boy against Brown's fiscally conservative realignment policy of moving lesser offenders from state to local incarceration. But the would-be governor -- who served effectively as Schwarzenegger's appointed lieutenant governor after a long stint in the state legislature -- had his facts all wrong, and the move was a major embarrassment. The sudden shift to the hard right was all the more ironic because the rationale for Maldonado's gubernatorial candidacy is to begin re-branding the Republicans as a more mainstream outfit. More on that in a few moments.

A week ago, another rising Republican star of the Arnold era, former Assemblyman Fletcher, announced that he has become a Democrat.

Fletcher was a bright and personable moderate conservative when I met him at a Schwarzenegger party in 2006, also attended by Schwarzenegger's bedeviling antagonist in the 2005 special election, ace Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman. It was clear from how they spoke of him that some major GOP players thought he could go a very long way for the Republicans. But it was not to be.

Last year, after trying without success to get the Republican endorsement, the decorated Marine sergeant switched his registration to independent as he ran a near-miss race to get into the run-off for mayor of San Diego.

After taking the lead following the announcement of his registration switch from Republican to independent, Fletcher ended up finishing a relatively close third in the primary. Republicans and Democrats, fearing the rise of an independent voter bloc, ganged up on his candidacy.

The very conservative Republican city councilman who got the party nod over Fletcher ended up finishing first in the primary, but losing in the run-off to Democratic Congressman Bob Filner.

I think Fletcher would have won in the run-off, perhaps even as a Republican had the party gone that way, but certainly as an independent.

While the rest of the San Diego mayoral race unfolded with him on the sidelines, Fletcher played out the string of his termed-out state Assembly career (he works now for Qualcomm), and contemplated politics. His wife, Mindy Tucker Fletcher, has long been a name Republican operative, having served as press secretary for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, communications director for the Republican National Committee, and deputy chief of staff to Governor Schwarzenegger.

However, like many, Nathan Fletcher was struck by former President Bill Clinton's outstanding Democratic National Convention address last September. In announcing that he's a Democrat, he wrote that he watched Clinton's speech three times to try to find something he disagreed with, but "I couldn't. It was clear -- at least to me -- that I was a Democrat."

Around the time he was studying Clinton's speech, I started hearing that Fletcher was interested in helping Clinton's old presidential campaign rival, Jerry Brown, put together a tax hike bill in the legislature. Brown was then pushing his Proposition 30 revenue initiative, which ended up winning in a landslide.

Even though the makings for victory were always there, however, Brown's initiative seemed then to be struggling, with some very big money starting to coalesce against it. In fact, there was more than enough money -- at least by conventional wisdom standards -- to defeat Prop 30.

But, CW notwithstanding, it seemed clear that, though Fletcher's potential help in the legislature could be useful, actually passing Prop 30 was by far the preferred alternative. Just as rejecting advice from other folks, helpful and otherwise, to drop the high-speed rail program was also the preferred alternative.

Brown and his wily, ever-wry wife/special counsel-advisor, First Lady Anne Gust Brown, stayed precisely on the original course, with events playing out as they did. Here"s my piece on "How Jerry Brown Pulled Off the Big Prop 30 Win."

Ironically, given the tenor of his attack on Brown this week, Maldonado might, had the 2010 election gone differently, have been much more helpful to Brown.

As Schwarzenegger's appointed lieutenant governor -- Schwarzenegger was neutral in the 2010 governor's race -- Maldonado did not attack Brown, even though he was running on the Republican ticket headed by billionaire Meg Whitman, whose biggest-spending non-presidential campaign in American history would end in a landslide victory. For Brown.

Maldonado, a rather nice and intelligent guy, might have proved a more helpful lieutenant governor to Brown than Democrat Gavin Newsom, who made a rather nasty stab at running against Brown in the Democratic gubernatorial primary before dropping out the year before the election. But Maldonado had trouble raising enough money to match Newsom, and went on to be swept away in the Brown-led Democratic landslide. Newsom beat Maldonado easily, 50 percent to 39 percent. Maldonado then went on to lose a Central Coast congressional race last November.

Of course, one other reason why Maldonado didn't attack Brown, nor Brown go after Maldonado, in 2010 is that they're not that far apart on a number of the biggest issues.

I went over that here in March. Here's the analysis from then:

Maldonado is a nice, intelligent guy. I've had lunch with him. But I wonder what he would find to run on against Brown.

They basically agree on most of the big issues. Maldonado helped devise the 2009 budget compromise, which included a big temporary tax hike. Brown tried for six months to extend that deal and couldn't find the Republican legislative votes he needed to even get the extension on the ballot. After that, he turned to his own initiative, which ended up with a significant temporary tax surcharge on the rich. Maldonado and his friends are probably against that, but anyone who tries to run on cutting taxes for the rich is, ah, how to put this diplomatically?

As Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointed lieutenant governor, Maldonado also championed the controversial high-speed rail program, as well as the state's landmark climate change and renewable energy programs so hated by the right-wing. He wouldn't run to the right of Brown on social issues or immigration, as that would defeat the whole modernizing impulse for Republicans.

He might try to run on reforming the public pension system, but Brown occupies that space, too, having backed the reforms that Schwarzenegger and Maldonado pushed, and having gotten more expansive if still modest reforms of his own. But even if Brown wasn't already there politically, the polling I've seen indicates that the public isn't terribly concerned about the issue.

Brown is working on the annual "May Revise" of the state budget, expected on May 14. With strong revenues, the state's newly balanced budget is easily holding.

He hasn't said a word about Maldonado's big gaffe on crime, leaving Arnold's ex-lieutenant governor to twist in the wind, trying to fend off charges of racism after his backfiring attack on Brown's program of "realigning" lesser offenders from state to local custody.

Maldonado had ventured to Sacramento to unveil an initiative drive to roll back Brown's realignment policy. The Protect California Families committee, which in a mordantly amusing lack of subtlety has a butcher knife in its logo, will be funded by "angel investors," the former lieutenant governor told reporters in a parking structure press avail. That would be a way to use a few mega-rich donors in order to get around Maldonado's anemic fundraising as a gubernatorial candidate.

Maldonado called realignment an "early release" program. The administration flatly denies this.

Worse, Maldonado also featured a big picture of a menacing black man the former Republican legislator claimed was emblematic of Brown's policy.

But in reality, the guy has nothing to do with Brown's policy, having been released from prison in 2000 and having completed parole in 2003.

If you're going to cry "Willie Horton," you better be damn sure it's Willie Horton.

As a political issue, crime rates very low these days in all polling I'm aware of. But it was once a very big deal in California politics.

In one of my regular discussions going over the political scene with former Governor Gray Davis, I asked him about the dynamics in which crime might again become a major issue, as Maldonado and his advisors evidently hope.

Davis won five statewide elections in California, many of them during the days when crime was a very big issue. Before that, he spent a few terms in the legislature and was Brown's gubernatorial chief of staff during the first seven years of his governorship.

Davis is a careful, never-say-never sort of guy when it comes to potential threats. But even if Brown's realignment policy was flawed, a point Davis decidedly does not concede, it's unlikely that Maldonado can rapidly ramp up widespread popular concern about crime.

And if that dynamic somehow changed, Brown, who developed a notable rapport with cops during his eight years as the mayor of gritty Oakland, is quite capable of an effective counter.

In my opinion, it's important for Maldonado, or some other Republican, to make a respectable showing against Brown. Not to actually defeat Brown, of course, or even come close, which is very unlikely in any event. I've supported Brown all my adult life and am hardly changing my mind now with things going well.

But I've seen one-party states in other countries, and things can get decidedly un-pretty. Absolute power and all that Lord Acton stuff. Not that I am suggesting that California Democrats are corrupt in any massively fundamental sort of way, as the PRI and LDP have been in the past in Mexico and Japan. Nor that they will develop their own version of the KGB.

An intelligent competition is good. It keeps people on their toes. Done properly, it can develop the creative tension needed to ensure forward-looking, non-insular leadership for California's future.

We'll see which way Maldonado and other Republicans choose to go. If they go the wrong way, the side of me that backs Brown will end up being very happy. But the side of me that worries about the long-range future of California will not be as happy.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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