Jim Brulte, who served as GOP leader in both the Assembly and Senate, heads the California Republican Party – not exactly a dream job in a state dominated by Democrats.
Exactly a year into his new gig, Brulte faces a basic problem: Can he put Republicans on the road to a political comeback? It’s a long, difficult journey back that Brulte has agreed to lead.
“Jim Brulte took the job at a time when the party was at the lowest of low, getting shellacked at every turn,” said veteran political strategist Richard Temple. “I urged him to take it because he was credible and that’s what we needed. He knew that you don’t recover from this in one election. It’s going to take many elections to recover and gain ground.”
“I suspect it’s a long walk (back) but Jim’s the kind of guy they need,” said former Assemblyman and Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg, a Democrat and former lieutenant to then-Speaker Willie Brown.
The statistics are daunting.
No Republican holds a statewide office and the party’s representation among the ranks of minorities and women is thin. The party still feels the fallout of the passage of Proposition 187 two decades ago, which targeted illegal immigration and drove a wedge between Latinos and Republicans.
Only 28.7 percent of California’s voters identify themselves as Republicans, a number that has steadily declined over the past few years. The number of Democratic voters is about 43.6 percent.
Both parties lost registration in the state’s recent official tally, but the Republicans lost more. GOP registration dropped two percentage points since 2010; Democrats lost one point. What happened is that voters increasingly are declaring themselves without a party preference — about 20.9 percent of California’s 17.7 million registered voters declined to affiliate with any party.
Money problems didn’t help either. The state party went into debt, crippling day-to-day operations. Last October, it announced that a $1 million debt had been resolved and the Sacramento office would reopen.
Brulte, who said last year that his first months on the job as party chair was “more like a bankruptcy workout,” declined to talk with Capitol Weekly about his strategy going forward.
But the party apparently is solvent now, largely on the strength of Brulte’s reputation, track record and fund-raising skills.
“Brulte is not afraid to ask for money, a problem that plagued some previous chairmen. And when he asks for money, he ties projects to the requests so that they have immediate and compelling reasons for the money,” said GOP strategist Hector Barrajas.
The party has begun to see success on a number of different fronts.
Kevin Faulconer, a Republican city councilman and a former public relations executive, became San Diego’s mayor in a special election following Democrat Bob Filner’s forced resignation for sexual misconduct. An electorate disenchanted with the previous Democratic administration’s scandals may have had as much to do with Faulconer’s victory as the GOP’s political skills. But Republicans were happy with the victory.
Barrajas participated in that election.
Brulte “was with us every step of the way,” says Barrajas. “He was really involved. He provided help of all kinds. He made calls to the district to get people out to vote and to get information on the candidates. He coordinated with the Republican leaders in Sacramento and made sure we had what we needed. What you get from Brulte is the importance of every election, every election matters. He’s building block by block, not trying to take it all at once…”
An earlier indication that there was a new kid on the block came with Republican Andy Vidak’s victory in the 16th Senate District deep in the Central Valley.
Vidak, a Hanford cattle rancher and cherry farmer, won a runoff election in which the rival contender Leticia Perez, had been favored in the Democratic and Latino district. Spanish-fluent Vidak focused on job creation, big government opposition and affordable energy in his appeal and drew a crowd of 10,000 to a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event at the Bakersfield fairgrounds.
An intensive door-to-door campaign using Spanish-fluent volunteers was mounted and an indication that the party would likely be championing granting of citizenship to illegal immigrants was discussed. Democratic leaders, not anticipating a revamped opposition strategy, took the district for granted, according to some observers, while Republicans in the Legislature marshaled forces and sent volunteers to help Vidak.
Brulte helped organize the GOP victory.
“He’s concentrating on the things that are doable. It’s not going to change overnight, but bit by bit,” Barrajas said.
Brulte, 57, from Rancho Cucamonga, entered the Assembly in 1990 and served three terms, including a four years as Republican leader. He narrowly missed the speakership in the mid-1990s when the Assembly had a GOP majority for the first time in decades. He was elected to the Senate in 1996 and served as GOP leader there from 2000 to 2004 – the first time in the state’s history that a freshman lawmaker served as party leader in both houses.
In the Legislature he built a reputation as a top budget writer, smart with a buck.
“He demonstrated that he’s remarkably skilled as a policy guy,” says Isenberg. “I think he decided early on that he could have a big impact if he focused his work on finance and budgeting issues.”
Termed out from the Senate, he joined the political consulting firm of California Strategies and he manages the company’s Inland Empire Office, the region where he grew up.
A Los Angeles Times article in 2006 described Brulte as “arguably the most powerful elected Republican in California” and said that he “has deep connections to the White House.”
Those connections apparently began when he joined the staff of the Republican National Committee in 1981 and continued when he joined the Reagan/Bush Administration and worked under the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, and then again with his service as a White House advance man for Vice President George Bush.
After graduating with a B. A. degree from California State Polytechnic Institute in Pomona, Brulte joined the California Air National Guard, where he was selected as Outstanding Airman of the Year. Soon after that he began his foray into politics, initially working for U. S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa before moving on to his staff assignments and, ultimately, the California Legislature.
So what now?
His goals are to “get the party back on its feet financially and logistically and then turn that two-thirds majority status away from the Democrats in the Legislature, help the party in Congress, and build a farm team in the lower races,” Temple said. “That’s his vision of how we recover and it makes sense. It’s a stepping stone process.”
“Nothing will happen all at once,” Temple added, “and Jim knows that.”