A conversation with Assembly GOP Leader Connie Conway

Two days after Democrats secured 54 of 80 seats in last November’s election, Assembly GOP Leader Connie Conway was re-elected in a unanimous caucus vote and appeared to be secure in her position.


But whispers of her possible demise as leader surfaced last month as a result of the party’s loss of seats in the election, reportedly coming from the ranks of 10 freshman additions to the Assembly.


In a lengthy interview, Conway appeared confident as she spoke about her role and future.  If she was concerned about a possible coup, it was not apparent.


Conway, a Tulare County Republican, is no stranger to the political jungle.  Her position as leader was secured following the ouster of Martin Garrick in 2010.  She was first elected to the state Assembly in 2008 and represents the 26th District, which includes Tulare, Kern and Inyo Counties. Before her selection as leader, she served as vice chair of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee and as Chair of the bipartisan Legislative Rural Caucus.  She speaks with pride of her 100 percent rating from the California Chamber of Commerce.


Prior to serving in the Assembly, Conway put in eight years on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, following in the footsteps of her father who served in the same capacity.  She chaired the Board in 2005 and again in 2008 and also chaired the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, an appointment she received from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The partnership works to improve the economy and quality of life in the San Joaquin Valley by making policy recommendations to the governor.


In 2006, Conway stepped up to serve as president of the California State Association of Counties, which represents California’s 58 counties at the state and national levels, and she later became a director of the National Association of Counties, chaired its membership committee, and worked on its economic development committee.


She sat down with Capitol Weekly recently to talk politics.


One thing she noted right away is that her age is a significant positive factor.


“When you’ve lived a longer life than others who serve here, I think it changes your perspective on things.  Matters at age 30 that I thought were extreme or tremendous, at age 62 are really?  Is that all you got? We love to be dramatic around here.  At times, it resembles a telenovela.”


The bottom line in Sacramento, she says, is fiscal


“One of the things that all Californians want us to do and we do not do very well here is pay attention to finance.  We’re just in denial.  It’s amazing to me.  When I first got here, I was the token Republican on committees.  One of the first things I heard from my friends on the opposite side of the aisle was ‘Oh, if they just give us a simple majority, it will all be great.  We’ll own it and we’ll fix it’.  Well, now they own it and it’s not great.  They’re not fixing it.”


“My constituents, the people of California, were very clear,” she added. “Up until Prop. 30, the last six, eight tax increases on the ballot were soundly voted down.  The last one, the one before the cigarette one, I think that 68 percent of the people said no to new taxes.  Those weren’t all Republicans.  So that means that both Republicans and Democrats are fiscal conservatives because of the economy and that life has been impacted because of the economy and everything we do here.  But we’re nickel-and-diming them to death.  Every Assembly member has good intentions, but it’s just another two dollars here or a dollar there to satisfy the need of one faction or another.  And it adds up.”


“I could joke and say that things are insular and that we suffer from golden dome syndromel but I don’t think that we focus well enough on what we should focus on.  Some people think we should be a part-time Legislature and that it would help.  I don’t think so.  If the goal is to keep harm from happening, I don’t care if you let the legislature in for just one day, we could still cast 2,500 bad votes.”


A major problem is that lawmakers focus on issues that she believes are inconsequential.


“Force people to focus on really important matters. I have constituents asking me if we really need to devote time to what kind of bed sheets can be used in hotels!  I’m embarrassed. They make a good point.  For me, I would limit the legislation because I think it’s just too much.  We have people making decisions on highly technical things that I’m not sure they understand. So limit the number of bills considered.”


Conway contends that the expense alone is formidable, reportedly $10,000 to $20,000 for each bill, and that narrowing the focus would offer legislators an opportunity to more fully understand their meaning.


“As a legislator representing a constituency, it’s important to stay in touch with their needs and I do that with surveys and constant interface and I do that with both Republicans and Democrats because I need to know how everyone thinks,” she says. “We respond to every e-mail we get.  We’re an agricultural county so I’ve traced the history of agriculture here and read extensively so that I could really understand its needs.  Ag’s needs dominate here.  It supports all of the needs of related industries as well as its own.  It’s critical that it continue to be supported,”


Conway suggests that the party could do a better job of portraying itself, of getting its message across.  She points out that in her regular meetings with constituents, she offers facts in a manner they can understand.  “I use pie charts in my meetings with people in my district to show them how money is being spent.  They respond well to that because they can see and feel the issues. For instance, my charts show them 65 cents of every dollar goes to education, three cents to fire, protection, one to libraries. and so on.  Then I tell people, do you see a road in there?  I know that’s important to you but these things are critical.  They respond to the facts, the truth.”


And in that vein, she noted the comments of a fellow Republican who recently said that racism exists within it but is papered over by the leadership. She said racism exists everywhere and although we’ve come a long way as a society, we still have a long way to go. “We’re getting and better, “ she says, “but we shouldn’t avoid the truth, whatever it is.”


Democrats, she contends, avoid the truth.


“We’re not really telling the truth on unemployment, the statewide numbers.  It’s easy to live in a fantasy world but it’s wrong.  It’s a discussion I’ve had with the governor.  I asked him why we just can’t tell the people the truth on the budget.  Why do we tell them the budget’s gone down when we know darn good and well that the budget’s gone up?  There may be a slight reduction in the general fund but we keep pulling dollars from other places where it wasn’t intended and it’s really not a fair conversation.  We’re doing Californians a disservice by not telling them the truth. You may respond to that by saying that people aren’t paying attention anyway but I think that in this technological world, people do know.   It’s a sound bite world and it’s hard to tell people the real truth in 30 seconds.  But they deserve it and people really can handle the truth.  I just wish we’d give it to them.”


So how does a devoted legislator battle cynicism and despair in a vocation as mercurially uncertain as politics?


Conway laughs.  “My standard answer is that my short term memory is shot and so I wake up relatively optimistic every morning. I know bad stuff happened the day before but I can’t remember what it was.”


“It’s difficult to stay but I remain hopeful,” she added. “Some days are more difficult than others but generally I feel that I have to.  I was sent here to do a job by people who entrusted me with their votes. I have children and grandchildren and I said I wanted to do this and, by golly, I better do it well and with a good attitude.”


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