Rebuilding California’s Republican Party

Sonny Dykes and Jim Brulte have their work cut out for them.

Dykes has been hired to replace Cal football coach Jeff Tedford, after the Bears’ dismal 3-9 finish in the 2012 season.

Brulte has been chosen as the California Republican Party’s newly elected chairman to revamp the party following the Republicans’ dismal finish in the 2012 season, which ended with a Legislative supermajority for rival Democrats and every elected statewide office held by a Democrat, except for two seats on the powerful but obscure Board of Equalization. There were other GOP miscues, too.

But there is at least one major difference between Dykes’ and Brulte’s new jobs: while Dykes is being offered the highest paid position in the state, Brulte is taking on his new role as a volunteer. So what could possibly be Brulte’s motivation to handle arguably the most challenging job in state politics this year?

“Momentary insanity,” he says.

Brulte sat down with Capitol Weekly to discuss the future of the Republican Party and his role in it.

He seems physically at ease, sitting comfortably in a booth of a popular Sacramento restaurant and bar where everyone seems to know his name. Throughout the interview, we are interrupted by legislators and politicians who greet the former Senate and Assembly minority leader. Brulte knows Sacramento, California politics, and the people involved, perhaps better than anyone.

The minority leader that followed him, former Sen. Dick Ackerman characterized Brulte’s political savvy succinctly: “It’s difficult to call up a Karl Rove or the president on short notice, but he could do it.”

Even Democratic Assemblymember Steven Bradford greets him like an old friend: “You don’t write, you don’t call,” he says. “You’re taking over the world.”

“I stay out of Sacramento,” Brulte replies with a chuckle.

Like any veteran coach, Brulte has no interest in getting back on the field, but until recently, he was content to be a spectator.

“Guys like Tom McClintock accused me of being in the cheap seats when the country and state was in need,” the former Senate minority leader explains. Now he is in the locker room, the training room, and the huddle, behind the scenes, trying to bring his team together around a fundamental game plan. Even sitting cozily in the restaurant booth, Brulte’s broad shoulders and imposing height make him look like a football player.

“There are not many people who you want to follow into battle,” said Republican consultant Duane Dichiara, who has known Brulte for 20 years.

“It’s a dark hour here in the Republican party, and [Brulte’s] planted his banner in the hillside, and I think there’s a lot of guys like me that are willing to stand around it and see if we can turn this thing around.”

Though there is so much enthusiasm in the party surrounding Brulte as a leader to bring the party back to power, for him, the job is nothing more than a political calculation. When he describes it, he constantly references numbers, data, and outcomes, like a coach putting faith in the sheer numbers of the game, rather than the heart of his team.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose? More like congressional majority, no Democratic supermajority, and power in local offices, if Brulte has anything to say about it.

“The plan’s real simple,” he begins, as if preparing to break it down into something even the simplest quarterback wouldn’t forget on the field.

There are just three goals, and Brulte repeats them in order, more than once throughout our conversation. Despite his physical comfort in his surroundings, he is mentally guarded, aware of the important role public perception plays. He pauses frequently, choosing his words carefully so as not to distract from what he believes is important.

He only speeds up when he is rattling off the data upon which his plan is based. In the party’s efforts to help maintain a congressional majority, there are perhaps eight to 10 competitive congressional seats in California after redistricting, he says.

In the special election for Sen. Michael Rubio’s seat, Republican Andy Vidak got 49 percent in a 28 percent Republican district, which speaks to the potential for Republicans to eliminate the Democratic legislative supermajority, he argues. And in his third targeted area, local government, there are 2,517 mayors and city council members, and 47 percent of those are Republicans, he points out.

“I can get you the numbers on this,” he says, as he continues, describing school districts as a major area of the plan’s local government dimension. His voice lights up as he lists the numbers, as he can see the California Republican Party rising from the ashes of these numbers.

Confronting those numbers happens to be one of the most daunting tasks facing the Republican Party, both in California and nationally. The state and country’s Latino population is rapidly increasing, but the Republican Party is struggling to capitalize on those demographics. And while no-party-preference voters shoot up, Republican registration has lost 10 points in the last 20 years, Brulte says.

“I don’t think it’s demographics because demographics don’t have to be destiny,” he says. “I think it’s failing to recognize the changing demographics or failing to react to changing demographics, that’s part of it.”

But Democratic consultant Garry South pointed out that the Republican Party’s demographic problem is largely to do with its failure to target positions on issues towards groups such as Latinos.

“Immigration is a huge problem for them because of the terrible position that they’re in with not just Latino voters but now Asian American voters as well,” he said.

Yet Brulte, whose involvement in politics began with canvassing at age 10 in the community he would later represent, understands the landscape of California politics better than almost any other politician in the state.

“California is…” he pauses, searching for the right words, “Even back in the 70s, it was more cosmopolitan than other states,” he says, describing what he learned about the state when he left for Texas at age 18 to join the Air National Guard.

“There was this guy who was in our flight, in basic training, he was from Iowa. He had never met an African American, he had never met a Hispanic, and he had never met anyone who was Jewish, until he got to Lackland Air Force Base at age 18,” he recalls. “I remember thinking ‘Wow, that’s weird.’”

Demographics for a primarily white party in a state where whites are a minority is just part of the problem, however. It may be ideology, such as the party’s stance on immigration and other hot-button issues, that is the Republicans’ biggest hurdle. South says that such issues have tarnished the Republican party name.

“My advice to Jim Brulte would be, in order to bring the party back from the brink of near death, I don’t think you can do it simply with mechanics,” South said. “[Fixing the mechanics is] all well and good, but that doesn’t solve the branding problem.”

But, either because he believes it’s not his job, or because it’s politically unwise, Brulte doesn’t want to talk about issues.

“That comes back to his experience in our position, you can’t have too many people directing policy,” says the current Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff. “It’s smart on his point…just leaving it to us and our team as we’re trying to forge our policy ideas.”

In his deliberate and calculated way, Brulte is careful to divert any question that could turn into a discussion of policy to one of the party’s structure. That is his job.

“Part of it is allowing the infrastructure to fall apart and not paying attention to what I would call the blocking and tackling of politics,” he says. Like a coach, trying to bring his team’s focus back to the hard facts of the game before them, he begins listing numbers again. There’s no reason, statistically speaking, that Assemblymember Steve Fox should have won the 36th district, he says. From a numerical standpoint, there’s no reason Republicans should oppose absentee ballots, given their demonstrated advantage with voters who vote absentee, he says.

Yet, even with an ideal structure behind a Republican candidate, South described Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign as an example that the party’s brand is still a problem that even rebuilding party infrastructure may not solve.

“[Whitman] had an ‘R’ after her name,” he said. “In California right now, that’s like the kiss of death.”

Brulte is indignant regarding the bad name that the Republican party and ideology have attracted over the years: “Too many people have seen the California Republican party as a play-toy to fight inter-party battles,” he says.

By contrast to the lofty theoretical and philosophical debates that occur among who Brulte describes, rolling his eyes, as “professional convention-goers,” Brulte is going back to basics and trying to get candidates elected from the ground up.

“There’s no conservative way to walk a precinct,” he says of his work for Andy Vidak’s campaign. Though it may seem unusual for the party chairman to be walking precincts alongside volunteers, Brulte believes it is a fundamentally important responsibility he has.

“Leaders lead by example,” he says. “I don’t think you can be the leader of the party, asking volunteers to walk precincts and make phone calls if you’re not willing to.”

Learning just a little about the former minority leader’s life, it’s not surprising he’s willing to deal with the less than glamorous work he’s been handed. From his time in the Air National Guard at age 18, Brulte has learned never to expect special treatment.

“Basic military service is kind of a great equalizer,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how rich you are, or how poor you are, it doesn’t matter how smart you are it doesn’t matter how well-educated you are, you’re all just treated like a piece of dirt and yelled at.”

That may have prepared him for his service in the state Legislature, where many have characterized him as an unmatchable dealmaker. But despite his success, including the credit he was given in helping Republicans win the Assembly majority in 1994, he was never given the chance to serve as majority leader. Instead, he worked in both houses in the more challenging and certainly less attractive position of minority leader.

From joining the military after the draft had ended to serve his country, to serving in some of politics least recognized and most challenging leadership roles, Brulte has always been a public servant. Despite how much he has given, however, Brulte has never been on top. And despite never really receiving the recognition he deserved, when called to serve again in such an undesirable position, it’s not surprising that Brulte has stepped up.

The fact that Brulte has spent most of his career under a glass ceiling of sorts may be why he may be suited for this position specifically. To build up a party that is on life support, a leader can’t expect perfection.

Rather, he’s looking for the best possible outcomes: “No political party has enough money to be involved in every race, it doesn’t exist everywhere in the country it doesn’t exist in California,” he says. “[Goals] shouldn’t be so easy you can trip into them, they shouldn’t be so hard they’re impossible. They do have to be achievable.”

Among the goals that he views as achievable are the three he outlined, but when it comes to larger statewide offices, he simply repeats that he has three goals on which he would like to focus the party.

Although Brulte is trying his best to play the part of the coach who could keep his cool even when his team was down, his understanding of the situation’s gravity still comes through.

“At the risk of sounding dramatic, which is not my style,” he says, “I think we’re one election away from irrelevance as a political voice in Sacramento if we’re not careful.”

For Brulte, the potential death of the Republican Party would hurt Californians everywhere. He believes bringing the party back with the next election cycle is crucial to the political health of the state, and when it comes down to it, that’s why he’s accepted the state’s least fun volunteer position.

“It wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences, and I’m unbelievably glad that I did it,” he says of his military service.

He might be able to say the same of his chairmanship — if he manages to turn the California Republican Party around.

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