Bob Huff’s political career began with a building permit. While serving as chairman of the Evangelical Free Church of Diamond Bar’s building program, he tangled with the planning commission and the city council, where he eventually won the extension of the permit.
“That pulled me into the political process, where you see the things that work and the things that don’t work. And at some point, you think: I can do better than those guys,” said Huff, 59, who is completing his second year as Republican leader of the Senate.
In 1995, he was elected to the city council and eventually mayor; in 2004 to the Assembly and 2008 to the Senate – a testament to how rapidly political careers develop in the world of term limits.
As the Legislature enters its final weeks for the year, Huff commands a caucus of 12, one more than he had in July because Republican Andy Vidak of Hanford defeated Democrat Leticia Perez in a special election in July to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Democrat Michael Rubio. Democrats still hold a two-thirds majority of 27. There is one vacancy.
Former Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte, now chair of the California Republican Party, characterizes Huff as a “professional” who has done a “great job.”
“Bob is very bright, he’s even tempered – you know – he weighs all sides of an argument before he makes a decision. And, I enjoy working with him a lot,” Brulte said.
And although they rarely see eye to eye, California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Stenberg, D-Sacramento, also calls him as committed.
“Bob Huff is a good man,” he described. “We talk together about the issues and we disagree on many things, but we have a common commitment to the state Senate remaining a great and effective body.”
In his first legislative race, Huff succeeded term-limited Assemblyman Bob Pacheco, R-Walnut. He easily won the primary against Gayle Pacheco, Bob Pacheco’s wife, and W. Bill MacAloney.
After being re-elected in 2006, he climbed his way into Senate in 2008 representing the 29th district – which includes Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Orange counties – to replace the term-limited Senator Bob Margett, R-Arcadia. He won roughly 64 percent of votes in a primary against Dennis Mountjoy, before beating Democrat Joseph M. Lyons and Libertarian Jill Stone.
Last year, he was unanimously elected by Senate Republicans to succeed outgoing Senator Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, as their leader.
Huff said his proudest achievement so far is enactment in 2011 of a law that allows school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools to train nonmedical school employee volunteers to administer emergency anti-seizure medication to epileptic students. Despite opposition from teacher and nursing unions, the controversial bill was backed by numerous medical institutions and ultimately passed.
Some of his current legislation includes a bill to increase teacher accountability and encourage performance-based evaluation, one to create an entrepreneur’s visa for legal immigrants, and one on motorcycle safety.
Huff, who moved to Diamond Bar in 1983 to his own wholesale grain business, has diverse background in agriculture and business and his views on immigration are more liberal than of many Congressional Republicans, who oppose anything resembling a so-called path to citizenship.
“I was principle co-author with seven of our caucus members who supported the talks that were going on at the time, the bipartisan talks going on in Washington that supported a path for legality, which is citizenship,” he said.
Huff perhaps has a closer view of life on the California-Mexico border than his colleagues. He spent his childhood in Calexico, adjacent to Mexicali, Mexico, and on his family’s farm near El Centro, only a few miles north. He studied Spanish from third to sixth grade, and two years in high school. “I mean, there were so many Latinos down there that I was a minority the day I was born!” he joked.
He also recalled that as a child, he learned that the Japanese-American family that neighbored his family’s farm was interned at Poston, Ariz., during World War II. The family “never outwardly talked about” their experience, he remembered. “They were our closest friends, and they were our neighbors.”
Those childhood experiences give Huff a special perspective on his district, which is 37 percent Latino, 32 percent white, and 26 percent Asian.
“To represent them you have to try to be in the community, learn about them – the more experiences that I have, the more I can relate to them,” Huff said. “If you can successfully connect, you can get elected.
He stays plugged into the Chinese immigrant community through his wife Mei Mei, a first-generation American from Taipei.
“I know them to be very pro-family and pro-education, pro-business – they like the government to stay out of the way, to let them do their own thing. Those are Republican principles, and still people turn around and vote Democrat,” he said.
As for the Latino population, he hires Latino staff and tries to establish relationships with Latino members of his community.
Representing less than 30 percent of all registered voters, the GOP has been struggling to stay relevant and adapt to the California electorate’s changing demographics.
Huff points to his party’s efforts to elect more Republicans of color and his support of GROW Elect – a California-based PAC founded in 2011 that “recruits, endorses, trains, and funds Latino Republican candidates for public office.”
He also said that a major obstacle to the party is its negative stereotype. “If you look statewide, I believe the statistic is either 45 or 47 percent of local government offices are held by Republicans,” he said. “So that tells you that when you don’t have a label that people see as negative, they will support Republican ideas and elect them into office.”
Moreover, Huff talks about growing a Republican bench in areas that are “not typically Republican” to appeal to minorities.
“My philosophy is always to find somebody who’s doing a good job in the community and promote them,” said Huff. “I encourage my caucus to get out of their districts and go to areas that are next to them, you know, to connect to a different audience.”
In his hometown, he encouraged Councilwoman Ling-Ling Chang to run for City Council in 2009. In addition to running for re-election in Diamond Bar’s city council, she has also announced her candidacy for 55th Assembly District to succeed term-limited Assemblyman Curt Hagan, R-Chino Hills. Huff is endorsing her run for Assembly, and he held a press conference to promote Chang in May.
“It’s very helpful to have the Senate Republican leader endorsing me. He helps to promote me up in Sacramento, as well as down here in the district,” Chang said. She is currently running against Republican School Board Member Phillip Chen, and part of her strategy will be appealing to minorities. “I think she’s an up and comer,” Huff said.
In other words, Bob Huff is still building.
Ed’s Note: Jessie Lau is a Capitol Weekly intern from the public affairs journalism program of the Unversity of California Sacramento Center.