Term limits eased for state GOP leader

GOP Chair Jim Brulte at the recent state Republican convention in Burlingame. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg

The California Republican Party, long a staunch supporter of term limits, has approved an exception — for its own chairman.

Jim Brulte, head of the state GOP for the past three years, will be permitted to run for the party’s top job for two additional terms, following the party’s decision to extend his term limits.

The leadership stint originally was viewed as a single term, “one and done,” but the party eventually increased the limits to two terms for continuity.

“There’s still work to do,” said Mike Osborn, chairman of the California Republican County Chairmen’s Association, which submitted the change in rules. “It’s our opinion that Jim has a job to finish and this will give him time to do it,” he added.

At the state GOP’s April convention in Burlingame, the party’s delegates — over minimal opposition – decided to allow Brulte to run for two additional terms. Extending Brulte’s term limits will serve as a “trial run” to see how increasing term limits would work, Osborn said.

The decision was reached through a voice vote of the scores of delegates who were in the room. Most voted “aye,” but there was a faint “nay” from several people at the back of the room. “Nay, I’m with you,” Brulte quipped.

Brulte, 60, was elected party chairman in 2013 and reelected in 2015. Under the new rules, he can now run for a third term next year and, if reelected, to a fourth term in 2019, giving him a potential total of eight years at the helm.

The state GOP has been bound by term limits for the past decade. The leadership stint originally was viewed as a single term, “one and done,” but the party eventually increased the limits to two terms in the interest of continuity, Osborn said.

Many Republicans were heavily supportive of legislative term limits when voters approved Proposition 140 in 1990, and the notion of term limits was applied to other areas as well. Originally, limiting legislative terms was intended, at least in part, to curb the power of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a San Francisco Democrat.

But over time, the honeymoon with term limits began to wither, partly because of the increased sway of special interests over inexperienced lawmakers.

“When Willie Brown told the trial lawyers to go pound sand, they had to go pound sand,” Brulte said in a 2012 interview with Governing Magazine on the impact of term limits. “Back in the old days, every interest in Sacramento needed the legislative leadership,” Brulte said. “Today, the legislative leadership needs the special interests.”

Before Brulte, the state party was in deep financial trouble, riddled by factions and struggling to confront the reality of overwhelming Democratic dominance in the Legislature and statewide offices.

The party was fighting within itself before Brulte, Republican strategist Hector Barajas said. It ran a deficit and had problems attracting donors.

Brulte was a legislative leader, having served 14 years in the state legislature, who understands how to deal with donors, Barajas said.

In contrast, the California Democratic Party has no term limits and ended its de facto rule of rotating the chair from northern or southern California in 1998.

Longest-serving California Democratic Party chairman and former state Sen. Art Torres is credited for financially and politically stabilizing the California Democratic Party in the 90s, when they experienced a surge in Latino voter registering to vote.

“Very similar to what you’re seeing now,” Torres said.

A chairman’s top priorities are party unity, voter registration, getting out the vote, and fundraising, he added.

As California enters a presidential election, Brulte will be able to create a six or eight-year plan for the state Republican Party.

“I think it’s going to be a fascinating year,” Barajas said.

With California Republican candidates trying either to differentiate themselves from other candidates or embrace them, Barajas said he is curious who will adopt which tactic.

It’s a “new world now” and two terms for the state Republican chairman might not be enough, Osborn said.


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