The fall and rise of Roger Niello

Roger Niello in his office. Photo by Scott Duncan, Capitol Weekly

When Roger Niello left the California Assembly in 2010, he figured his time in elected office had run its course. After all, the year before he had committed the most unforgivable of sins for a Republican of the day: He was among six of his fellow GOP colleagues who voted for a budget that included tax hikes, drawing the wrath of his party’s most vocal anti-tax contingent.

And as it turned out, voters.

That fall, he ran for the District 1 Senate seat vacated by the death of Republican Senator Dave Cox, but lost badly to a fellow Republican, then-Assemblymember Ted Gaines, who had gleefully signed the no-new-tax pledge championed by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Niello had refused to sign the pledge, which had become a national purity test for any politico seeking Republican support.

Once thought by many to be Cox’s heir apparent, Niello instead finished a distant third in the top-two primary behind Gaines and Democratic challenger Ken Cooley.

“I figured that was it,” he says now, looking back on that defeat and the political atmosphere surrounding it. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance again.”

So color him as surprised as anyone when, a dozen years later, redistricting created an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I figured that was it,” he says now, looking back on that defeat and the political atmosphere surrounding it. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance again.”

“I wasn’t following redistricting, so I had no idea about the 6th Senate District,” he says. “But in early January right about this time, people started sending me text messages and email messages saying ‘you need to look at that Senate District 6.’”

He did, and determined that the reconstituted lines gave him a legitimate shot at winning. The only thing left was to determine if he even wanted to run. Although firmly ensconced in his mid-70s, he was hardly spending his time puttering about the garden, serving on numerous boards and spending three years as president of the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce. But a Senate run? That was another thing altogether.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to tackle that?’ he says. “Because not only would I be a member of the minority, but I’d be the member of a super minority.”

Niello was used to being in the minority party – Republicans had never once held the Assembly during his time there from 2004-2010. But being in a super minority? He admits it wasn’t an overly appealing thought. There was one other major consideration as well. Since leaving office, he had taken over the dinner chores from his wife.

“When I told her I was thinking about it, I said ‘you know if I win, I’m probably not going to be able to make dinner every night.’ She said, ‘well, then you can’t run.’”

With that in mind, Niello did what husbands have been doing since dirt was new.

“I announced without telling her,” he says with a laugh.

What tipped the scales? Like many Californians, he says he is bothered greatly by the rise in homelessness and crime. And perhaps not surprisingly for a man known for his pragmatism and ability to build relationships, he sees opportunities to work with the majority Democrats on addressing those issues.

“I want to create relationships with Democrats and my Republican colleagues in our caucus to work together to try to accomplish things,” he says. “Because homelessness and crime are areas where I see a lot of overlap.”

It’s hard to know if that optimism is well founded in an era of such hyperpartisanship and extreme polarization. But Niello is no Pollyanna, so when he says he has already had several very positive policy conversations with Democrats it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Sen. Steve Glazer is one of those with whom Niello has been talking about possible legislative efforts. “What matters to me is the culture, not the climate,” says Glazer, “The culture of bipartisanship should be advanced irrespective of the political climate.”

“I want to create relationships with Democrats and my Republican colleagues in our caucus to work together to try to accomplish things.”

In that regard, Glazer believes there are opportunities for bipartisanship “in a whole host of policy areas,” including consumer protection, housing, and school reform. The two have already agreed to work on a bill on reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“We’ve broken bread and had good engagement on ways we can work together,” he says.

Perhaps the bigger question is how Niello fits within his own party. Both the state and national GOP has only lurched even further to the right during his time away. Many of the small number of Republicans in the Legislature right now come from districts that supported Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, as well as the attempted recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021.

Niello doesn’t put much weight behind all that, saying Democrats ran candidates – Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden – who very few Republicans of any kind could endorse.

“A lot of people weren’t necessarily voting for Trump,” he says. “They were voting against the opposition, so I don’t think you can draw conclusions necessarily from that.”

He is also quick to point out that his votes on tax increases aside, he still consistently supports longtime GOP agenda items like more money for charter schools and reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

He also has continued to support GOP candidates around the state, including campaigning last fall alongside then-Assemblymember Kevin Kiley, a Trump-endorsed Republican since elected to represent California’s newly-drawn 3rd Congressional District. This would be the same Kevin Kiley who ran in the unsuccessful recall against Newsom and who in the 2022 Congressional primary refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Pres. Joe Biden’s 2020 election. Kiley also recently told the Sacramento Bee that he plans to use his new position in Congress “to do everything I can to expose Newsom’s failures.”

None of which means Niello endorses those positions. Nor does his support for a firebrand like Kiley preclude him from being able to find common ground with a Democratic supermajority in the California Senate that has no obvious need to work with Republicans. But it’s hard to imagine it makes it easier.

Perhaps the bigger question is how Niello fits within his own party.

The test will come soon enough. Niello has just one bill on the Senate GOP’s 2023 policy agenda, but it is potentially a big one. The measure (SB 232) attempts to change a key element of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, the landmark 1967 legislation that ended the involuntary institutionalization of people with severe mental-health issues. Under his proposal, the definition of what constitutes a “gravely disabled” person would be amended to include homeless persons who are unable to care for themselves.

His will certainly not be the only effort to take on LPS this year. Niello says he has also spoken about partnering on the issue with Democratic Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, who is working on her own slate of mental-health reforms. It is too early to know if his measure gains any traction at all, though he remains optimistic.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he says. “Maybe come back to me in six months and see what I think about it. But so far so good.”







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