Last Saturday night, State Senator Mimi Walters delivered the invocation at the California Republican Party convention’s gala dinner, concluding with a request that seemed strange, addressed to the Almighty.
“Finally Lord,” the Orange County legislator said, “please give us rain and — please, please — kill the bullet train.”
This bit of partisan divine lobbying, aimed at Governor Jerry Brown’s High Speed Rail pet project, struck some of the 400 guests and reporters gathered at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel as heretical, others as just unseemly, and the rest as pretty funny.
Whatever else Walters’s pleading was, however, it was dumb politics, as internal disagreement over the bullet train was just one of a series of family feuds that erupted over a weekend packed with political soap opera.
“Let’s try to show our face of one big happy family,” party chair Jim Brulte pleaded with convention leaders in a pre-dawn Saturday email, which promptly leaked to the Sacramento Bee. “And then help me get rid of a couple of the four conventions this party has to hold every two years.”
SWEARENGIN SHOWCASE: In the middle of controversy stood Ashley Swearengin, the 42-year-old mayor of Fresno and the Republicans’ candidate for state Controller. Recruited personally by Brulte, she is — or was, before the convention — considered a rising star; while it’s a long shot the GOP can win a statewide office, she is given an upset chance.
So it was that Swearengin received a high-profile speaking slot — keynoter for Friday night’s dinner showcasing women and minority candidates, an event planned to highlight GOP efforts to reach beyond its shrinking base of grumpy old white men. After her speech, however, Madame Mayor promptly stepped on the story line.
When reporters asked if she endorsed Neel Kashkari, GOP candidate for governor, she hinted she could vote for Brown: “I’m looking at the two candidates, like other Californians are,” she said. “We still have not had a chance to meet,” she added of her party’s ticket-topper. “I think California needs some independence when it comes to watching the treasury.”
Translation: Swearengin and Kashkari fiercely oppose each other on the bullet train: He’s made “the crazy train” a centerpiece of his attacks on Brown; she strongly supports it as a source of good jobs for Fresno. Their relationship also was strained when Kashkari pulled a grandstand stunt, going “undercover” as a homeless guy for several days to illustrate the problems of poverty in California. (Aren’t there any cities with Democratic mayors?)
Elsewhere, Secretary of State candidate Pete Peterson, a public policy egghead from Pepperdine University, and another of Brulte’s 40-something moderates, made news of his own, announcing to the Los Angeles Times that he would not endorse Kashkari either, or any other candidate for that matter, to avoid the taint of partisanship as chief elections officer.
NEHRING’S HEAD EXPLODES: All this was too much for former party chair Ron Nehring, who volunteered to be the sacrificial lamb against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. Late Friday, he dashed off an angry email to Brulte, also reported by the Bee, bashing his fellow Republicans’ lack of team play.
“I doubt Ashley was given the prominence of speaking Friday night (the ONLY statewide candidate to be given a speaking role other than Sunday morning … as a platform to generate news by blowing off others on the statewide ticket.
“This does NOT help the party … the coverage is not of a party expanding its reach. It’s about a party that isn’t unified because (its) candidates can’t get … on the same page.” In his no-longer private response to Nehring, Brulte agreed, terming Swearengin’s move “felony stupid.”
Kashkari, meanwhile, steadfastly smiling about the non-endorsements, had already been humiliated by relegation to the 9 a.m. Sunday speaking spot, dubbed “the hangover slot.” He made the most of things with an over-caffeinated stem-winder, attacking Brown as a “coddled prince” and urging Republicans to be “damn proud” of the party.
In doing so, however, Kashkari also implicitly backed away from 21st-century Republicanism, in urging the GOP to re-rebrand itself as “the party of Lincoln.”
“I want to help lead the fight to reintroduce us to the people of California and of America,” he said. “Our legacy — we are the party fighting for civil rights, we are the party fighting for the poor, we are the party fighting for working families.”
Quick, someone tell John Boehner.
BACK TO GOD: Kashkari was spotted at one reception shaking hands with the Reverend Lou Sheldon, the religious head of the Traditional Values Coalition, who for years served as the GOP’s enforcer on cultural issues. Asked how he could support Kashkari, who is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, Sheldon answered this way:
“When you’re starving, crumbs taste darn good.”