“The only time they want us is to go up on taxes,” said state Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. “That’s when they’ve done only outreach. We are pretty much ignored.” (Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino/Staff Photographer)

Minority leader demands reforms for extension vote
Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, Staff Writer
Created: 06/25/2011 10:21:45 PM PDT

As a leader of the minority party in the Legislature, state Sen. Bob Dutton took on the budget fight with his hands tied behind his back.

Hence, he is lauded not for what he’s done but for what he didn’t do, observers say.

While some compared the Rancho Cucamonga Republican to “a brick wall” and “a thorn in the side of the state of California,” others say Dutton has been a very effective leader who has represented the position of his caucus very well.

“There is no tougher job in the Legislature than being a minority leader,” said Jim Brulte, who has held that position in both houses. “You have to recognize the reality. Yes, there are four or five Republicans talking to the governor and rather than ostracizing them,

Bob allowed them to negotiate. As a result he is able to subtly influence the process and keep himself in the loop.”

While allowing others to engage in negotiations, Dutton was “very adamant that taxes should not be extended,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“But he understood the value of a spending cap and pension reform,” Schnur said. “It is a very difficult path to walk but he is doing it very well. This is the way you want to see a legislative leader handle a difficult budget situation.”

On Thursday, Dutton announced at a news conference in Sacramento that Senate Republicans were willing to go along with putting a tax extension measure on the ballot, but only if it is accompanied by measures to reform the state pension system and cap state spending.

Although Dutton could not have kept individual members of his caucus from pursuing their own agendas, if he had chosen to he could have punished them severely, Schnur said.

With term limits, it’s difficult for Republicans to pass measures and have an impact in the Democrat-led Legislature, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

“Their main accomplishment then becomes halting or slowing down things that the majority wants to do,” Pitney said. “Dutton is a brick wall for a reason, and sometimes brick walls come in handy.”

Dutton said that the ball was not in his court to return it.

“In Sacramento everything is all about power, who has it and who does not,” Dutton said.

“(Gov. Jerry) Brown chose not to go into a Big Five situation” and negotiate with leaders of both houses of the Legislature, he said.

“He controlled the process. He decided early on which senators he wanted to talk to.

“My door is open, he’s got my cell phone. So far we’ve talked just three times, and one of those before he was sworn in. He’s got to remember, I’m not the one who has stopped negotiating. He’s closed the door and continued to work with my members. The right way is to sit down with me and work something out.

“There is no true bipartisanship. They have the power, total control. In 2002, when I came to the Legislature, they blamed George Bush for the problems. Then they blamed Arnold even though he sided with them on environmental issues. Now they are blaming me. Democrats have got to take responsibilities for their actions.”

Benjamin Bishin, a political science professor at UC Riverside, said extreme governing in the state is responsible for Dutton’s hard-line strategy.

There are very few competitive districts in the state, so politicians often have to be “super safe,” Bishin said.

“Most never had to face a moderate challenger, so what happens is the only challenge to these candidates is from primaries, and people who come out to vote in primary elections are usually the extreme of the party,” he said. “They are really stuck appealing to a subset of Republican voters who are very conservative. It makes it difficult to forge a compromise.”

Doing nothing also comes as an advantage if you want a smaller government, Bishin said.

“Even when you do nothing you are furthering your goal,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to get stuff done. It helps them reduce the government. It’s tactical politics.”

Ron Wall, chairman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party, said Dutton was towing the party line and presented just another obstacle in coming to a compromise.

“But if Republicans don’t tow the line, they may face opposition from their side and end up running against a stronger Republican in the next race,” Wall said. “Those who negotiate are courageous. They risk putting their political future in jeopardy.”

It was not always like this, he said. Twenty years ago Republicans were not as conservative as they are now.

“There used to be more moderate Republicans,” Wall said. “Now it seems like moderate Republicans don’t exist anymore. They’ve been pushed out of the party.”

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