Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (Anne Cusack/LA Times)

Neil Nisperos, Staff Writer
Posted: 05/13/2012 01:52:32 PM PDT

A flap over a gun has provided fodder for Assemblyman Tim Donnelly’s opponents in a battle for the hearts and minds of voters in the 33rd Assembly District.

For his opponents in the June 5 primary election, Donnelly’s arrest for carrying a loaded gun into an airport was a vital lapse in judgment.

For Donnelly, R-Hesperia, it’s an overblown incident that clouds the real issues he says he stands for – smaller and more efficient government, with an unwavering anti-illegal-immigration stand.

At stake in the election is the right to represent voters in an area that includes Victorville, Apple Valley, Hesperia, parts of San Bernardino and Redlands, Barstow, Baker, Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, Highland and Newberry Springs.

If no one wins a majority of votes in the primary, the top two finishers, no matter what party, will face each other in the November election.

Donnelly’s opponents are quick to bring up two areas they see as vulnerable – what they say is a lack of legislative productivity and the now-infamous incident in which he was caught with a loaded handgun in his bag at L.A./Ontario International Airport in January.

Fellow Republican Bill Jahn, the mayor of Big Bear Lake, and Democrat John Coffey, an educator for special-needs students in Barstow Unified School District, pulled no punches against Donnelly, a tea party conservative and anti-illegal immigration activist.

“Everything he touches is dead on arrival because he’s pretty much well alienated both sides of the aisle,” said Jahn, a construction developer who has served on a number of local agency boards. “During my trips up to Sacramento, talking to different folks, I pretty much confirm that to be the case.”

Jahn’s campaign website provides several articles about Donnelly’s run-in with the law. Jahn said he believes the assemblyman received special treatment because, unusually, he was let go easily without arrest.

“I don’t care who you are,” Jahn said in a recent interview. “We’re not above the law, and we should all be playing by the same rules. …

“I’m a responsible gun owner, but you can bet your boots I know where my gun is. I know if it’s loaded. I know if I’m going carry it around I’d better have a concealed weapons permit, and I expect my assemblyman to do the same thing.”

Coffey, a lifelong Democrat and a former board member for the Newberry Springs Community Services District, said voters are tired of what he called the lack of legislative success from Donnelly, but he also called into question Donnelly’s judgment over the gun flap.

“I think it shows an appalling lack of judgment, and it’s indicative of irresponsibility,” Coffey said. “The man has children at home and he doesn’t know where loaded guns are at all times. I believe it gives the general public and voters cause for concern.”

In recent months, Donnelly pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges related to the gun incident and led a signature-gathering effort to repeal the Dream Act, which provides public funds to help illegal immigrants go to college.

Donnelly, who has been apologetic over the gun incident, isn’t shy about bringing it up. He says most people who have spoken to him about the gun incident have been supportive.

“The thing at the airport got blown up into a massive story way out of proportion to anything that made any sense,” Donnelly said. “The media knew they could sell papers, and my political opponents were pushing for it.”

On the matter of legislative success, Donnelly said it would be better if lawmakers passed fewer laws, and called attention to what he called his effectiveness as a voice on immigration and budget issues on the popular “John and Ken” radio show and “The Daily Show.”

“If you ask if I have been effective and if you measure it by whether or not I’ve taken the message that I went there to take and have done everything I could to leverage it with the media and talk about real issues, then I would say, yes absolutely,” said Donnelly, who is for shrinking state government. “I’ve been most effective in the state of California at trying to use the bully pulpit in our direction.”

Jahn painted himself as a lawmaker who is able to work across political parties in order to “get budgets in line” and reverse unemployment.

“I’ll be the first guy to tell you I’m a conservative, and I’m not going to vote to raise taxes, and there are other conservative principles that I’m not going to bend on,” Jahn said, “but there’s a whole lot of other stuff that can get done by both sides without either side compromising their principles.”

While Jahn aims to protect Proposition 13, the 1978 voter- approved measure limiting property taxes, Coffey said he would introduce legislation to curtail or eliminate commercial property from the measure’s protection.

“My best guess is this would generate $5 billion or $6 billion to exclude commercial property not occupied by the owner,” Coffey said.

Voter registration in the 33rd Assembly District is 33 percent Democratic and 41 percent Republican.

Reach Neil via email, call him at 909-483-9356, or find him on Twitter @InlandGov.

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