Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party and a former GOP leader in the state Senate and Assembly.

By Kevin Modesti | kmodesti@scng.com | Daily News
Published: February 15, 2019 at 5:57 pm | Updatd: February 16, 2019 at 7:56 pm

  • Party struggled in the former San Bernardino lawmaker’s six years at helm, but he’s credited with rebuilding the party organization

Not that he’s counting down his days to freedom or anything, but Jim Brulte seemed keenly aware that the end of his time as California Republican Party chairman was 11 days away — not 10, not an even dozen — as he sat for an interview Thursday at his house in Fontana.

Brulte’s successor will be chosen Feb. 24 by delegates to the state party convention in Sacramento, and take over the next morning. He’s staying neutral in the election among declared candidates Travis Allen, Jessica Patterson and Steve Frank. Whoever wins, he said, he’ll offer congratulations and some sobering advice.

“Make sure you disengage your ego,” Brulte said he’ll tell the next man or woman. “You play one part in an electoral (production) that has many leading actors. And, at best, you can win an award for best supporting actor.”

It’s a lesson Brulte has learned the hard way — and might still be learning.

Six years ago, he entered the party-chairman job admired for his tactical acumen, a reputation built as Republican leader in both the California Assembly and state Senate during 14 years representing parts of San Bernardino County.

It has proven to be the toughest job of his life. And he knows some casual observers will think of him as the man who presided over the California GOP’s decline to record lows in voter-registration and catastrophic electoral defeats.

In what sounds like a combination of ego-soothing and reality check, Brulte, 62, claims some success during the longest tenure of any California GOP chairman in history. He also admits a major measure of failure. And he offers more ominous advice for future party leaders and candidates.

The successes:

He has led a rebuilding effort for a state party organization that was in disarray. When he took over from chairman Tom Del Beccaro, in March 2013, the state party had $1.3 million in unpaid bills (most more than 300 days overdue), 40,000 emails unanswered over an eight-month period, and a shuttered Sacramento headquarters.

And he has fulfilled a promise to his mother to define success in his political career by more than victories and defeats.

“I’m now 11 days from no longer being chairman of the party,” Brulte said. “I’ve worked about as hard as I can work. I haven’t compromised my principles. I haven’t shredded my integrity. And so from a personal point of view, my job has been a success.”

The failure:

“My biggest failure was (not) convincing enough candidates to talk about issues that the fastest-growing voter groups care about,” Brulte said.
On Jan. 14, 2003, Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, then Republican leader of the Californai Senate, listens to the discussion concerning the state budget during a meeting between Gov. Gray Davis, left, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, center, and other legislative leaders at the state capitol in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Casual in a salmon-colored shirt open at the neck, Brulte spoke from a sofa in the living room of a house he owns in the hills of Fontana, in southwest San Bernardino County, though he lives primarily at a townhouse he owns in San Juan Capistrano. Still, the decor offers hints that the owner is big in the Republican Party.

An elephant sculpture holds down center space on the fireplace mantle. One of the signs that marked the California delegation at the 2016 GOP national convention in Cleveland stands nearby. Here and there are photos of Brulte with political allies, and a framed collection of Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign buttons in dozens of languages.

The buttons might be symbolic for a man who has been preaching for years that California Republicans must do more to expand its base of support.
Voice of warning

“Unless and until Republicans can figure out how to communicate much more effectively to non-white voters, we’re going to have trouble in states like California,” said Brulte.

It’s not impossible, he said. He pointed to charter schools — something the GOP has backed — as an example of a conservative cause that can find an audience among Latino, Asian and black voters.

But his party hasn’t spread many messages like that, and has lost ground among non-white voters.

California is one of five “majority minority” states today, but projections say that by 2044 more than half of the United States population will be non-white. Minorities tend not to register and vote Republican, turned off in part by the image and actions of the party that, in recent years, has been shaped by policies out of Washington, D.C.

In a widely quoted op-ed on The Hill political website in December, Brulte warned that the California GOP’s unpopularity in California should be viewed by national Republicans as a “canary in the coal mine.”

As bad as 2018 was for his party, Brulte suggested said Republicans in California are likely to continue their more than two-decade decline.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Brulte said, his voice rising above its usual calm, careful tone.

“That is not defeatist. That is a clear-eyed, rational look at what’s happening. I said it in the ’90s. I said it in the 2000s.”

The 2018 election saw California Democrats pick up seven U.S. House seats, add to their already huge majorities in state Assembly and Senate, and again sweep statewide elections. Republicans also slipped from second to third in California voter registration last year, the GOP’s 24 percent trailing not only the Democrats’ 43.5 percent but also “No Party Preference’s” 27.5 percent, according to state data.

It’s pretty bad when John Cox’s 23.8 percent loss to governor Gavin Newsom was actually the closest race for any Republican seeking state office in California last year — and that Cox has been invited to be keynote speaker at the GOP state convention to talk about growing the party’s base.

Yet, using apples-to-apples comparisons of Republican candidates’ results in similar districts, Brulte can make a case that the GOP’s losses in California last year were no worse than in many other states.

And although Republicans’ voter-registration deficit versus Democrats has grown from 15.0 percentage points before Brulte took over to 19.4 percentage points in October, the decline hardly began on his watch. The current 1-point-a-year rate of decline is actually less than the rate in the six years before Brulte.

Dan Schnur, a former Republican spokesman and strategist who now is a professor at USC’s Annenberg Center, said Brulte shouldn’t be blamed for the GOP’s woes.
On Jan. 5, 2002, California state Sen. Jim Brulte, left, accompanies President George W. Bush at Ontario International Airport. Brulte helped to organize Bush’s trip to Southern California to try to revive his economic security plan. (File photo)

“He’s one of the smartest political minds in California — who happened to coincide with the Republican Party’s worst stretch here in its history,” Schnur said. “He didn’t cause those problems. They were the result of forces far beyond his control.

“If California Republicans ever decide to remake themselves to be competitive in the state, Brulte has provided them with an infrastructure that can make that happen,” Schnur added.

The state party seemed to recognize that. It extended a usual two-year term limit to allow Brulte to win two more terms as chairman. And Schnur said Brulte couldn’t have stayed popular with party activists if he’d pushed back too hard against their drift to the right. While always insisting state party leaders’ job was “nuts and bolts,” and that decisions about ideological direction must be left to candidates, Brulte wasn’t shy about supporting Donald Trump for president.

‘Never an ideologue’

Brulte was recruited to run for state party chair and won the position in a vote of delegates to the California Republican convention in March 2013. Prior to that, he’d served 14 years in the Legislature. He’d been Assembly Republican leader from 1992 to 1995, missing out on being speaker when a Republican’s defection to the Democratic Party cost the GOP a majority. He’d led the Senate minority from 2000 to 2004.

In Sacramento, he played hardball. In 2003, for example, he angered some Republican senators by threatening to oppose their re-elections if they voted to raise taxes to attack a state budget deficit. He made some missteps, such as a 1996 electricity industry deregulation bill he authored, a plan later blamed for the electricity shortages that led to Gov. Gray Davis’ recall in 2003.

Brulte teared up Thursday as he talked about his favorite piece of legislation, a 2000 bill he sponsored that allows mothers to anonymously abandon newborns at hospitals without fear of prosecution.

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