By PETE GOLIS
Peter Behr was a Yale-educated lawyer who represented the North Bay in the state Senate from 1970 to 1978. Among the Legislature’s most passionate advocates for the environment, Behr, who died in 1997, led the campaign to create the Point Reyes National Seashore, and he authored legislation to protect the state’s wild and scenic rivers.
William T. Bagley is a Berkeley-educated lawyer (and valedictorian of his senior class) who represented the North Bay in the state Assembly from 1960 to 1974. As a lawmaker, Bagley championed fair housing, open government and civil rights legislation.
There’s one other thing you should know about the legislative careers of Behr and Bagley: Both were Republicans.
As leaders of the California Republican Party last week tried to explain the decline of GOP fortunes, what was most surprising is that they seemed surprised.
Having gone out of their way to antagonize large numbers of women, minorities, public employees, teachers, young people, environmentalists, low-income people, gay people and anyone with a gay friend or family member, one wonders: What did they think was going to happen?
Some of my best friends are middle-aged (or older) white men, but if you think they are all you need to build a successful political movement, you will be disappointed.
Even longtime and loyal Republicans have drifted away from a party that seems increasingly determined to marginalize itself.
Once upon a time, voters in Sonoma County routinely voted for Republicans — Behr and Bagley, state Sen. Jim Nielsen, Assemblyman Don Sebastiani, Assemblywoman Bev Hansen, the late Assemblyman Bill Filante, Rep. Don Clausen, Rep. Frank Riggs.
Those days seem long ago and far away. Today, there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans in Sonoma County, and Republicans barely outnumber voters who decline to state a party preference.
It’s true that the electorate changed. Growth in the 1970s and 1980s brought new people, and most of them were Democrats. A rural county once dominated by real estate and farm interests would be slowly transformed by new arrivals who envisioned a larger role for government.
They brought with them a different agenda. They cared about social services and women’s issues and measures to protect the environment. (Ironically, the people who came in the rush of new home development soon concluded that new home development wasn’t a good idea.)
An earlier generation of Republicans would have found supporters among these new residents. Those Republicans demanded efficient government, but they didn’t think all taxes were bad. They didn’t view government as an unrelenting impediment to success. They supported education and other government initiatives that helped business become more successful.
In the days when California was building the finest public school system and the finest highway system in the world, Democrats and Republicans worked together.
In essence, today’s Republican Party in California has decided it no longer wants to be the pragmatic, problem-solving, mainstream party of Earl Warren and Ronald Reagan. It wants to be the anti-government, anti-tax, anti-immigrant party.
In the hand-wringing that began with last week’s state convention, GOP leaders announced plans to reach out to Latino voters. This was, of course, the same party whose leaders in the 1990s sponsored measures to outlaw affirmative action and to impose sanctions on illegal immigrants. Now the GOP hopes Latino voters will forgive and forget.
So we return to the original question: Can local Republicans come back? After all, Republicans were once competitive here; couldn’t they be that way again?
The answer is: Not unless the party changes.
The coastal counties of California have shown themselves to favor a political outlook not recently associated with the new Republican orthodoxy. In Sonoma County, a Republican hasn’t won a partisan election in more than 15 years. And the fastest growing bloc of voters is composed of Latinos who have felt unwelcome in the GOP.
The people in the most conservative wing of the Republican Party imagine themselves to be heirs to the legacy of Reagan.
But, as president of the United States, Reagan signed legislation to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.
As governor, he signed one of the largest tax increases in state history. He also signed legislation making state income taxes subject to payroll withholding. And he signed into law a bill to permit a woman to secure an abortion in case of rape or incest, or if her life was in danger.
Imagine the reaction from today’s tea party Republicans.
This doesn’t mean Reagan wasn’t conservative. It means he understood that success is achieved when elected representatives work together to fashion solutions.
If the leaders of the California Republican Party want to be relevant again, they could begin by revisiting the traditions of the pragmatic Republicans who preceded them. They were Republicans who believed in the future, Republicans who didn’t believe that “no, no, no” was the answer to every question.
(Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)