A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: New intra-party fight for the GOP

August 28, 2001

It's no surprise when the California Republican Party endures internecine warfare at its twice-yearly conventions.

But the battle that's brewing as the party gets set for its September session in Los Angeles doesn't merely pit moderates against the ultra-right, like the intra-party warfare of the past few years.

This time it's the men (and a few women) of President George W. Bush versus the far right, which has enjoyed almost exclusive control of the state party since the days when Ronald Reagan was governor.

The state party apparatus moved even farther right during the early 1990s, when it was taken over by super-conservatives belonging to the California Republican Assembly.


Unless there's a compromise (not looking likely) before the mid-month session in an airport hotel, the fight will determine whether Bush and his onetime state campaign chairman control the party purse-strings, or whether they stay under the control of state Chairman Shawn Steel, a lawyer residing on the posh Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California.

If this fight comes off, it will also presage the party civil war that's waiting to explode next winter, when conservatives do all they can to keep former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (whom they label an "ultra-liberal") from becoming the GOP nominee to run against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Steel won the chairman's job last spring, beating back a moderate challenge led by former Assemblyman Brooks Firestone of Santa Barbara County.

The outcome of the new battle is far more important than most previous intra-party warfare because voters passed Proposition 34 last fall.

Starting after next year, donations to California politicians will be limited for the first time, but the sky's the limit on contributions to political parties.

Parties will then dole out money to candidates, deciding who gets priority and who doesn't — essentially determining who has the best chance for election.

Party offices will become more powerful than ever. With that change looming, party convention delegates last winter set up a 25-member committee to recommend improvements in the GOP's operations.

Chairing that committee was Bush's 2000 state campaign chairman, Los Angeles lawyer Gerald Parsky, who presided over an effort that outspent Al Gore by many millions of dollars, but lost the state by millions of votes.

Parsky proposed changes to the party structure, taking away from Steel much of his present authority and giving it to a new chief operating officer reporting to a 20-member party board of directors.

Today's three regional party vice chairmen — elected by the party convention — would be replaced by eight vice chairs for smaller regions to be elected by a mail vote of all registered Republicans. Republican voters overall tend to be more moderate than the party activists who usually become convention delegates.

And Bush or his designee (read: Parsky) would become a de facto member of the state Republican Central Committee, receiving authority to appoint 12 other committee members, the same number the state chairman now names.

"This plan clearly hurts party activists and will lead to the most distressful state convention in years," warned one conservative member of the party's current executive committee.

"That's not going to happen — at least not under my watch," vows Steel.

Other convention delegates claim the Bushites' putative party remodel was partially crafted by Firestone and former aides to the "ultra-liberal" Riordan.

Many longtime Republican activists can't stand Riordan because of his pro-choice stance on abortion and his backing of gun controls.

If convention delegates see this reorganizing attempt as merely a back-door effort by moderates to take over the party, alter its anti-abortion platform plank and achieve other goals they couldn't win on the convention floor, a major fight will surely ensue.

But if the conservatives want party unity over everything else, they'll either compromise or accede to the wishes of Parsky, Bush's California surrogate.

The same question will confront the right wing next spring, when activists consider whether to back Riordan, who began running only after Bush encouraged him. Every current poll shows the ex-mayor to be the strongest challenger to Davis, the best Republican hope. But will the rightists accept him even if rejecting him means certain defeat at the polls?

In short, both the convention and the March primary are a repeat of past contests for the soul of the Republican Party: Will the activists who dominate the corps of party delegates choose ideological purity or a chance for victory?

In the recent past, they've always opted for their vision of purity and against any sort of big-tent approach — and their choice has made their party a steady loser in every California election since 1990.

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