Assemblywoman Connie Conway, a Tulare County Republican, made her presence felt immediately in the California Legislature. First elected in 2008, Conway’s GOP colleagues unanimously voted her Assembly Minority Leader barely two years later. Since then, the affable, plainspoken Conway, whose 34th Assembly District is the largest in California, has helped craft her party’s agenda with a dominant focus on easing government regulations and improving the state’s business climate. But while Republicans recently have made historic gains in Congress and statehouses across the country, California’s GOP has plummeted in both membership and political power, including being shut out of every statewide elected office. We sat down with Conway recently to discuss these challenges.
Comstock’s: Do you have a specific legislative priority for this year?
Conway: Since I’ve gotten here, whatever legislative priority I thought I had has been wrapped up in jobs and the economy. It might sound trite, but for me it is the basis point of everything else that needs to happen in California.
Comstock’s: Both parties are facing major challenges in maintaining their membership numbers, but the California GOP is struggling in particular. Assess where you see the California Republican Party right now.
Conway: I’m an eternal optimist. When people ask me how it feels to be the leader of the ‘irrelevant people,’ I take it in stride because I don’t feel irrelevant to the people who sent me here, and I don’t feel irrelevant to the special-interest group that I feel I represent — the California taxpayers. However it might appear on the outside, I think California has a conservative streak. I look at the last election, when people were voting on several tax issues we opposed, and a significant majority said, to quote a famous boxer, ‘No mas.’ So while 68 percent of the voting public are not registered Republicans, they very conservatively said, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’ That was Republicans, Democrats, the decline-to-state, all of them. So in that way, we still are the Grand Old Party.
Comstock’s: OK, but a lot of the same people who identify themselves as fiscal conservatives are also very disenchanted with the GOP over its positions on social issues. What is your perspective on that?
Conway: That’s a valid point. We’re all the sum of life experiences and our beliefs, and we have a lot of principled Republicans who are very firm in their beliefs. But in my job as a Republican leader, I have to ask if we should be talking about those issues when we’re here in the Capitol. Sometimes this Legislature wants to legislate things that most people think we shouldn’t have our noses in, and I’m talking about both sides of the aisle. And it is also true that even Republicans are all over the map when it comes to various social issues. Some feel more strongly about certain social issues than others. I think it is very individual. But there is a driving thought that unites all Republicans, and that is fiscal conservatism. That’s where I would like us to concentrate our efforts, because that’s going to address the biggest problems in California. I won’t call these other things superficial, but they can’t be our priority.
Comstock’s: Along those lines, a lot of folks have long argued that the GOP’s stance on immigration is alienating the Latino community, a demographic group that in many ways seems a perfect fit for you both fiscally and socially. How do you see this?
Conway: I think there are some of us in leadership in the Republican Party that recognize the Latino community is a constituency we have a lot in common with. I think we haven’t done a good enough job as Republicans in defining what is really important to us and what we really stand for while also reaching out to others at the same time. I think a lot of these communities, be they the Latino community or others, have a perception of us that other people have told them. There are always loud voices on both sides that get all the attention. But some of us that want to take a different tack are getting more vocal. We want to define ourselves as Republicans, and it is our job to reach out to those communities and let them know who we are and what we stand for. But there is more to it than that. Someone once told me that outreach is good, but inclusion is better. That has always stuck with me.
Comstock’s: Hyper-partisanship has become a major issue at all levels of government. It has become so bad that many lawmakers in both parties have chosen to leave public service over it. What is your perspective on being able to work with Democrats in this Legislature?
Conway: I understand the public’s perception of the constant bickering and turmoil. I think a lot of this is exacerbated by our economic struggle, be it nationally or here in California. If times were good, we wouldn’t be fighting so much. That always makes it tougher for everyone. But we can function, and we do function and on some things we are really OK. Of course, we do have disagreements here, and I’m sure Democrats are just as frustrated with us as we are with them at times. They see us as being stubborn and the guys who just won’t go along to get along, but I don’t think that’s what people really want. They want us to look at both sides of the coin on issues and to hear those issues discussed more thoroughly. If anything, we don’t have enough discussion in this building.
Comstock’s: How do you fix that?
Conway: If I was queen, I would limit the ability to put bills forward. Whatever space you are given, you try to fill it up, which is one of the reasons we get arguments over so many of the silly things that people think make us look crazy. If we limited that opportunity, it would really force lawmakers to focus on priorities. If every lawmaker could only introduce five pieces of legislation — including the highway naming bills and all the ‘Oh, Happy Day’ resolutions we get — people would really have to make choices about what they put their effort into. I would really like us to spend more time in thorough, thoughtful discussion of those things, which I don’t think would be such a fight either. Both sides of the aisle really do care about things like education, but we get so wrapped up in fighting about trivial little things, and I think the public is tired of it.
Comstock’s: What about the move to go back to a part-time Legislature?
Conway: I understand why people would say, ‘Get rid of all those bums.’ But until you limit the ability to pass bills, it doesn’t matter if we’re here full time or for just one day. If we were here for only a day it might mean we just pass 2,500 really bad bills. Last year we passed about 2,500 bills, and (Gov. Jerry Brown) only signed about 900 of them. So why did we have all of those bills in the first place?
Comstock’s: Will voters endorse the governor’s tax hike proposal?
Conway: I know the governor is very wedded to a tax increase, but I just can’t believe the people have an appetite for more taxes. I just know the people I talk to — Democrats, Republicans, red, green, blue, purple party — are not grooving on a tax hike right now.
Comstock’s: Will we get public employee pension reform this year?
Conway: We better. People have got to come to the table and figure something out. If we don’t, it will eventually end up on the ballot, and nobody is going to like what that looks like.
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