Looking For New Ways To Lead, Under A Bolder GOP Banner

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

After last month’s Republican setbacks at the polls, I was asked if I was going to continue in politics.

It was a fair question.

When I was chairman of the California Republican Party (2003-2007), the registration differential between Democrats and Republicans was the narrowest it had been since the 1930s.  When Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected to a second gubernatorial term in 2006, the GOP set modern California records for support among women and minorities.  Since then, the bottom has fallen out.

I would spend my energies elsewhere if: (1) the current leaders had California on the right path, or (2) California was unsalvageable. Neither is the case.

California clearly is on the wrong path.  Our education system is a disgrace. We’re looking up at Louisiana and Alabama.  Teacher unions force districts to turn down millions of federal dollars because they do not like the reforms the Obama administration requires. Many of our major cities are insolvent, if not bankrupt.  Anyone who tells you that Gov. Brown’s Proposition 30 solved our budget problems and/or ensured our schools will have enough money is lying to you (even the San Francisco Chronicle, hardly anyone’s idea of a conservative voice, labeled the ballot measure “a gimmick”). The truth is the forecast of the state’s budget moving into the black is built on a flimsy house of cards.  A more sober assessment comes from the California Budget Crisis Task Force, which has determined the Golden State’s debt and obligations to run anywhere from $167 billion to $335 billion.

Yet, the situation is not only salvageable. With strong leaders and the right policies, California can return to a position of leadership – and Republicans can play a key role in such effort.

First, the Republican brand issue is not California’s alone.  Since the end of the Cold War, Republicans have lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections.  If the national party doesn’t join us in this effort, the likelihood of Republicans playing a major role in California is even more problematic.

Second, we need to listen, especially to people we do not agree with. If we do, we will hear there is not one American Dream – each American has their own dream.   After Ann Romney’s convention speech in Tampa, a single woman told me it was a good speech, but it didn’t speak to her or show an understanding of her concerns (indeed, per exit polls, President Obama received about 68% of single-women’s votes).  She noted women are getting married later – if at all – and, if divorced, they’re less likely to remarry. And our tone to all women needs to be different.  As a woman told me, “You guys remind me too much of my first husband!”

Third, principles are critical.  However, they must lead to bold, decisive action.   Without action, principles are just sentimental attachments to past glories.

For example, California’s Latino community is crying out for help in two key areas where Republicans are in total agreement: education and business.  They’re fed up with failing schools. In the last few years, I’ve witnessed parents start dozens of charter schools in Santa Clara County.  On a statewide basis, they compelled the state Legislature to enact a “Parent Trigger” law that gives parents unprecedented powers to turn failing schools around.  If it wants to be a viable entity, the California GOP needs to be in this fight.

No one has made a stronger long-term commitment to small business than the Latino community.  Of Latinos who form small businesses, approximately two-thirds form such businesses so their children will have a job when they grow up.  Again, we need to be in this fight.

The gating issue in the Latino community with the GOP is immigration. There, Republicans need to change their language.  If someone is caught speeding, they pay a fine; if they cause a serious accident, they may go to jail. The concept is the punishment fits the crime. There is no amnesty. Yet, if someone proposes penalties for undocumented immigrants, but such penalty does not include deportation, some yell “amnesty”!  This has to stop.

Undocumented individuals should be penalized for violating the law.  We should secure the border. However, we also must develop programs that give worthy undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, if not citizenship.

Our immigrant communities need help.  Personal involvement here will change lives – maybe even ours.

We also need to engage young adults (YAs) – they’re more important than any person we elect, or bill we pass.  They are our future.  To YAs, it’s no big deal if their teammate is differs in sexual orientation, or their class valedictorian doesn’t have legal papers.  YAs find it disturbing that their college friend wasn’t able to graduate because of rising tuition.  YAs thought we taught them to be inclusive, to judge people on their merits, to help the underprivileged fighting to achieve.  They ask:  “So how can the GOP take the positions it does?”  Even more challenging to Republicans, for YAs: political parties aren’t nearly as relevant to them as their technology-driven communities. Approximately 30% don’t belong to either major political party.

Yet, with YAs we have a vital ally on our side: math.  The government’s math does not add up.  Once YAs start having to pay the tab for the previous generations’ grievous mistakes, YAs not only will be carrying the banner on this issue – they will be leading the charge.

There also are numerous opportunities to build bipartisan coalitions.  For example, I was part of the effort led by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed where Republicans, Democrats and the local business leaders joined together to pass groundbreaking pension reform by an overwhelming margin earlier this year.

The road we’re on is not sustainable.  The programs the current leadership in Sacramento supports are rooted in the 1930s, not the 21st Century.  Under their neglect, single women will be less secure and Latino graduates less prepared to enter the workplace. And, because of the debt burden we’re leaving the younger Californians, they simply won’t not be able to provide for their children the way their parent and ancestors did.

If California Republicans are going to lead, the banner needs to have bold colors – and carried onto the field by men and women who reflect California’s diversity, not a gated enclave. The party must show by its actions how it intends to shift power from the ossified education establishment to students and parents, help individuals succeed in the workplace so they can better provide for their families, and introduce a rising generation’s passion for technology to government, making it more responsive, flexible and efficient.

If California Republicans act on their principles, they’ll be relevant to the Golden State’s future. If not, the state party deservedly will be relegated to a chapter in the state’s history.


George “Duf” Sundheim, a Stanford graduate and Palo Alto attorney, served as chairman of the California Republican Party from 2003-2007.