Losing One for the Gipper 

Oakland Republican celebrity and NAACP official Shannon Reeves watches as his Grand Old Party destroys what Reagan built.

Because we're living in the midst of one of the most profound political transformations of any state in recent history, we may not have sufficient distance to truly appreciate how far to the left California has lurched in so short a time. But outsiders who remember the days of Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian must surely gape at how toxic the soil has grown for their heirs. Once upon a time, an army of transplanted Midwestern defense workers built themselves a clean, white paradise in God's Country, capping property taxes, casting Rose Bird into purgatory, and letting a thousand gated subdivisions bloom far from the inner cities of the East Coast. Now, a new army of urban hipsters, dot-com centrist Democrats, and Latino immigrants spurred on by Pete Wilson's race-baiting has routed the Reagan foot soldiers, enacted social legislation that would make Saul Alinsky drool, and sent thousands of aging, conservative retirees fleeing into the hinterlands of Idaho. All in, what, ten years? Can it really be less than a decade since Willie Brown was fighting to keep his job as speaker of the Assembly?

Now we're witnessing the last symptom of the California Republican Party's terminal illness. When a party is thoroughly out of power, it falls prey to more than just despair; it actually grows stupid. A bizarre brain drain has afflicted the state Republican leadership. Its talent pool has dried up, and those few conservatives left display none of the deft political instincts of a Lee Atwater. While national Republicans continue to think up clever new ways to get and keep power (how cleverly they use it is, of course, another story), California's right wing is busy devouring itself in internecine squabbles. The only innovation it has been able to think up is how to sabotage the basic workings of government and cast us into unprecedented chaos. Unfortunately, the laws of California make it only too easy to do that.

Standing in the center of the Republicans' suicide spree is none other than Oakland's own Shannon Reeves. Armed with the copious political capital that is the birthright of black conservatives, this Castlemont High graduate returned from college determined to remake Oakland in the image of Dallas. He seized the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from its old, moribund leadership, preached a gospel of no-nonsense bootstrapping to young black men and women, and forged a partnership with Chevron to build two strip malls in East Oakland, suggesting a new, corporate strategy to revitalize the inner city. Reeves has so charmed the conservative establishment that last year the Washington Times spent 2,687 words kissing his ass.

But despite the glowing profile, life hasn't been as easy for Reeves as it once seemed it might be when he blew back into town in the '90s. His bid for mayor of Oakland went nowhere, his 98th Avenue strip mall is still an empty ghost town, and last month, an unexpected torrent of frustration flowed from Reeves on the heels of the Trent Lott controversy. As retirement approached for Shawn Steel, the idiotic state party chair who recently vowed to organize a recall campaign against any Republican legislator who voted for a tax hike, vice chair Bill Back made a push to replace him. Back's opponents promptly discovered that several years ago, Back distributed a pamphlet speculating about what might have happened if the South had won the Civil War. (In case anyone's wondering, life apparently would have been much better.) A furious Reeves distributed an open letter to Republican luminaries, in which he finally disclosed his private fury about the party's continuing flirtation with racists.

"I am sick and tired of being embarrassed by elected Republican officials who have no sensitivity for issues that alienate whole segments of our population," Reeves wrote. "Not only do I have to sit in rooms and behave professionally towards Republicans who share this heinous ideology, I have to go home to a hostile environment where I'm called an 'Uncle Tom' and maligned as a sellout to my community because I'm a member of the Republican Party. ... When I travel to speak at Republican conferences and events around the country, wandering through hotels, convention centers, and clubs, as I approach the rooms where I'm scheduled to speak, I am often told by Republicans that I must be in the wrong place. ... As a Bush delegate at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, I proudly wore my delegate's badge and RNC pin on my lapel as I worked the convention. Regardless of the fact that I was obviously a delegate prominently displaying my credentials, no less than six times did white delegates dismissively tell me to fetch them a taxi or carry their luggage."

Reeves' letter prompted a no less angry retort from Back supporter Randy Ridgel, who called him a "bombastic gasbag." Ridgel declared, "You owe Bill Back an apology, but from what I've heard, you're not man enough to give it. Just for the record, one of my true heroes is Ward Connerly; read his book if you want to learn how to conduct yourself as a real man, black or white. Your sniveling letter makes me sick, young man; you are a superstar because you are a black Republican, and you love it. Now I wonder if you can make it as just a Republican ... like the rest of us. And don't try any of that Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters racist garbage on me."

It was an ugly, public spat, but it merely underscored the GOP's terrible straits in California. The Democrats have 1.4 million more registered party members, comfortable majorities in both the Senate and the Assembly, and every single statewide office as of the November elections. There is simply no there there for the Republican Party; its organizing apparatus is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Consider the following luminaries of the modern Republican Party: radio host Bruce Herschensohn, who ran against Barbara Boxer in 1992; oil magnate Michael Huffington, who challenged Dianne Feinstein in 1996; and, of course, businessman Bill Simon, who couldn't even beat Gray Davis in last year's gubernatorial campaign. All of these people either self-financed their campaigns or relied on name recognition as their primary selling point, following a long trend that began with Ronald Reagan and may eventually give us Arnold Schwarzenegger. Except for Simon, who worked briefly as a deputy US attorney, none of them rose through party ranks or cut their teeth in government -- none of them ever actually governed anything.

This is the modern legacy of the California Republican Party. Being so dramatically locked out of power, many Republican legislators seem to have forgotten that governing -- tackling budget deficits, improving the schools, or devising strategies to lure businesses to California -- involves compromise, negotiation, and sometimes forcing the public to swallow difficult pills like taxes or cuts in services. As a result, they have replaced responsible management and party-building with cheap populist stunts. Stunts such as the recall campaign.


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