Four years ago this month, then-Assemblyman Anthony Adams had cleared out his Capitol office following two terms in the Legislature defined by a middle-of-the-night tax vote.
Adams could have run for re-election under the term limits law in effect then. But the Hesperia Republican’s February 2009 vote had taken its toll. He agreed to temporarily raise taxes as part of a deal to help bridge a $40 billion shortfall as the recession began hammering state finances.
Today, Adams and the other five Republicans who voted for the tax increase are all out of elected politics. The change in Adams’ circumstances, though, go much further than the others or most any former lawmaker, for that matter.
Adams now is re-registered with no party preference, living 500 miles from his former district, and spending several hours a day in the Ukiah courthouse or nearby county jail. Finishing up his first year as a Mendocino County deputy public defender, Adams carries a caseload that mixes misdemeanor and felonies and “never makes for a boring day.”
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“One minute you’re helping somebody deal with a drunk-in-public. In the next hour, you’re doing a judgment and sentencing on someone getting 20 years,” Adams, 43, said in a recent interview. “It is everything I hoped it would be and more.”
California legislators come and go. Some move on to Congress or elected posts in local government. Others stay in the Capitol mix, heading up trade groups or becoming lobbyists. Most of the rest return to the law offices, farms, public-relations firms or other jobs they had before arriving in Sacramento.
Few, though, undergo as jarring a switch in life’s path as Adams’ transition from conservative legislator representing Southern California’s high desert to a public defender in the liberal North Coast.
“It’s a remarkable story, really,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who joined the Assembly the same year as Adams and now counts him as a constituent. “It shows the resilience, the indefatigable enthusiasm that Anthony has. He’s landed on his feet, probably in a different place than anyone would have thought he’d end up.”
Former Assembly GOP leader Mike Villines, who also voted for the 2009 budget deal and now is a Capitol lobbyist, said he wasn’t surprised by Adams’ new North Coast life.
“I asked, ‘Do you even have Internet up there?’ ” Villines said of Adams and his wife, Deanna . “I think he’s going to thrive in it. Knock on wood I never get in trouble up there, but he would be a great representative.”
Adams ascended San Bernardino County’s then-formidable Republican political machine in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In June 2006, Adams finished atop a five-way GOP primary field following a campaign mostly centered on who opposed taxes more. That fall, he cruised to victory in a district where Republicans outnumbered Democrats by almost 34,000.
Adams became part of the Assembly GOP leadership and was a reliably conservative vote. He voted against legislation to legalize same-sex marriage and assisted suicide.
As his first term ended, though, California’s finances began to collapse. A lame-duck session after the November 2008 election yielded no solutions on closing what was then an $11.2 billion hole in the $103 billion general fund budget approved only a few months earlier. By January 2009, the deficit had grown to an estimated $42 billion through June 2010 and the state was running out of cash. The Legislature, though, remained sharply divided, well short of the two-thirds threshold required then to pass a budget bill.
An agreement began taking shape in early February 2009. In return for about $15 billion in cuts, creation of a stricter budget reserve and business-backed tax changes, Republicans would provide the necessary votes to temporarily raise about $14 billion worth of taxes annually.
Adams, Villines and the four other Republicans who backed the deal – then-senators Dave Cogdill, Roy Ashburn and Abel Maldonado and then-Assemblyman Roger Niello – faced a backlash from other Republicans. Supporting higher taxes violated Republican principles, would hurt the economy and reward Democrats for overspending, they said.
Cogdill was ousted as his caucus’ leader. Villines survived an attempted coup. Adams faced threats that at one point brought CHP officers to his house. Critics also launched an effort to recall him, encouraged by the influential hosts of KFI-AM’s “John and Ken Show.” Adams and his wife encountered signature gatherers when they went to the store.
“I think Anthony took the personal brunt of it,” Villines said. “He lived in the area where the radio show was on. People were very negative toward him.”
The recall fizzled when too many of the signatures were ruled invalid. The political threat remained, though: As Adams prepared to run for re-election as 2010 began, there was the prospect of multiple primary challengers. At the same time, he realized that his own political views were increasingly out of step with his constituents, he said. He had begun to support gay rights and a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
“What was blindingly clear was that I was not a good fit for my district,” he said. “I knew it was time to move on.”
Adams, who had earned his law degree while serving in the Legislature, was appointed to $111,845-a-year post on the state parole board by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Adams left less than a year later; he enjoyed the work, he said, but the job kept him in remote prison towns for much of the week, and he spent his weekends at home studying up on cases.
He then worked for a time for a civil law firm in Riverside. Adams, though, said he realized he wanted to spend time in the courtroom. A friend in the San Bernardino County Public Defender’s Office invited Adams to shadow him – something Adams did for four months, unpaid.
Adams still had another local campaign in him and in 2012 ran as an independent for the new congressional district encompassing Hesperia. “It was meant as a broader declaration of who I am politically,” Adams said, “and then I was summarily crushed.” He finished ninth out of 13 candidates.
Adams began applying to public defender’s offices around the state. Last December, he got a call to interview with the Mendocino County office, received a job offer and within weeks he and his wife had moved to the other end of California. Public attorneys in the county start at about $53,000 annually.
“I miss the high desert terribly. I feel like I’m in a different state,” said Deanna Adams, who still regularly travels to Southern California, where she runs dog-agility classes. “But he’s getting joy out of this job. I think that’s what he was searching for, a career and a job that kept him in public service in some way.”
Adams said most people he deals with as a public defender are unaware of his Capitol past. Word has gotten around, though. At a local legal community dinner, District Attorney C. David Eyster told Adams he had recently spoken with Huffman “about that vote of yours.”
Adams “never regrets” his 2009 vote and thinks it helped bring about today’s solid state finances. While he has no plans to again seek political office, he someday may apply to be a judge.
“I’m completely in love with the work. I adore my colleagues,” Adams said. “I love getting up in the morning and doing what I do.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Six Republican lawmakers voted for a budget deal in 2009 that included temporary tax increases. Where are they now?
Roy Ashburn: Member of the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. He re-registered with no party preference.
Dave Cogdill: Stanislaus County assessor from 2011 through 2013. He is president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association.
Abel Maldonado: Appointed lieutenant governor in 2009 but lost his campaign for a full term in 2010. He ended a campaign for governor earlier this year.
Anthony Adams: Unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2012. He is a deputy public defender in Mendocino County, re-registered with no party preference.
Mike Villines: Lost his campaign for insurance commissioner in 2010. He is a Capitol lobbyist.
Roger Niello: Lost a 2010 campaign for state Senate. He is stepping down as president and chief executive officer of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce.