For Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen, Nov. 4 was only the beginning.
California Republicans climbed out of a historic low point this election. While they failed to break up the Democratic monopoly on statewide offices or to win a single congressional race on the competitive list, they achieved one priority: ending Democrats’ two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature. Republicans unseated Democratic incumbents for the first time in 20 years.
Olsen, of Modesto, acknowledged that the blueprint for where to spend money, from targeting vulnerable Democrats to picking up additional “opportunity seats,” had been drafted before she assumed power. But she will have a key role in protecting those gains by building up the party’s financial resources and helping decide where to deploy them in 2016.
“The challenge for Kristin will be to convince donors that 2014 was not a fluke and they can build on that,” said Richard Temple, a GOP campaign strategist. “It’s about rebuilding the image of the Republican party so it’s credible.”
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For now, voters have given Olsen an enlarged and more diverse caucus. She will need to show that Republicans can respond by playing a meaningful role in a Capitol still dominated by Democrats.
“Our goal,” Olsen said, “is to incrementally bring more balance back to the state Legislature and to have a Legislature that’s more reflective of all Californians, and that isn’t served well when either party has a supermajority or even a significant majority status.”
But Democrats will wield majority status for the foreseeable future. That means Republicans will have a dual role, Olsen said – promoting policies with a chance of passing and serving as a check on the Democratic power structure.
Into the first category go bedrock goals like promoting education and economic growth, which Olsen called “still the No. 1 issue in this state.” Referencing a 2014 bill imposing insurance requirements on “ride-sharing” companies, Olsen pointed to the need to nurture new industries by avoiding “new regulations and policies that stifle that innovation and cause it to move elsewhere.”
On the first day of session, Republicans underscored another priority by announcing legislation exempting oil and gas from California’s cap-and-trade system. They hope to find common cause with a group of Democrats who last year sought to delay the inclusion of oil and gas. If gasoline prices increase, as is expected, the caucus position could score points for the GOP in the 2016 elections, through there appears little chance that Gov. Jerry Brown would go along with a repeal of the law.
Olsen has spent a lifetime in politics. Born and raised in Modesto, she participated in a state Senate fellowship program after college and later served on the Modesto City Council before winning election to the Assembly in 2010.
Even before Republicans voted in July to have Olsen succeed outgoing leader Connie Conway, Olsen’s leadership aspirations were clear. She was involved in efforts to replace Conway, including after a 2012 election that proved disastrous for Republicans.
“She’s always been focused on that role – I want that role, I want to change the image of the party, I want to pursue reforms,” said former Assemblyman Curt Hagman, who served in Republican leadership.
Unlike Democratic leaders, who can punish and reward members with levers like committee assignments, Hagman said, Republican leaders must rely more on persuasion to present a unified front.
“You can’t be too easy and make a deal that goes against your caucus. You can’t be as moderate as you were on some issues when you represent the caucus, because the caucus might not feel that way,” Hagman said, but “(Olsen) has always shown the ability to reach out to the caucus members, try to be a collaborator even under difficult circumstances.”
Education policy has afforded her a venue for collaboration. As vice chair of the Assembly Education Committee, she forged a strong relationship with the Democratic chair, former Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan. The two worked together on legislation last year streamlining the process for firing teachers.
“I think Kristin understands that, when you are the minority party, you’ve got to seek common ground to be able to get anything accomplished,” Buchanan said.
For Republicans, the funding shortfall that University of California officials cite in their plan to raise tuition is proof that Democrats have not delivered on the promises of Proposition 30’s tax raises.
“When voters were persuaded to approve the tax hike, it was because they were told that tax hike would prevent tuition increases, would make education whole,” Olsen said, “and it’s shameful the Democratic majority broke their promise to the voters by diverting much of that money to things other than education.”
Democrats would need a two-thirds vote to extend Proposition 30 taxes or move a measure doing so to the ballot – one way Republicans, freed from superminority status, can play a role. It would be part of the work of proving a rejuvenated caucus can sustain its gains beyond Election Day.
“She’s taking the helm at one of the best times ever,” said former Republican Assemblyman Jeff Gorell. “There’s an enormous opportunity to communicate new messages, and old messages differently, in a way that can rebrand the Republican party, and help Republicans win again and win more in California.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.
Title: Leader, California Assembly Republicans
Résumé highlight: California Legislature’s first mother with young children to lead a Republican or Democratic caucus.
Chief goal in 2015: Sustain momentum from the 2014 election and demonstrate that Republicans can have a role in Sacramento.
Biggest challenge in 2015: Find a way to do meaningful work in a state still controlled by Democrats.