Dan Morain

This is what happens when a ‘great guy’ goes into politics

Josh Newman was a 30-something Yale history graduate-Army veteran working in production in Hollywood when, by happenstance, Mike Myers’ assistant asked him to try on a security guard costume for a scene in the first Austin Powers movie.

Myers aficionados will recall that it doesn’t end well for the guards. A FemBot aims her breasts in their direction and shoots them dead. They didn’t even get a speaking line.

Long story short, 20 years later, in 2016, Newman, having made money in startups and having become an advocate for veterans, decided to run as a Democrat for a Southern California senate seat held by Republicans.

“I really do think we deserve better,” he said over coffee and a bagel at Fox & Goose.

He wasn’t supposed to win. The California Democratic Party had selected someone else to be their candidate. Newman put $100,000 of his own money into the race, and waged a guerrilla, or, more accurately, grizzly bear campaign.

He bought a blimp-drone, with the words “Newman State Senate” emblazoned on it, and a bear costume, which he wore while holding a sign that reads “HELLO your choice is NEWMAN.” Get it? You see the words, Hello, Newman, the Seinfeld line.

He won the primary, barely, only to face a $1.5 million onslaught of scurrilous independent campaign ads in the fall. They were funded by dentists, oil companies, the California Medical Association, Chamber of Commerce, Realtors, prison guards and other insiders who assumed former Republican Assemblywoman Ling-Ling Chang would hold the seat, which includes parts of Orange, L.A. and San Bernardino counties.

Knowing a loss would mean they would become the superminority unable to block tax increases, Republicans spent $3.3 million on Chang’s campaign. Democrats, smelling a supermajority, answered with $2.66 million for Newman. He won by 2,498 votes.

In April, Newman faced the question: Should he vote to raise gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees by $5.2 billion a year to pay for road repairs? The roads, particularly in Southern California, are a mess and California hadn’t raised the tax used to pay for their maintenance in decades. It wasn’t a tough decision.

He was one of 26 Senate Democrats who voted for the tax, one short of the necessary two-thirds to approve it. Sen. Anthony Cannella, a termed-out Republican, cast the 27th vote, once Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to locate a rail station in his hometown of Ceres.

Within a week, the California Republican Party began to recall Newman. Within two weeks, Chevron gave $500,000 to the party, presumably to help pay petition circulators to gather signatures to qualify the recall. KFI-AM talk show hosts John and Ken in L.A., and Carl DeMaio, a San Diego radio yacker, have been railing against Newman. They’re being demagogues; that’s what they do.

“I only want to participate in the process if I can do it on my terms,” Newman said. “If the recall goes the other way, so be it. There are far worse things than losing an election. On any given day, you wouldn’t know that around here.”

Senate Democrats are defending Newman by pushing a bill to slow the recall by, for example, giving people who signed petitions the option of removing their names. Republicans are indignant, claiming Democrats are rigging the system to protect their supermajority.

“Our recall laws are over 100 years old, and yet we’re trying to sneak something through in the dark of night that hasn’t been heard in any policy committee,” Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said in a speech the other day.

Anderson, crocodile tears flowing, made a point of saying what a “great guy” Newman is. Once his speech was over, he walked across the Senate floor to Newman to say there was nothing personal. My colleague Taryn Luna couldn’t help but overhear Newman’s response: “F… off, Joel.”

Though other legislators, Republicans included, may have shared that sentiment from time to time, the California Republican Party blasted an email declaring, “This is beyond disrespectful,” and seeking “$100, $75, $25, or even $10.”

Recalls have been part of California politics since Hiram Johnson was governor more than a century ago. Along with initiatives and referendums, they’re written into the state Constitution. But spare me the sanctimony.

Petition gatherers get paid by the signature, and use any trick they can to entice people to sign. In this instance, some of them claim people can reverse the gasoline tax by signing the petition. It’s a lie. The recall will do nothing to reverse the new taxes. That’s not the point.

Republicans are seizing an opportunity, just as Democrats have done. In 2008, then-Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata tried to recall Republican Jeff Denham, for no good reason. Denham rightly beat the recall, and won a congressional seat.

“Now we know why good people don’t go into politics,” Newman said. “It is a mean business.”

As Seinfeld viewers know, the star of the show never made clear why he despised Newman, though he later explained in an interview: “It seemed funny to hate Newman.”

There’s not much reason to hate Sen. Newman, either, and it’s not particularly funny. It’s not as if he has given us fleas, or eaten our chunky candy. He cast a vote because he thought it was the right thing to do. That ought to be what we want legislators do to.

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