Dan Morain

Here’s what happens when a Republican dares to vote with Democrats

Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes discusses the passage of climate change measure during a news conference at the Capitol.
Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes discusses the passage of climate change measure during a news conference at the Capitol. AP

For a guy who was getting slimed and threatened, Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes seemed mighty calm as he sat in his Capitol office.

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Unlike other politicians, Mayes has not lined the office walls with I-love-me photos of him smiling with famous people. There are, instead, two large bear flags, an American flag, and a framed quote:

“Dare mighty things.”

He noticed that I had noticed, and pulled out his phone and read a few lines: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much …” So said his hero, Teddy Roosevelt.

Mayes dared a mighty thing on Monday by crossing the party lines and voting with Democrats to extend the cap-and-trade program. In the view of partisans, Mayes had committed a terrible sin, though he’s convinced he was right. Californians believe the climate is changing and want politicians to work together. Under cap and trade, industry can use the markets to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. That’s a conservative concept, he noted.

“The polarization of the country is just a shame,” Mayes said, sounding, dare I say, a bit idealistic. “We are not red and blue. We are red, white and blue. We need to put country first and party second.”

Partisans scoff at the notion and raise questions about his tactics. Mayes’ votes had sent the two Jons into a tizzy. Jon Coupal, leader of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and Jon Fleischman, a conservative author of the FlashReport blog, flamed Mayes on the L.A. radio show hosted by the demagogic yakkers, John & Ken. That lit up Mayes’ office phones.

But that’s not what was driving clicks. An anti-immigrant, self-described American nationalist posted an item on his obscure blog smearing Mayes over a supposed affair with ex-legislator and Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen. The blogger quoted from a letter “obtained through Capitol sources” written to the Assembly leadership in a moment of anger by Olsen’s estranged husband, who shortly thereafter retracted it.

Yes, “Capitol sources” went there. Of course they did. That’s the political climate in which we live. Any ideologue with a computer and a Capitol source can write an item that gets clicks. Who cares whether the details are true or whether they matter, other than maybe the children of the adults who are the targets? A little collateral damage evidently was worth it so long as Mayes paid a mighty price.

The slimy item became news on these pages and in other publications after it became the topic of gossip among lobbyists gathered in the hallway outside the Assembly chambers on the evening of the cap-and-trade vote, and speculation that Mayes would be deposed as Assembly Republican leader. He wasn’t, though that could come.

If only Mayes hadn’t dared to vote for the cap-and-trade bill, none of it would have surfaced, at least not until he ran for some other office. The second-term assemblyman, a graduate of Liberty University, the Virginia institution founded by late the evangelist and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, gave a Christian response to it all: Turn the other cheek.

“People are going to say all sorts of things,” Mayes said. “Nothing you can do about that. I don’t know how to respond. I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

Republican partisans had seen the cap-and-trade vote as one they could use to unseat Democrats in 2018, especially if it drives up gasoline prices. If Mayes wanted to vote for it, that would be bad enough. But in the either-or world of partisan politics, he committed a blunder by having seven Assembly Republicans vote for the bill. That meant several Democrats could vote against it or duck the vote, and avoid being attacked for the vote in the next campaign.

“Bad policy, bad tactics, political malpractice,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco lawyer who is a member of the California GOP’s board of directors and Republican National Committeewoman. She is the most out-front party leader calling for Mayes to be deposed as leader: “I encourage it. I know there are members who share my views.”

Mayes said he has no reason to believe that a majority of the 25 Assembly Republicans will vote to unseat him. He also thinks he has a future in politics, and rejects the notion that Republicans should oppose everything Democrats propose.

He tells the story of his first election win. He was all of 25 and won a seat on the Yucca Valley town council. In that victory speech, he all but said he would soon be running for higher office. He’s embarrassed by that now.

“I began to realize it was real work. It wasn’t a game,” he said. “The decisions you make are important. The work is important. It affects lives.”

Being in the arena, getting “marred by dust and sweat and blood,” as TR said, is no game. Mayes dared to cast a vote he thought was right. He’d do it again. And if he gets dumped as leader or happens to lose re-election, the two flags and the framed quote in his office will be easy to pack up, though the loss of a politician with a real, even mighty, desire to do real work for real people will have been too bad.

Dan Morain: 916-321-1907, @DanielMorain

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