Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Donnelly dabbles in faux bid for governor

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

On the night that a new Republican organization celebrated election victories of three Latinos for local offices, Tim Donnelly, the assemblyman who hopes to import Arizona's anti-immigration law to California, held a fundraiser for his "campaign" for governor.

A smattering of donors showed up to eat finger food in the Esquire Grill's back room last week, as did a few Republican Assembly members. It was hardly bustling, but Donnelly proclaimed it a success, without revealing how much he had or hadn't raised.

If he decides to remain in the race – highly unlikely – he won't get past the primary. If he somehow managed to get into the 2014 general election, Democrats would be giddy.

Donnelly is a salesman who gained attention as a "Minuteman," supposedly protecting the border against illegal immigrants. He won an Assembly seat in 2010 in a district that includes the mountains and desert east of Los Angeles and was re-elected last year. It is the best job he has ever had.

He asked me to lunch at Capitol Garage to, as he said, "court" the media. I bit, happy as I am to talk with whoever will talk with me. Donnelly is smart enough to sand his edges. He talked about his desire to cut taxes and regulations, very mainstream.

But he hasn't figured out how to work well with others in the Capitol. His bills die in their first committees, with the exception of two resolutions, both of which decry human trafficking.

He endures what he called "hatred and disrespect by the political class," the media especially, which plays well with his base of donors.

"Tim is very politically clever," Republican consultant Kevin Spillane said. Spillane also called Donnelly's run for governor "a publicity stunt. It is simply Tim advancing his political career."

Donnelly is "not going to give up a government paycheck" by relinquishing his Assembly seat before he's termed out, Spillane said. More likely, Donnelly will run for a congressional seat in 2016, Spillane said.

Donnelly for Governor's slogan is "Patriot not politician," but he's not above politicians' tricks. By raising money as if he were a gubernatorial candidate, he can skirt legislative campaign contribution caps of $4,100 per donor, though he is hardly raking in the dough. He has reported only one donation, that of $10,000 from a fellow in Fresno.

"He is a great guy with great communication skills, and he would be good for this state," Southern California real estate investor Gerald Marcil told me. "But I do not believe there are enough votes for his position, and I don't think he can raise enough money."

Marcil is "tired of losing" and won't seed Donnelly's latest adventure, but he did give $50,000 to Donnelly's referendum campaign last year to overturn the California version of the DREAM Act, which gives children of illegal immigrants state aid for college. Donnelly gathered 447,514 signatures, not a terrible showing, but not enough to gain access to the statewide ballot.

Lately, Donnelly has been blasting fundraising emails appealing to his supporters denouncing Democrats' gun control legislation, which he says would "curtail the rights of lawful, freedom-loving gun owners throughout our state."

Hardly a role model for wise gun ownership, Donnelly last year forgot he had packed his handgun in his briefcase and got detained at the Ontario airport. He pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors. Undaunted, he proposed a bill this year to arm teachers and others at public schools. It will die in its first committee.

Republicans have a devil of a time with Latino voters, thanks to politicians like Donnelly, who held a rally in 2011 on the Capitol steps with Russell Pearce, the author of the Arizona law that allows local cops to stop people who might be illegal immigrants.

Some Republicans hope to change their fortunes through Grow Elect, a political action committee that seeks to elect Latinos to local office, as a steppingstone to state office. Three Grow Elect candidates won local offices in Southern California cities earlier this month.

Ruben Barrales, the former George W. Bush administration official who is Grow Elect's president, didn't get back to me about Donnelly. Nor did Jim Brulte, the new chairman of the California Republican Party, who also hopes to make the party more inclusive.

"They ought to talk to me," Donnelly said of Republican leaders. They would prefer he go away.

Donnelly said he is merely exploring a candidacy. He is not delusional, as he made clear to the folks who showed up at the Esquire last week. If they didn't want to donate to Donnelly for Governor, he would gladly accept $4,100 into his other campaign account, Donnelly for Assembly 2014.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.