If you want to know what’s wrong with Sacramento, you need look no further than Orange County. That’s where Republican Party insiders have cast aside one of the GOP’s most principled members in its drive to fill the 72nd Assembly District seat vacated by disgraced Assemblyman Mike Duvall, who resigned after being caught on tape bragging in lurid detail to another assemblyman about his sexual exploits with lobbyists.
The first major candidate to announce his intention to replace Duvall was Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby. If the local GOP were serious about the limited-government rhetoric it constantly preaches, Norby would be a no-brainer choice. As a supervisor, he has been a steady voice for keeping government small and efficient. On the board, he opposed pension-spiking deals that establishment Republicans endorsed and has been an advocate for lower taxes, open government and property rights. Norby has deep roots in the district – he represents a good bit of it in the Hall of Administration and is a former Fullerton council member and schoolteacher.
Instead, party leaders have gone outside the district and are backing a politicians’ wife with virtually no political experience of her own. Linda Ackerman is a Republican national committeewoman, but she has never won elected office. Her claim to fame is being the wife of former state Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman. Ackerman and Norby were at each others’ throats years ago when they both served on the Fullerton City Council, and Ackerman since has been trying to undermine Norby’s political career.
Although the Ackermans have Fullerton roots, they are residents of Irvine and have another house outside Sacramento. They are renting a room in the district from a friend – which might technically meet the legal requirements to live in the district, but doesn’t pass the smell test. There is an open Assembly seat in Irvine, so if Linda Ackerman really wanted to serve in the Legislature, she could try that race. But the GOP establishment has always kept Norby at a distance given that he is driven by ideas rather than pleasing his fellow team members, and in the Ackermans party loyalists have found what they want – establishmentarian deal-cutters who play well with other politicos, but aren’t about to stand athwart the gamesmanship in the state Capitol.
Here’s how I put it in a Sept. 14 post on the Register’s Orange Punch blog: “Clearly, it’s more pettiness by a former minority leader who wasn’t exactly a conservative icon. He voted for budget deals in ’04 – ’07. Dick and Linda tried mightily to get the liberal Lynn Daucher elected as state senator – even as Daucher was hosting a fund-raiser for one of the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
“Dick and Linda wouldn’t support a measure that would have halted eminent domain abuse and regulatory takings. I like them personally and have agreed with them on many issues, but they are League of Cities types on property-rights matters, although they are fairly conservative on other things. Linda’s positions will have to be detailed more fully given that she has not served in elected office. But I have my doubts about their gut-level positions.
“The Ackermans both were highly critical of the only conservative on the Fullerton City Council, Shawn Nelson, when Nelson appropriately blew the whistle on the behind-closed-doors pension increase that the City Council and city unions were pushing ahead.”
OK, back to the present. The Ackermans say they were only mad at Nelson for the way he publicized the pension deal, but had Nelson followed their process I have no doubt that Fullerton taxpayers would be saddled with an unconscionable pension increase advanced by the Ackermans’ liberal allies on the council. By the way, Linda Ackerman, as a Municipal Water District board member, recently voted for a massive rate increase, in case you wonder where her tendencies lie. Personally, I can’t stand it when spouses of politicians run for office based not on any established record but on their spouse’s background. I also can’t stand the whole carpetbagging thing.
Dick Ackerman told me his wife was “drafted” for the spot for one simple reason: “character.” This is the heart of the Ackerman attack on Norby, who has some harmless quirks (he once fell asleep on a Santa Ana park lawn and was rousted by a cop), and one scandal. In that instance (which is being pitched heavily by the Ackerman forces, including in a particularly nasty hit mailer), a county employee filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Norby. As the Norby forces point out, the two of them were never alone together, she sought him out, and she was using this to gain leverage for a wrongful-termination suit. The harassment suit was tossed at the appellate court, although the court admonished his boorish behavior. It’s not great, but it’s a stretch to turn this event into a campaign theme.
Ironically, KCBS/TV and the OCWeekly – which broke the Duvall sex-bragging story – are reporting that a Linda Ackerman fundraiser had been caught, according to sources, in a “compromising position” with Duvall in the front seat of a car. So much for making character the centerpiece of the campaign.
The party hierarchs and lobbyists are backing the Ackermans, but the grass-roots (based on Norby’s lead in an internal poll) and the party’s most principled members (U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock) understand this is a race between the party’s lobbyist/insider culture and an idea-driven outsider. In some ways, this could be described as a race for the soul of the party.
Steven Greenhut is the director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center in Sacramento.