Do Republicans have a future in California?

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The Republican Party appears to be in the driver’s seat in Washington, DC—with control of the White House, as well as the House and the Senate. But here in California, Republicans haven’t won statewide office in more than a decade. Democrats control the Governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature. And the GOP’s share of registered voters in the state has dropped to about 25 percent.

Republican Assemblyman Chad Mayes represents the 42nd District and is the former GOP leader of the state Assembly. He says his party needs to change its approach and do a better of listening to voters and addressing their concerns if it wants to grow its clout in the Golden State. “We’ve got to make sure that we are not losing our soul as Republicans,” he says.

We spoke with him about what it will take to win back California voters.

Chad Mayes: I think the party needs to reach out to everyone in California. We have to speak to the 40 million people that live in California. For too long party leaders and party elected officials have been speaking to the base have been insular in their thought, and we’ve got to start talking to people all over California. We need to talk to Democrats. We have to talk to Independents and of course we still have to talk to Republicans. The truth is what we should be doing is listening, not talking to them. We should be listening to understand what their needs are and trying to find solutions to help them in their daily lives. Politics is not a game. Politics affects real people’s lives.

KCRW: What kind of issues do you feel the party needs to do a better job of focusing more attention on?

CM: Well there are dozens of issues that Californians care about. One of them, of course, is the cost of living in California. We have the highest poverty rate in the nation, in large part because of the cost of housing in California. And because of our regulatory environment, we have driven up the price of housing and made it incredibly difficult to be able to live due to policies that we’ve we’ve put in place. We’ve got food prices that are higher than the rest of the country, gas prices, energy prices that are higher than the rest of the country. And we’ve got to work towards addressing that as well. We have an education system in California that is not keeping up to par with the rest of the country, and on almost every measure we’re in the bottom 10 percent. We need to do a better job.

KCRW: One issue that a lot of Californians on both sides of the aisle – I should say all sides of the aisle including independents – have said is important to them is climate change. You partnered with Democrats earlier this year to get approved an extension of cap-and-trade, one of the state’s key programs for fighting climate change. But that got some conservatives riled up. Some of them accused you of trying to turn the GOP into ‘Democrat light’ and you ultimately lost your position as GOP leader the assembly. Isn’t that proof that the Republican Party, in some ways, just isn’t ready necessarily to go there?

CM: I think, unfortunately, on that particular deal there was a lot of misinformation, a lot of erroneous information that had gotten out there that ended up being a firestorm. The fact was with that deal we cut taxes, we reduced costs for Californians. We took power away from state regulators and at the same time we protected the environment. That’s exactly what Republicans have said that they’re for. And that’s exactly what we did with that deal. Now the truth is Californians everywhere believe that climate change is real and they believe that elected officials in California have a responsibility to work to address it. And the best way to address that is through a market based mechanism,which was what the cap-and-trade program is. We took power away from regulators. We took the command and control power that they had and we gave businesses the ability to make decisions for themselves. I’m very proud of what we did with that deal. And I’d do it all over again.

KCRW: In some ways you’re talking about trying to move the GOP towards a more moderate place, sort of along the lines of what we might have seen in the ‘60s, ‘70s. Do you feel that’s a hard message to get across? Do you feel that’s a hard maneuver to pull off with President Trump in the White House. Do you think conservatives look at him and say, ‘well if Trump can win by holding the conservative line on things like immigration, so can we?’

CM: I remain optimistic. We’ve got to get out of the death spiral that we are currently in. The numbers for Republicans in this state aren’t good. We now have less than 26 percent voter registration statewide. And so the question for us is, where do you go get your voters if you’ve got to get to 50 percent of the population any district? You’re either going to convert them or you’re going to reflect them. At some point we’ve got to start listening to Californians. We’ve got to start sharing with them our values and our ideas. We have to work to try to win them to to our side. We haven’t been doing that for decades now. And the proof is in our defeat at the at the polling location election after election. When is it going to stop? When are we going to start to think, hey maybe we should be doing things different? And at some point we’ve got to move from the politics of the past and start looking towards an optimistic future and start selling that vision to Californians.

KCRW: Are there folks who are coming to you either publicly or privately and saying, ‘hey Chad you’re right, we really you know this is the direction we need to head?’

CM: I’ve gotten dozens of phone calls from members of the legislature and former members of the legislature saying I’m so glad that you spoke out. I think it’s important at this time that we have leadership and we take the courage to say what is on our mind. I was thankful that former President George Bush spoke just a few days ago and gave this speech about the direction of the country. I know that there have been other leaders as well that are doing that. We’ve got to make sure that we are not losing our soul as Republicans. And we’ve got to continue to keep pursuing this optimistic vision for the country and an optimistic vision for California. I don’t share the dark vision that some in our party share. I’m optimistic about the future and I’m thankful for the ideals that we have to be able to get us to that vision.

KCRW: What would you say to that growing group of independent voters of why they should give the California GOP a second look?

CM: Look, it’s not our principles that are the problem. It’s not our ideas that are a problem. The problem is it’s our approach. Love conquers hate. Reaching out to people and sharing with them our ideas in a reasonable way is the way that we’re going to begin to grow the party. Screaming at people and yelling at them telling folks on the other side that they are taking our country to hell is not an approach that is going to win. It is not our ideas that are the problem. It is the way that we speak to people. And the you know you can’t turn the TV on without seeing a bunch of of grumpy old folks screaming at each other. And I tell you that is not the way to be able to begin to win.

(Photo: California’s Capitol by Allie_Caulfield)