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Blood Feud: California Republicans' Unholy War
January 15, 2003

In California, religion is not politics. Politics is religion, and it's personal.

For now, the democrats are at peace. But, within the Golden State's GOP, vendettas, grudges, long memories, and vicious personal attacks are the norm . What started out 12 years ago as a clear cut battle between social conservatives and religious activists versus moderates has deteriorated into a battle of strange alliances and bedfellows, and with blurred battle lines.

Credit California's political culture of demonization for helping to intensify the current battle for state GOP party chair. Meanwhile, the White House waits in the background, trying to remain neutral, eyeing California as a battleground state in the 2004 presidential campaign.

First some background. As President Ronald Reagan's term was coming to an end in 1988, social conservatives in California looked for a new mission. Many activists were demoralized with Washington politics and set out to work locally. During the 1988 presidential campaign, the membership of the then little known GOP volunteer organization, the California Republican Assembly (CRA,) swelled with many supporters of GOP primary presidential candidate Pat Robertson. By the time the 1989 CRA convention got underway in Costa Mesa, CA these new members, joined by longtime CRA members of similar opinions, had a majority of the delegates. They swept into office a new slate of CRA officers.

In 1990, a highly organized group of local Christian fundamentalist candidates captured over 60 positions on San Diego county's school and hospital boards. The tactics and strategies used to takeover the California Republican Assembly and the San Diego county board seats would be used repeatedly in the next 12 years to dominate California GOP party apparatus: stealth, grassroots organization, and firm discipline in getting out the vote.

By 1991, the California Republican Assembly had gained control of 36 of 58 Republican county central committees. They elected Jim Dignan state party chair, and now controlled the California Republican party. They have dominated the party since. Every party chair since 1991 has been essentially decided by the California Republican Assembly including the current chair, Shawn Steele.

But in 2001, Gerald Parsky, President Bush's closest advisor in California, headed an effort to curtail the power of the state chair, institute new financial controls, and 'professionalize' the GOP's political operations. The eventual reforms were far less than intended. But the Party's Vice Chair, Bill Back, also a California Republican Assembly endorsed officer, lent guarded support for the reform effort, which infuriated fellow CRA member, Party Chair Steele.

One group supporting Parsky and the reform effort was the Lincoln Club of Northern California, led by its chair, Duf Sundheim. The club had been formed originally as donor group to support moderate candidates in the San Francisco Bay Area, but has since broadened its mission to include support for conservative Republicans, and to be more active in political projects.

Which brings us to the present battle for state party chair: Vice Chair Bill Back vs. Duf Sundheim. And this is where the politics of personal vendetta replaces the politics of religious principles; and where the battle lines become cloudy. For, the current party chair, Shawn Steele, is supporting Duf Sundheim and opposing his CRA colleague, Bill Back. Gerald Parsky, according to the Washington Post, had given Back private backing. But more recently, Parksy, who worked closely with Duf Sundheim on the reform effort, has stated publicly that he will endorse no one in the chair's race. Parsky and Steele despise each other. An anonymous periodical newsletter, called "Parsky Watch," has viciously attacked Gerald Parsky.

The campaign for party chair has been no different. Following in the wake of the Senator Lott demise, a newsletter Back distributed to party leaders in 1999 was released to the press. In the newsletter, Back included an article, not written by him, which suggested that blacks in America might be better off if the South had won the Civil War. Then a video tape interview was distributed in which Sundheim warns against voting for candidates on the basis of race or ethnicity.

The February convention when state delegates will select the next chair is still weeks away.

Sundheim has been gathering endorsements of key party leaders including the California Congressional Delegation. Back supporters will count on what has been the traditional strength of the California Republican Assembly. Using proxy fights and control of local central committees to collect votes, and dominate the floor fights that are sure to occur at the February convention.

The party infighting delights democrats. They now control every statewide office and both chambers of the state legislature. In the end only about 100 of the 1,400 convention delegates -- most of them members of the California Republican Assembly-- may decide the victor. Back will try to keep them within the CRA fold, while Sundheim will appeal to the dismal record of the CRA-controlled party over the last several years. Both have assembled seasoned political consultants for the upcoming battle.

And what of the White House? The Bush administration is fiercely loyal. Parsky remains their California representative. The White House would prefer a smooth transition in party leadership. That would favor Back, but the White House has taken no formal position in the race, and, in recent days, has moved farther away from the battle. In any case, whether Back or Sundheim wins, they hope the California Republican party will be less interested in ideology, and more concerned with developing a modern party operation to turn out voters and winning.

The 2001 Republican campaign victories proved that voter turnout is becoming the key to winning close elections around the country. The California presidential race could be close. President Bush needs a disciplined California operation to take the Golden State. Since the battle for party chair is crossing ideological lines, and pairing moderates with social conservatives, it appears that ten years of ideological battles have taken a toll. The California Republican Party wants to win, again. That mission is shared by the White House and both candidates for party chair.


Award-winning TV producer, talk show host, and Republican leader Arthur Bruzzone has written over 150 political articles for national and regional media, and has commented on political issues for American and European television and radio networks.  His articles and columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Campaign & Elections Magazine, among other publications. He is the former Chair of the San Francisco Republican Party, and president of Bruzzone Investments, a real estate investment company in San Francisco, California..

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