SAN BERNARDINO – The 80-member California Assembly has 55 Democrats and 25 Republicans. If the assembly were a voting district, it would be 68.75 percent registered Democrats.
That supermajority means that, much of the time, legislation can pass through the chamber without any involvement from the state’s Republican assembly members. Republican-authored bills simply cannot pass without at least 15 Democrats supporting them.
So what’s a Republican legislator to do?
Despite the challenges, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, and Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga, do get legislation passed.
In the 2015-2016 session, Obernolte introduced 21 bills and three resolutions, and saw 12 bills signed into law, more than any other legislator in the Inland Empire – Republican or Democrat.
In the same session, Steinorth introduced 14 bills and two resolutions, and got five of those bills signed into law according to the California Legislative Information portal, leginfo.legislature.ca.gov. That’s more than former Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, who introduced 18 bills and three resolutions introduced and saw only two bills signed into law.
Sacramento isn’t as partisan as Californians might think, Obernolte said, particularly in an era of hyper-polarized national politics.
“I don’t think that, in the Legislature, people walk around with the idea that they’re going to label people as partisans,” he said. “I don’t think that, when they see a bill, that they look for the R or the D next to the author’s name.”
How many bills they introduced that became law isn’t the only metric, of course.
“There are 2,700 pieces of legislation introduced each year, and I think the governor signed 800 last year. Think of how much was eliminated,” Steinorth said. “They would be very surprised at how much we’ve been able to accomplish.”
There’s also the Republican influence on Democratic bills that do eventually get signed into law.
“It’s amazing to me how often we can offer a thoughtful suggestion on how to improve a bill, and the author will incorporate it,” Obernolte said.
The two operate in very different districts. As of Feb. 10, 36.97 percent of voters in Obernolte’s 33rd Assembly District are registered Republicans and 34.07 percent are registered Democrats, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office.
On the other hand, Steinorth, who was re-elected in 2016 – as was Obernolte – operates in what is now a Democratic district, with 40.31 percent of voters registered as Democrats and 33.75 percent Republicans.
Obernolte’s predecessor, Tim Donnelly, who opted to run for governor in 2014, specialized in “red meat” legislation that appealed to his conservative base in the High Desert, but which did poorly in Democratically controlled Sacramento. During his last term in office, in 2013-14, Donnelly introduced 39 bills, a constitutional amendment, two resolutions, two joint resolutions, according to leginfo.legislature.ca.gov. Of those, six of them were signed into law and both resolutions were approved.
“I have one of the most conservative voting records in the Legislature,” Obernolte said, “but it’s all about your approach. . You don’t call the other side idiots, you don’t stand up and say what an awful bill this is. You use a thoughtful approach that focuses on the merits or demerits of the bill, that focus hard data and your constituents and what the impact the bill will have on them.”
But that also means that Obernolte, who was recently appointed the vice-chair of the GOP Caucus in the Assembly, sometimes ends up voting against his own party.
“Sometimes our caucus will attach a ‘no’ recommendation on a bill, and I’ll read the bill and I’ll think it’s a reasonable one,” he said. “I’ll vote for it if it’s good for my constituents and the people of California. Everyone notices when you do that, and over time, you acquire a reputation as someone who’s reasonable to work with, and that makes it easier when you have bills.”
Obernolte doesn’t worry about whether that opens him up to a future primary challenge as RINO, or Republican In Name Only.
“I’m going to make the best decision that I can for the people that I represent on bills,” he said. “Re-election, I think, if I do my job, takes care of itself.”
Steinorth, who has to worry about getting attacked from both the political right and left come re-election time, said that focusing on his constituents is the only way to survive.
“You’d be surprised at how many people put the partisan part away and say, ‘Do you care about your community?’” Steinorth said. “My district is not as concerned about the ball score, how many bills are signed or passed, (it’s) ‘Have you cared about us?’”
Steinorth was one of five Republican legislators serving in Democratic-leaning districts specifically targeted by Democrats in the 2016 election, he said. Of those, he was the only one who survived.
“There’s an actual incentive for my opponents to try and limit my success,” he said. “I try to be a consensus-builder. I went after legislation that was common sense, made sense to everyone.”
Last year, the Assembly unanimously passed Steinorth’s Assembly Bill 797, which protects citizens from criminal and civil penalties if they free an animal inside a vehicle from the threat of immediate danger, as long as they then turn the animal over to law enforcement, animal control or other emergency personnel responding to the incident.
“How could someone go back home and make the justification of not voting in favor of that legislation?” Steinorth said.
But many Republicans in the Legislature get more passed than the figures show – at least, their ideas do.
“One of the biggest problems that I’ve had is, when I come up with good ideas for legislation, is making sure I can hold onto it,” Steinorth said. “All of the sudden, you find out how many people like that idea and want to make it theirs.”
Other legislators introduce bills with similar or identical ideas, and the original Republican bills then stall out and never make it to the floor for a vote. Steinorth wants to see California’s Earned Income Tax Credit get expanded to cover those in the “sharing economy,” like those who drive for Uber or Lyft. That may happen, but the legislation may not have his name on by the time it comes up for a vote.
Still, the most important things are ones that nearly all of the members of the Assembly can agree on: “We’re all up there for the same reasons,” Obernolte said. “I’ve been astonished that, even though I frequently disagree with my colleagues in Sacramento, I like almost all of them. And 95 percent of us are there for exactly the same reasons. We’re genuinely concerned about our constituents and the future of California, and we want to see our state progress.
“We just disagree – vehemently at times – about how to get from here to here.”