Villines done in by budget deal

Clovis Republican exits leadership post.

May 7, 2009 

SACRAMENTO -- Assembly Republicans on Thursday chose San Luis Obispo's Sam Blakeslee as their new leader after Mike Villines of Clovis said he will resign from the job on June 1.

Villines, blasted by GOP activists for agreeing to tax hikes earlier this year, said he realized he could no longer represent Republicans in the lower house.

"There will always be this lingering fear -- 'will Mike do taxes again?' I won't, but I think it's important for a new start, a new fresh face," he said at a Capitol news conference.

He also cited stress on his family, alluding to the weekends and nights he spent in Sacramento negotiating.

Villines will stay in the Assembly until he terms out in 2010. He hinted that his next move could be a big one -- a possible run for statewide office. He did not say what job he would pursue.

"I have a desire to still serve. I really do," he said. "I think I have a story to tell for our party and for hard-working Californians."

Villines, a lifelong conservative, drew praise from Democrats and some moderate Republicans for his decision in February to compromise on a budget deal that includes temporary tax hikes to help close a massive shortfall. Villines "courageously transcended party politics to do what was right for the state during a true economic crisis," Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a statement.

But anti-tax activists lashed out at him on talk radio and conservative blogs, setting the stage for his earlier-than-planned exit.

"He damaged the brand name of Republicans and he made it very difficult to say that we are the party of lower taxes," said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the FlashReport, an influential conservative Web site.

Villines has defended his tax vote by saying the alternative was a Democratic plan of permanent tax hikes. But on Thursday, he said he knew his fate was sealed the minute he agreed to new taxes.

He plans to continue campaigning for several May 19 ballot measures that most of his caucus opposes. The propositions are needed to complete the budget deal, including Proposition 1A, which restricts state spending but also extends the tax hikes by one to two years. He will discuss the measures today in Fresno at a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting hosted by the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce at Pardini's on West Shaw Avenue.

The Assembly's 29 Republicans elected Blakeslee by a unanimous vote, lawmakers said. He immediately pledged to not raise taxes -- the same promise Villines made when he became leader in 2006.

"I see myself as a very principled fiscal hawk," Blakeslee said. He said voters are looking for "reforms that don't raise taxes that hurt working families."

Blakeslee terms out in 2010. He is on Villines' leadership team, so his selection appears to be a transitional move by Assembly Republicans after no other candidate secured the needed 15 votes. Budget talks are expected to be contentious again this summer as the state's tax revenues continue to miss projections.

Villines' exit means the San Joaquin Valley has gone from having both Republican leaders to none in the span of three months. Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, was dumped as Senate leader by colleagues in February as punishment for agreeing to taxes.

Leaders typically focus on statewide issues, so the ousters aren't likely to have a huge effect on the Valley. Still, Villines said that as GOP point man, he was able to secure a few perks for the region, including an expansion of a program that will allow farmers to get money when upgrading equipment.

"I do believe that many of the things we did in the budget were specifically because we were from the Valley," he said.

Villines still enjoys support from business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, which is backing the ballot measures. If he runs statewide, his biggest problem might be dealing with party activists, who hold sway in primary elections.

His tax vote is "a good talking point for a primary opponent," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

But Villines has "built up a lot of credibility with party regulars over the years. The challenge for a primary opponent is trying to argue that this one vote represents a broader ideological approach, rather than a one-time instance."

The reporter can be reached at eschultz@fresnobee.com or (916) 326-5541.

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