SACRAMENTO -- Mike Villines' political future looked bleak -- or worse -- in February 2009 after he backed a state budget deal that included new taxes.
GOP activists blasted the then-Republican Assembly leader for breaking a no-new-taxes pledge and even considered censuring him.
What a difference a year makes.
Villines, R-Clovis, has emerged as the only high-profile GOP candidate for insurance commissioner, giving him a shot at becoming just the third Fresno-area politician to ever win a statewide constitutional office.
But it might be too early to call it a comeback.
Villines still faces resentment from some anti-tax conservatives. And should he win the June primary and advance to November's general election, he will need every vote he can find to win the down-ticket race, where Democrats traditionally have the edge.
Still, his ability to essentially clear the Republican field is a feat in itself.
The only other GOP candidate who has filed paperwork to run in the primary is Brian Fitzgerald, who works at the San Francisco office of the state Department of Insurance. Fitzgerald has not reported any campaign donations, according to the Secretary of State's Office. He declined an interview.
Villines, by contrast, has raised nearly $970,000 since he launched his campaign last year, including significant donations from corporations and business groups. He has spent a lot of his money to appear on slate mailers targeting GOP voters and credits the strategy with discouraging other potential Republican candidates.
"I've raised a lot of money," Villines said. "I've used the money, I think, prudently. I've made it difficult for others to get into the race."
But some GOP activists said that Villines emerged on top simply because no one else wanted to run.
"I don't think there was any field-clearing to do. I don't think anybody else expressed any interest," said Michael Der Manouel Jr., an insurance broker and chairman of the conservative Lincoln Club of Fresno County.
Der Manouel was among those blasting Villines after he signed off on the deal for temporary tax hikes to help close a state budget gap. Activists wanted Villines to hold out for more spending cuts.
Villines "was an emerging conservative hero until he made that compromise," Der Manouel said.
In the wake of the deal, the state GOP considered censuring him and five other lawmakers who voted for the taxes. But party leaders opted for a lighter reprimand, denying the lawmakers party funding if they ran for re-election. The move won't affect Villines because he terms out of the Assembly at the end of the year.
Jon Fleischman, who pushed for the punishment, said Villines should publicly apologize for the tax deal. "That's an important part of the healing process as he seeks to unify Republicans behind his candidacy," said Fleischman, who runs the conservative Flash Report Web site.
He also criticized Villines for recently accepting a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his role in negotiating the budget.
"If it were me, I would have politely declined," Fleischman said.
The award announcement praised Villines and other legislative leaders for "political courage each demonstrated in standing up to the extraordinary constituent and party pressure" during negotiations on the budget, which also enacted heavy cuts to social services and schools.
Villines, who stepped down as leader last summer, continues to defend the budget deal as the only way to avoid more sizable and permanent tax hikes pushed by Democrats who control the Legislature.
"It was a very tough decision that not everyone is going to agree with," he said. But temporary taxes are better than taxes that "would go on forever."
Although tensions remain, several GOP activists said they would support Villines in the general election because he still has a better record on taxes than Democratic candidates.
"If he's the Republican candidate, which is likely, I'll be working hard to elect him," Fleischman said.
In the end, Villines' tax vote actually could help him with more moderate and Democratic voters who might be impressed with his willingness to compromise, said San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston.
"He can kind of use that as almost a bipartisan appeal," he said. "At a time when voters are very disenchanted, an appeal like that can go far."
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