Tulare Republican Connie Conway: 'Lots to do' in last year in Assembly

The Fresno BeeJanuary 12, 2014 

Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, says there's lots she wants to accomplish in her final year.

MANNY CRISOSTOMO — The Sacramento Bee

For a lame duck entering her final year in the state Assembly, Tulare Republican Connie Conway has a playbook chock full of action items.

She remains the Assembly's Republican leader, and she has an ambitious plan to hold the rival majority Democrats at bay while pushing GOP initiatives.

In addition, she has the 2014 election to oversee that she hopes might change her party's political fortunes. The GOP numbers have suffered of late.

"There's still lots to do, and I think it will be an interesting year," Conway said.

Interesting, yes. Probably not easy.

As the GOP leader, Conway is her party's point person in the Assembly. She gets credit for the good things that happen for Assembly Republicans, and blame for the bad. And during her tenure, there hasn't been much good.

Still, Conway, 63, has endured, a testament to her political savvy in state politics. She has fended off coup attempts and revolts from within her own caucus, and now is the longest-serving Assembly Republican leader in the Legislature's term-limits era — three years, one month and counting.

And while she's doing all this, she also is thinking about a state Senate run four years distant. And, by the way, she just got engaged, so there will be wedding planning at some point after she leaves office at the end of November.

Entering her final year, both as a member and as the Assembly's GOP leader, Conway's challenge is to keep her party relevant in a chamber where Republicans represent fewer than two-thirds of the members, and to keep it from falling even further into the depths of political irrelevancy.

With 2014 not even two weeks old, Conway already has been knocked back.

Last week, a committee killed her Assembly Bill 907, which would have allowed workers to put in more than an eight-hour day without overtime in exchange for additional time off.

Conway got inspiration for the legislation while touring the Kraft manufacturing plant south of Tulare. Workers there, she said, told her they wanted their four day, 10 hours per day work schedule back.

After the party line vote, Conway said she wasn't surprised at the outcome. Unions, she said, killed the bill.

"They are frustrating me, but I don't want to let them think they are winning," Conway said.

Unfortunately for Conway, political experts said, the fate of AB907 is quite likely a sneak peek at how the rest of this year's legislative session will play out. Majority Democrats don't have to pay any attention to Republicans, and so they won't.

As she did last year, Conway plans to buddy up to Gov. Jerry Brown as much as possible, looking for any common ground she can find.

She called his budget "a pretty fiscally conservative document." Not perfect, but not bad. She likes Brown's proposed rainy-day fund, though she believes it should be more than 1% of the budget, and she can even live with some of his proposed spending, including restoring Medi-Cal benefits for adult dental services.

"He's acknowledged some of this might be one-time revenue, so we can't do what we did in the past," Conway said. "The governor is my friend when he says stuff like that."

She also would like Brown to "get more serious about the drought." A drought declaration is needed, she said, and probably some contingency money in the budget for drought-related costs, such as wildfires.

The real battle, Conway said, is keeping the budget as fiscally conservative as possible. If the Legislature's Democrats had their way, she said, that wouldn't be the case. There already are pushes to restore cuts, such as those made to social services over the years as the state struggled during the Great Recession.

"We can't restore everything," she said.

Conway predicted that Brown will "have more fights with his own party over the budget than he will with Republicans. Jerry Brown is more moderate than they are, which is scary."

Another area where Conway hopes to find some common ground is reforming the 40-plus-year-old California Environmental Quality Act.

The environmental protection law has been credited with doing such things as saving habitat and reducing air pollution, but also has been slammed by critics who said it has been abused by activists and others to stop or delay worthwhile projects.

Brown once said he had "never seen a CEQA exemption I don't like." Conway said she voted "for them all" as well, even as she said changes are needed.

"At some point you can't give exemptions for a sports arena," she said, referring to a bill easing CEQA requirements to speed construction on a proposed new downtown Sacramento complex for the Kings basketball team.

As Conway and her caucus — which holds just 25 of the chamber's 80 seats — works to do as much as it can with its limited influence, there also are elections looming.

And, as with the work of the Legislature itself, the election year looks equally challenging.

For starters, two sitting Republican Assembly members won't seek re-election.

Assembly Member Jeff Gorell of Camarillo is leaving to run for Congress, and Assembly Member Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga will run for a state Senate seat.

Both could have sought re-election, but now the seats are open — and considered highly competitive.

As Conway and her fellow Republicans play defense on those seats, they will work to play offense and win back an Antelope Valley seat they narrowly — and unexpectedly — lost to conservative Democrat Steve Fox, as well as an equally surprising loss in the 65th District, where Fullerton Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva took out incumbent Chris Norby.

If the Republicans can hold the seats of the two surprising departures and avenge the two surprising losses, it could climb — albeit slightly — out of the deep political hole.

"I see opportunity everywhere," Conway says.

But if her party loses big, it could end up equaling a historic low of 23 members.

They face this challenge with Brown a strong favorite to win another term as governor, meaning there likely will be no Republican power at the top of the ticket to drive turnout for candidates in the Assembly and state Senate.

How will it turn out?

"It depends on the temper of the times," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections.

It also could end Conway's tenure on a sour note and leave a bitter legacy in her wake.

When her second term started in 2010, Conway sought the Assembly Republican leader position. She was defeated by fellow Assembly Republican Martin Garrick, and was then named the caucus chair — the second-highest ranking member of her caucus.

By that October, however, Garrick had dumped Conway as caucus chair amid rumors she was trying to oust him. The following month, she was elected as the Assembly's minority leader.

She has held it ever since — even after the 2012 election, when the Democrats captured an unexpected two-thirds majority. In the legislative session before that election, Republicans held 28 seats. Member Nathan Fletcher then left the GOP to become an independent, which was followed by the two unexpected losses.

Conway said she hopes to remain as the Assembly's Republican leader, possibly until the very end on Nov. 30, but at least until the budget is passed at the end of June.

She and Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, came into their respective leadership positions together, and they could very well go out together.

Still, Conway said that, title or not, she will remain involved through the November general election, which she hopes will give the Republicans a little boost as she ends her Assembly tenure.

After that, she will be back home in Tulare. At some point after that, she will get married to Tulare City Council Member Craig Vejvoda. He popped the question just before Thanksgiving.

Vejvoda, a 56-year-old Republican, represents District 5 on the Tulare council, which covers several neighborhoods east of Highway 99. Outside of his elected office, Vejvoda has two children and is a financial adviser with The Principal Financial Group.

Conway eventually plans to seek the 16th state Senate District seat when Bakersfield's Jean Fuller, the current occupant, is termed out in 2018.

If she wins, she will return to Sacramento, only in the opposite chamber.

But for now, it's all state Assembly.

"The winter games are just starting," she said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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