Ashton: Berryhill's opponents in primary need reality check

04/26/2010 4:59 AM

04/26/2010 1:53 PM

Republican Assemblyman Tom Berryhill's victories in Sacramento came with plenty of work cajoling Democrats to support his bills.

One gave the state a tough law to fight metal theft, which at the time was scourging Stanislaus County businesses, schools and local governments that couldn't hold onto air conditioners bolted into buildings.

Another reformed community college nursing programs, enabling them to admit the most qualified applicants instead of using a lottery.

But that kind of across-the-aisle work isn't popular this year, with a historic recession pushing voters to extremes.

His four Republican opponents in a primary race for Republican Dave Cogdill's state Senate seat are running "No Retreat, No Surrender" campaigns pledging to tackle Democrats head-on over taxes, spending and environmental regulations.

One of them, Fresno financial adviser Tom Marsella, last week drew attention to a voting score card published by the California Republican Assembly, a GOP organization. Berryhill scored 67 out of 100, which was relatively moderate on the bills the CRA tracked. Democrats typically scored zero, or in the single digits.

Berryhill "advertises and claims to be a conservative Republican on his signs, web site and on his stationary. His voting record shows a different picture," Marsella wrote in an e-mail to McClatchy reporters.

Another candidate, Oakdale businessman Bret de St. Jeor, argues that Berryhill's advantages in name recognition and political experience won't help with voters yearning for major change in Sacramento.

"Berryhill's an incumbent and he's part of the problem in Sacramento," de St. Jeor said.

These candidates all have good stories to tell. Marsella is a financial planner who wants to reform pensions. De St. Jeor built his own business from scratch and bristles at regulation that he fears drives companies out of the state. Heidi Fuller, another candidate in the race, is a sharp immigration attorney who hews to tea party spending principles.

If any of the outsiders win, however, he or she will face a daunting task in building a coalition to advance their goals. That's going to require a few Democrats to get on board with them.

"Whoever wins, the political reality sets in because they're going into a statehouse where they're in the minority, and they're going to have to moderate their views if they want to get anything done," said Stanislaus County GOP Chairman Jim DeMartini.

He attributes the scorched-earth rhetoric to primary season. You'll hear the same language coming out of the six-way race for Berryhill's Assembly seat, with one candidate pinning the "decay" of society on leftists.

That all sounds good now, but California's a Democratic state and its voter registration is heading to a darker shade of blue.

A new report from the secretary of state's office shows that 44.7 percent of California voters are Democrats, up from 42.7 percent four years ago. Republican registration is down to 30.8 percent, about 4 percentage points lower than in 2006.

Facing those numbers, Berryhill aims to bring independent voters into the Republican fold while working with Democrats on his key bills. He says he's in "lockstep" with the CRA on the big issues, and he didn't vote for the budget bill last year that cost Cogdill a party leadership post because of its temporary tax increases.

"I'll put my conservative record up against any of these guys running against me," he said.

Berryhill and his brother, Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, learned politics from their dad, former state food and agriculture director Clare Berryhill. They're wine grape growers who give off a vibe in keeping with their dad's era of bipartisan work.

Tom Berryhill's strategy for converting Democrats takes a slow pace compared to what his opponents want to accomplish.

"The only way you can do it is by building relationships, and that's both inside and outside the house," he said. "It's a constant task of educating. And the way you do that is build friendships with moderate Democrats. That's ultimately how you move the ball in our direction."

The question is whether that experience will pay off June 8 when Republicans choose their candidates.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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