Mike Dunbar: Olsen gives state GOP a new look

07/12/2014 12:00 AM

07/11/2014 8:18 PM

If you’re trying to give the Republican Party a makeover, using Kristin Olsen as your model is a good choice.

Republicans statewide have largely become marginalized. Voter frustration over budgetary gridlock, a party that seems to be growing older and whiter before our eyes with candidates rooted in the past have left the party in a shambles. Voters have consistently voted for measures – top-two primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, simple majority passage of budgets – that made it clear they were tired of seeing their state standing still. And they appeared to blame the GOP.

Moderates from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte have pushed the party to change. They’ve even confronted the faithful, challenging them to move forward. Standing on political principle, and in the way of change, is out. Standing for solutions is in.

And that’s what makes Olsen a good fit for what she expects to be her new job in November, leader of the Assembly’s Republican caucus.

“Historically, many people haven’t necessarily viewed our party as being solution-oriented,” said Olsen. “I’ve read countless stories about us being the ‘Party of No.’ But on the contrary, we do have solutions, we do have winning ideas and winning messages that can unite all Californians.”

First, of course, she’ll have to retain her 12th District seat against Democrat Harinder Grewal of Keyes. We’re not making any predictions about that race, and this is not an endorsement of either candidate. But it is clearly a vote of confidence from her party peers that Olsen has already been designated to replace termed-out Connie Conway of Tulare.

While Olsen wants to build on Conway’s foundations, she is already talking about “rebranding” the party, obviously recognizing that the old brand isn’t selling.

The first step to overcoming any problem is recognizing that there is a problem. Clearly, Olsen gets that. But when you lead any group, you’ve got to get others onboard. That’s the hard part.

“Certainly there is always a spectrum of ideas and personalities within any caucus,” said Olsen. “My goal is to unify our caucus by respecting the values and strengths of each member and empowering each member according to those strengths.”

But leading a minority party is not for the faint of heart. Don’t you sometimes have to twist a few arms?

Olsen suggests that she wants to take a different approach.

“My goal is to focus on the policies and goals that unite us” such as transparency and government efficiency, she said. “I’m confident I can lead a caucus that is focused on offering solutions.”

There are usually lots of good ideas for addressing any problem. But for a solution to be put into action, it has to have a majority of votes. And that means offering solutions Democrats can also embrace, if not co-opt.

Working across the aisle has been one of Olsen’s strengths. She has frequently worked with Democrats such as Adam Gray, Kathleen Galgiani and others to get things done.

In discussing the state’s most pressing crisis, figuring out how to deal with drought and groundwater issues, she made this point: “It’s going to require very courageous leaders.”

It’s a good point, and one that is true for all issues. To become relevant again, the Republican Party must have the courage to change. We think Olsen can help with that.

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