Sundheim Elected California GOP Chairman

Sacramento, Calif.-"When we’re not arguing about abortion, we don’t know what to do."

Coming from John Stoos, top aide to conservative State Sen. Tom McClintock, this was perhaps the most poignant post-mortem on the latest California Republican Party convention. With more than 1,400 delegates jamming the Sacramento Hyatt last week, state Republicans had their third straight battle royal over the state party chairmanship. But in marked contrast to the elections of 1999 and 2001, when outspoken conservatives John McGraw and Shawn Steel defeated moderate-to-liberal challengers who attacked the conservatives for their pro-life stands, the contest between State Vice Chairman Bill Back and Palo Alto lawyer Duf Sundheim was more about communications skills and fund-raising prowess. Both candidates were conservative and pro-life and promised not to tamper with the strong antiabortion plank in the party platform. Both also endorsed the proposed recall of embattled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Sundheim defeated Back by a vote of 666 to 489. He inherits a party in debt-with $500,000 cash on hand, and $535,000 in bills-and a party that last November, for the first time since 1882, filed to elect a single Republican to statewide office.

The recent decline of the California GOP has coincided with intra-party warfare over issues and over whether the party’s elected officers should relinquish power as mandated by controversial party rule changes crafted by Los Angeles investment banker Gerald Parsky, President Bush’s closest political friend in California.

Back Calls for Unity

Noting that Back was the first elected party official to endorse the so-called Parsky plan, opponents of the plan, including Steel, McGraw and former State Party Treasurer Mike Der Manuoel, supported Sundheim for chairman. Other prominent conservatives, including, former state senator and California Republican Assembly President Dick Mountjoy and former State Vice Chairman Celeste Grieg, stood with Back, pointing out that Sundheim had backed the Parsky plan as a member of the state GOP committee that crafted new rules. Obviously convinced that neither candidate would try to upend the new rules, Parsky insisted to me two days before the balloting that he had no horse in the race, and that "both candidates bring something good to the state party."

Their agreement on most issues notwithstanding, Back and Sundheim waged campaigns against each other that sometimes turned nasty. Back was hurt when opponents unearthed a 1999 newsletter he published carrying an article by Bill Lind of the Free Congress Foundation discussing what might have happened if the South had won the Civil War. (See Human Events, January 27, page 7.) Although Back did not initially recall the article and noted that his newsletter printed various viewpoints to stimulate discussion, critics led by state GOP Secretary Shannon Reeves, who is black, suggested that reprinting the Lind essay was "insensitive." Reeves endorsed Sundheim.

Sundheim was rocked by the revelation he had contributed $1,000 to Democrat Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign. He said by way of explanation that Bradley was a friend of his and that he was merely doing him a favor, that this was the only time he had contributed to a Democrat. He added that because the contribution was made during the Democratic primary he was really just making things harder for Al Gore and was not contributing against a Republican.

In defeat, Back endorsed Sundheim and implored Republican activists to "unify."