Politics 2005: Week of January 17

Saul Shines

To cynics among Michigan Republicans and opponents of Saul Anuzis, his accession to the state party chairmanship in the Water Wonderland was not a great triumph for the party. Twice defeated in bids to represent different districts in the Michigan house, the high-tech businessman was the longtime top aide to Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, the losing GOP nominee for governor in ’02. Along with brother Andy, Anuzis was immortalized as a political operative in Jack Germond’s book Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? about the 1988 presidential campaign. But Jack Kemp, the candidate whose effort in Michigan was quarterbacked by the Anuzis brothers, petered out early.

So what has Saul Anuzis won? By most accounts, the 45-year-old Lansing man last week all but wrapped up the state party chairmanship. With less than a month to go before the state convention in Grand Rapids February 5, the conservative Anuzis had nailed down the support of all of the 15 U.S. House district chairmen and a handsome majority of the 83 GOP county chairmen. Two weeks ago, outgoing State Chairman Betsy DeVos stunned pundits and pols with a strong endorsement of Anuzis.

In part, Anuzis-watchers credit his success so far to his long-time activist credentials. Along with a vigorous regimen of visiting potential backers, Anuzis was assisted by the voluminous (and, in Michigan, legendary) Christmas card list of his mentor Posthumus.

Last week, following private meetings, Anuzis nailed down the support of his two major critics within the state party–Chuck Yob and Holly Hughes, Michigan’s Republican National Committee members. Although both have been considered fellow conservatives along with Anuzis, neither RNC member has ever been personally close to him. Yob, in fact, had helped recruit former State Rep. Rocky Raczkowski for the chairmanship race, but he suddenly withdrew for personal reasons. Yob subsequently got behind lawyer David Trott–a late entry–only to have him leave the race for similar reasons in just days.

As the Anuzis express chugged on, millionaire stockbroker Scott Schultz–a former Ingham County (Lansing) party chairman and 1988 U.S. House nominee–signaled he might be interested in running for chairman. Aware that the hour was late for a new candidate and that Schultz had not been politically active for many years, Yob and Hughes let bygones be bygones and backed Anuzis. As Yob told me last week, “It appears a certainty that Saul Anuzis will be our next state chairman.”

Widow’s Peak

The surprise death of Rep. (1978-2005) Robert Matsui (D.-Calif.) two weeks ago means that the first special U.S. House election of the year will soon be held. Under Golden State election law, nominees for each major party will be chosen in a special primary March 8. If no one gets 50% of the vote, the top finisher in each party will meet in a special May 13.

Within days of the 63-year-old Matsui’s death, newspapers began running long lists of local and legislative office-holders considered probable candidates for the now-open 5th District seat (Sacramento). Most of the possible candidates were, like Matsui (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 6%), liberal Democrats. Among those names prominently mentioned were state legislators Darrell Steinberg and Deborah Ortiz, both of whom are “termed out” this year.

But all of that appears to be increasingly irrelevant, as sources in Washington and Sacramento increasingly say that the congressman’s widow, Doris Matsui, will make the race. A former Clinton Administration official, Mrs. Matsui is now a lobbyist with the high-powered Collier-Shannon firm. Given the overwhelming history of congressional widows winning special elections for their husbands’ former seats (only two have been defeated in the last quarter century), it is likely that the other Democratic possibilities will defer to her and she will be an overwhelming favorite in a district that gave 71% of its votes to Al Gore in 2000.

Undaunted, 44-year-old Republican Alex-St. James told me last week he will probably run for the seat regardless of what Mrs. Matsui does. A former official of the administrations of Republican Governors George Deukmejian (1982-90) and Pete Wilson (1990-94), St. James was later political affairs director for the local NAACP. Most recently, he has headed up the fledgling African-American Leadership Council, which works to encourage fellow conservative blacks to seek office. The Democratic leanings and history of the district notwithstanding, St. James said, “I have had strong encouragement from such leading conservatives as [Republican Representatives] Mike Pence [Ind.] and Ernest Istook [Okla.].”

Short Takes

Nehring Home: With California Republicans set to meet in convention next month to elect new statewide officers, the major race on political screens is that for state vice chairman. Incumbent Mario Rodriguez, an Orange County businessman, won an upset victory at the ’03 state convention over a more conservative hopeful. Since then, his closeness to moderate first friend Gerald Parsky and animosity toward him from leading conservatives have kept Rodriguez from broadening his base of support among the party activists. More than one of the right-leaning stalwarts have predicted to me that, when the chairmanship comes open in ’07, Rodriguez will almost certainly be challenged in spite of his holding the traditional “steppingstone” to the top party office.

Recently, Rodriguez ended such speculation by announcing he would not seek re-election. Following his announcement, San Diego County Chairman Ron Nehring declared for vice chairman. Nehring, who gets high marks as a fund-raiser and organizer, also has gilt-edged conservative credentials, having been an official of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.

Current state party Chairman Duf Sundheim, a close ally of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is expected to be re-elected without opposition.

New Lawman in the West: With Democrat Ken Salazar taking the oath as Colorado’s new U.S. senator two weeks ago, Republican Gov. Bill Owens finally answered the “$64,000 question” among his fellow Centennial State GOPers by deciding whom to name to succeed Salazar as state attorney general. Owens’ choice for top lawman in Colorado is U.S. Attorney John W. Suthers, a veteran of the Owens Administration, having served as executive director of the state Department of Corrections. Suthers is considered a strong conservative in the Owens mold. With Suthers’s, appointment by the governor, Republicans now hold every statewide office.

Whitman Still Wins ‘Em in Trenton: Four years after she resigned the governorship of New Jersey to become head of President Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency and nearly two years after she left the EPA, former Gov. (1993-2001) Christine Todd Whitman still packs political wallop among Garden State GOPers. With State Republican Chairman Joseph Kyrillos stepping down, the GOP state committee recently met in Trenton and elected one of Whitman’s closest associates, a fellow liberal Republican, to the party helm. Tom Wilson, manager of Whitman’s 1997 re-election and former state commissioner of public affairs, won the chairmanship over Dick Kampi of Morris County, also a veteran of the Whitman Administration but considered far more conservative and close to ’01 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bret Schundler.