Tim Donnelly gives voice to conservative anxieties in a liberal state

03/29/2014 11:00 PM

04/28/2014 10:21 AM

Tim Donnelly sat in his RV, smoldering.

The Republican candidate for governor had just addressed a group of officials at the California Republican Party’s convention outside San Francisco this month. But reporters were excluded from the room, and Donnelly was convinced it was to deprive him of publicity.

He called his wife.

Charles Munger Jr., a prominent Republican donor, “was up there in the front row just staring at me, just eyeballing me,” Donnelly told her. “The establishment was preparing for us. They had all their little ducks lined up, and they are going to play games all weekend.”

Donnelly said he was “furious,” but he is used to it. Confrontation has always been part of his brand.

Since forming a chapter of the anti-illegal-immigration Minuteman Project in 2005 and winning election to the Assembly five years later, Donnelly has given voice to a strain of conservatism marginalized in a liberal state. His unlikely candidacy for governor is a test of the durability of that ideology and its standard bearer on California’s broadest stage.

At campaign stops in recent weeks, Donnelly has courted tea party activists and rural voters enamored of a candidate who believes that the government wants to take his guns and that the “cause of liberty” is at stake in this election. His supporters dread the effects of gun control, benefits for undocumented immigrants and protections for transgender students, and Donnelly – more effectively than most politicians – taps into their anxiety.

In 2011, he rallied at the Capitol with Russell Pearce, the primary sponsor of a nationally watched anti-illegal-immigration law in Arizona, and he orchestrated a referendum campaign, ultimately unsuccessful, to overturn a California law permitting undocumented immigrants to qualify for state-funded college aid. Last year, in what he now calls a “mistake ... going after people without a plan,” Donnelly participated in a highly publicized but ineffectual effort to recall a handful of lawmakers who supported firearms restrictions.

Calling government “the greatest threat to the very rights it was formed to protect,” Donnelly tells his audiences: “I want my freedom back.”

Neither Donnelly nor this year’s other main Republican candidate for governor, Neel Kashkari, is likely to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown, a popular Democrat seeking an unprecedented fourth term. But whoever finishes second in the primary election in June will advance to a runoff against him in November, and Donnelly, whose candidacy was once considered little more than a ruse, is squarely in the running.

Earlier this month, he won the endorsement of the conservative California Republican Assembly, and state party convention-goers who applauded Kashkari erupted for Donnelly in cheers.

“Tim! Tim! Tim!” they shouted.

More than two months before the June election, Donnelly’s ability to run a lasting race is uncertain. Severely underfunded and with little name recognition outside his district, his paid media consists almost exclusively of Web videos, and news coverage of his campaign is dominated by personal controversy, some of it fanned by Donnelly for the publicity it affords him.

Most notable are questions about Donnelly’s gun use, after he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors related to the discovery of a loaded firearm in his carry-on at Ontario International Airport in 2012. Donnelly, who said he forgot he had the gun, believes the incident can only solidify support of Second Amendment advocates.

“If you’re a single-issue voter on the gun issue,” he told a gun store owner in Stockton, “you have now had my message communicated to you very effectively.”

Road to the Golden State

Donnelly, 47, was born in Atlanta and raised in Berkley, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. He was the third-oldest of 14 brothers and sisters in a family that relied on food stamps for about six months and, Donnelly said, his high-school-age wages to buy milk. He told the Daily Press of Victorville in 2010 that he “learned economics at the dinner table – supply and demand.” And he has joked in campaign appearances about siblings fighting over his room when he left home.

A self-described “nerd” in high school, Donnelly said in an interview he “had a kid assault me over and over and over again” his freshman year. One day, Donnelly said, his father told him to break the boy’s nose, and Donnelly took his advice.

“I picked him up with one arm and I threw him up against the locker, and I said, ‘I’m ready to fight today,’” Donnelly said. “And he crumpled, and I never had another problem with him.’”

But social life still proved difficult. The teenage Donnelly bought Jordache jeans with money he earned himself.

“Well, I had people calling me ... names because I had good style,” he said. “And I had an altercation in the hallway with a kid, and I thought, ‘You know what? There’s got to be something better.’ ”

Donnelly enrolled at a private Christian school and worked several jobs, including in a kiln room at a pottery shop and as a janitor at the school, to pay his tuition. He said his parents kicked him out of the house a month before his high school graduation. They reconciled, and Donnelly said he cannot recall exactly what precipitated the original argument.

Donnelly’s mother died in 2000. His father, who lives in South Carolina, did not return telephone calls for comment.

Following graduation, Donnelly attended University of Michigan for a year. Last week, he acknowledged that he was involved in a criminal case there after The Sacramento Bee questioned him about the incident.

“I got drunk with my buddy, and we left his Sony Walkman in the hallway, and somebody took it,” Donnelly told the “John and Ken” talk radio show. “So we started looking for somebody who might have it, and we wound up breaking into somebody else’s room and stealing a stereo from them.”

Donnelly said he and his friend called the police themselves when they “sobered up.” He said the case was expunged but that “the consequences were severe enough for me that I basically quit drinking not long after that.”

Donnelly left Michigan, saying he yearned to escape the Midwest winters and to see the beaches of Southern California.

“You know, I should have been nervous, I should have been worried,” Donnelly told an audience in Danville on Tuesday. “But I knew where I was going. I was going to the land of opportunity. I was going to California. The whole way there I was playing Beach Boys’ music.”

Donnelly enrolled at University of California, Irvine, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1989. He worked various jobs, including as a courier, and for his father’s out-of-state company supplying parts to plastics manufacturers. He was living on a boat in San Pedro when his now-wife, Rowena, said she “threw down the gauntlet,” demanding Donnelly get a “real job” and a house. Donnelly said he could afford to live either in Compton or San Bernardino County. The family settled in Twin Peaks, a tiny mountain community outside Lake Arrowhead, and Donnelly opened a manufacturing supply business he ran from his home.

Effective communicator

The Republican Party in California was relatively robust when Donnelly arrived in 1985. A Republican, George Deukmejian, occupied the governor’s office, and a former Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, was in the White House. But the following two decades would bring a dramatic shift in the state’s demographics. The GOP began to grow older and more conservative, while the state became more liberal and ethnically diverse.

Donnelly’s involvement in the Minuteman Project, in which citizens – some of them, including Donnelly, armed – monitored illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, is now nearly a decade old. But the trips to the border allowed him to test himself as a spokesman for conservative causes. Donnelly gravitated to television cameras, and in an official biography on his Assembly Web page he said he “leveraged the media to bring national attention” to illegal immigration.

The experience energized Donnelly. Susie Chalfant, owner of the Mountain High Market down the road from Donnelly’s home, said Donnelly brought her a tape of one of his interviews at the border. She said she thought he gave it to her because he was proud.

Other people noticed Donnelly was an effective communicator, too.

“I took a news crew out there from the CBS affiliate here in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and they interviewed him, and the ... reporter said to me afterward that Tim Donnelly is definitely somebody who should run for office,” said Greg Sheehan, a hotelier who worked with Donnelly at the border.

Five years later, Donnelly found his chance, after Republican Assemblyman Anthony Adams of Hesperia voted to temporarily increase taxes as part of a 2009 budget deal. The tax accord alienated conservatives, and although Adams survived a recall effort, he did not seek a third term.

Donnelly, backed by tea party activists, paired anger about illegal immigration with outrage over taxes to beat a field of more established Republicans. He posted signs bearing the slogan he still uses: “Patriot Not Politician,” and from the market to the hair salon, he became a fixture in his town.

“His moral character kind of expresses our mountain,” said Carol Hussmann, owner of La Bella Donna Hair Designs.

Adams said Donnelly is “more comfortable living in a world where simple answers solve complex problems.”

However, he said, “I think that in fairness, he never – I don’t recall him campaigning on the promise of achieving anything. I believe he campaigned on the promise of fighting back against the excess, what he believes to be the excess of government. I think he’s been very honest in his approach.”

Donnelly fulfilled a campaign promise on his first day in office in 2010, introducing legislation for Arizona-style restrictions on illegal immigration. The bill had no chance of success in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, and it died in committee.

Most of Donnelly’s other legislative proposals have failed, too. Since taking office, he has introduced about 80 pieces of legislation, six of which have passed the Legislature. He frequently casts dissenting votes on bills supported by other Republicans, and while Kashkari has lobbied members of the GOP caucus in recent weeks, Donnelly has kept his distance.

Donnelly’s seatmate in the Assembly, Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, recently endorsed Kashkari, while the Assembly Republican leader, Connie Conway of Tulare, described Donnelly as being “sort of in the caucus.”

She said, “He’s busy these days.”

Running religiously

Despite the support of conservative activists, many members of the GOP’s professional and donor classes fear Donnelly, the Legislature’s most outspoken gun rights and anti-illegal-immigration advocate, could damage the party’s efforts to appeal to Latinos, independents and social moderates.

This resistance – including the opening of an independent expenditure committee for Kashkari by Brent Lowder, a former executive director of the state party – is one Donnelly has not previously had to overcome. His Assembly district, which runs to the Nevada and Arizona borders, is the safest of conservative enclaves, and representing local values – not moderation or compromise – is rewarded.

“I think he’s based the right way,” said Rick Willsie, the head deacon at the church Donnelly attends on a wooded lot in town. “He has a God mentality.”

Religion is a persistent part of Donnelly’s public persona. On the night he first won election to the Assembly, Donnelly told the Mountain News, his local newspaper, “The bottom line is the glory is the Lord’s, the battle is the Lord’s and the battle lies ahead.”

He prays before speeches, and he has said the Republican Party needs to “reconnect with the church.”

Donnelly’s mother was deeply religious, and after Donnelly’s brother Paul E. Donnelly hanged himself in a Laurens County, S.C., jail in 2000, Donnelly spent time during the next eight years conducting a Bible study and life-skills class at a facility for inmates near his home.

In talking about his brother’s death, Donnelly suggested he, too, has had suicidal thoughts, but did not elaborate.

Another brother, Barnabus, whom Donnelly visited in Texas earlier this year, said he had “a really interesting family.” While Donnelly founded a Minuteman chapter, Barnabus married a woman he said was brought to the United States when she was 5 or 6 years old, but who now has a green card.

Barnabus Donnelly said he enjoyed a dinner with his brother when he visited, and he declined to comment further. Tim Donnelly said his brother is helping with his campaign.

Donnelly has focused far less on immigration in his current race.

“I think we have to stop pandering, thinking that there’s a different message because of someone’s skin color, because the colors of freedom are red, white and blue,” Donnelly told a meeting of the California Republican National Hispanic Assembly. “What I believe people want is they want to live free, and they want to get the government out of their way, so that we can all enjoy the bounties of liberty.”

He has proposed a moratorium on new business regulations and has said he will work to lower taxes. Expressing a concern popular among conservatives that California is losing jobs to other states, Donnelly said “the only immigration problem I want to have is a tsunami of U-Hauls on the 10 freeway coming back here from Texas.”

Donnelly had already closed his business, Donnelly Plastic Equipment Inc., when the state filed a $2,829 tax lien against it last year. San Bernardino County listed the lien as being released this month.

In an email, Donnelly said “California chased many of my customers out of this state ...When I tried to work with the Board of Equalization, they dropped the ball over, and over, and over again.”

In another financial matter, Donnelly said he “lost a lot of money” on an investment property in South Carolina that was foreclosed on in 2012.

Donnelly has struggled to raise money since announcing his candidacy last year, and with just more than two months until the primary election he is operating nearly on fumes. In his most recent campaign statement, on Monday, Donnelly reported cash on hand of less than $11,000, a fraction of his opponents’ holdings and less than many candidates for city councils would find sufficient. Kashkari has more than $900,000, while Brown has nearly $20 million.

Still, Donnelly is holding his own in public opinion. Though trailing Brown by an enormous margin, Donnelly, with 10 percent support among likely voters, leads his closest Republican competitors by 8 percentage points, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released last week.

For Donnelly, the stakes are high. Publicity from his campaign could better position him for a potential run for Congress. But Donnelly abandoned his re-election bid for Assembly to run for governor, and if he loses he will be out of a job.

Donnelly said he is running to win. It is a quixotic effort, but campaigning appears to give him a lift.

“I like to be out here with the people,” he told a room full of conservative activists at the GOP convention, “because that’s where the power is.”

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