“It’s funny where life takes you,” responded Assembly Member Connie Conway when asked how she got involved in politics. “I didn’t study political science and I did not have any political background. But local government, that’s what is so great about it. It’s community service.”
Conway’s political career really started with her father. Many people in Tulare know John Conway’s story, but it is worth repeating here. After hearing that Don Hilman was not seeking reelection, John Conway decided to run for a seat on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. He had just retired from a long career with the phone company and wanted to serve his community. There were five other candidates, including a well-known incumbent. He won, edging out the incumbent by only a few hundred votes. He was a popular supervisor and served two terms. Unfortunately, he died midway through his third term when only 65 years old.
Ten years later, Connie Conway contemplated running for a seat on the Tulare County Board Supervisors. Like her father, she would run against a popular incumbent.
“I didn’t file until the last minute but people said, ‘You have to do this, Connie,’” she said.
Also, like her father, she would be up against five contenders. In the final tally, she narrowly beat out the incumbent by the same margin her father had won his first term 20 years earlier.
Conway served on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors for eight years before being elected to the California Assembly in 2008. She is serving her third term, representing the 26th Assembly District, which includes Tulare, Kern and Inyo counties. Her eight years as a supervisor refined her political mores, and she often calls on her Tulare roots when negotiating bills or voting on legislation in the assembly.
Conway’s official title is minority floor leader, but in Sacramento they call her the Republican Assembly Leader. It’s a title she’s had since 2010, when Democrats held a simple majority and had to work with Republicans to get their bills passed. Democrats currently hold every statewide office and a super-majority in both houses. Simply put, the Republicans have become redundant. But Conway’s ability to work across the aisle has had a mitigating effect. “Now we don’t have the ability to block, which makes my job a lot harder,” she said.
According to Conway, Proposition 25 was the biggest game-changer in California politics. This allowed the state legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote. “Everyone used to have more relevance,” she said. “Now to pass a budget it only takes 41 votes out of 80.”
Of course, the only part of Proposition 25 that the electorate remembers is “don’t pay the bums” when the legislature doesn’t pass a budget on time. “They didn’t see the fine print about how their vote would affect California’s budget,” said Conway.
She feels the same way about Governor Jerry Brown’s recently passed Proposition 30. “By the vote of the people, they want this money to go to the schools. I want them (the government) to do what they said they would do, and as far as we can see, they are not.”
Although she did not endorse Proposition 30, she has been supportive of the governor’s budget. Brown was quoted as saying, “Anybody who thinks there is spare change around here has not read the budget.” Conway reacted, “Who would have ever thought that Jerry Brown would be one of the most conservative Democrats in the assembly? At times, he seems to be channeling his inner Republican and I am supporting his fiscal conservatism.”
Conway agrees with the governor’s budget assessment. “I am a fiscally conservative person,” she explained. “Maybe I am too close to the subject to be less objective. I know what the overall debt is. I know what we are handing off to our children. They say we have a surplus, right? It’s not counting all that we owe. It’s not counting the $11 billion we owe the federal government. There is no extra money. There is none. The projected debt is so overwhelming I stagger to think about it. The ‘surplus’ does not take into account this debt. I believe that Californians would be more conservative if they knew.”
Concerning Visalia’s toying with the idea of putting a sales tax increase on the November ballot, Conway was noncommittal. “I’m neither endorsing it nor saying don’t do it. I will just say that it will be harder to pass if it is not defined. This is one of the crazinesses of government. So the feds do what they do, and add a tax or a ‘fee,’ Then the state runs its little deal. Then the counties have their measures and fees. There is no coordination. So what happens to the local government is that they get dumped on all the time. That’s what leads them to consider raising taxes.”
Conway expounded that we end up with federal taxes, state taxes, county taxes, local taxes, water board fees, hospital board fees and more. “Bottom line, all these things come out of one pocket,” she said, meaning the taxpayer’s.
The word realignment is another financial red flag for Conway. “Realigning a program means realigning money, and local government is most often the loser.” When the state “realigned” the prison system they transferred thousands of minimum-security prisoners out of state jails and sent them to county jails.
“Oh excuse me. You made the plan but you forgot the money,” is how she reacted to the governor’s realignment proposal.
Tulare County only receives a pittance of state money to compensate for the hundreds of prisoners dumped into its jails. But as Conway stated, it is typical for the Central Valley to be left behind. Whereas Marin County receives $52,000 per prisoner, Tulare County only collects $12,500. Along with most other Valley lawmakers, Conway has loudly protested this inequity and submitted a letter of protestation to the governor.
Wading through the Bills
Twelve hundred bills have passed the state legislature and a disproportionate number pertain to gun control or fracking. When asked which, if any, of these, she supports, Conway said, “Not one. As far as gun control, California has the most stringent laws in the country, so why we are doing this? I don’t know. As far as fracking, the only bill I would support would be ‘let’s do it!’”
“If you want to talk about a real estate boom, Silicon Valley boom, this would be the boom beyond booms. You want to talk about jobs? 2.5 million by 2020. Even the governor said it would be a boom to the economy. Whenever my friends across the aisle say we need more revenue, I say, well here is some. If California really needs more revenue, let’s stop driving business out. If you really want more revenue then let people work. Create more private sector jobs, then you will have more revenue. Get off the back of business and quit regulating them to death.”
Conway brushes aside fracking’s environmental concerns. “No one has showed me any scientific proof. You would think that the people who knew fracking would contaminate the water would come to me, but no.”
Conway received a 100 percent pro-jobs rating from the California Chamber of Commerce for her votes to keep taxes low and get people working again. But the promise of jobs hasn’t convinced her to support California’s High-Speed Rail.
“My question is who is going to get these jobs?” she said. “Will the workers come from here? Will they come from somewhere else? I don’t think we have a lot railroad engineers standing around in the unemployment line.”
If there were private investors for high-speed rail, Conway would be more supportive. “It’s not private; it’s government and our taxpayers are going to have to subsidize it. The thought of the high-speed rail has a lot of romantic appeal, but unfortunately there are facts involved.”
Assembly Member Conway has 18 months to go before the end of her term, and already three people have declared their candidacy for her seat. One of the favorites to win will be Rudy Mendoza, mayor of Woodlake and field representative for Congressman Devin Nunes. With Conway’s support, he has already secured an impressive array of endorsements.
Conway has also thrown her support behind Republican Andy Vidak, who is running for the state’s 16th District Senate seat in a run-off election July 23rd against Leticia Perez. “I’m very enthused for Andy. Part of life is living and we are a sum of our experiences. He is a small business owner and farmer and very involved in water issues. All those issues are so important no matter what side of the aisle you fall on. Those issues impact the Central Valley more than any other.”
When asked if Democrat Leticia Perez had the same experience, Conway simply said, “No.”
Where is the Republican Party Today?
Former Senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole recently said, “Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly, Nixon couldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘Closed for Repairs.’”
When asked where she thought the Republican Party was headed, Conway replied, “I think as in anything in life, we should all strive to do the best we can and take personal inventory. So as a party I think we’re doing that. Times change. I think the Republican Party has basic tenets that keep us politically aligned. What happens as a Republican, I will tell you, people want to define me. I prefer to have the opportunity to define myself. I prefer to be judged on my own merit. But it’s a sound-bite world and we are constantly under attack from the other side. It’s a controlled media world except for the few independent people like you guys. Seriously.”
Conway will be termed out of office at the end of next year and has limited political options. She lives in the same state senate district as fellow Republican Jean Fuller of Bakersfield but has no intention of challenging her. Fuller doesn’t term out until 2018.
According to Conway, a political career “wasn’t part of my life’s plan. I want to be productive and contribute to the community.” But as far as her life after office, “I couldn’t tell you what that looks like. I just know that I want to finish strong.”
“I had a pleasurable and memorable time serving with Connie. She is absolutely the right person representing us in Sacramento. Connie has a singular leadership ability and people ability to be the minority leader of the assembly. There is no one I know who could do a better job than her.”
— Allen Ishida, Tulare County Board of Supervisors.