California Republicans face a discouraging dilemma, as GOP numbers wither in the state Capitol. Democrats gained supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, which leaves the remaining Republicans virtually no power to stop anything and little more than a bully pulpit for their policies. How will they handle this bleak situation?
They have few good choices, but it's still hard to understand the approach taken by Assemblyman Travis Allen. The likable and normally low-key Huntington Beach Republican is trying out a new role as the legislature's bomb-thrower. He is getting widespread social-media attention for his latest article, but his over-the-top rhetoric may turn himself—and the party—into something taken even less seriously, and not just by Capitol Democrats.
Allen grabbed the spotlight in late December with a column in the Washington Examiner headlined, "California Democrats legalize child prostitution." This wasn't some headline writer's overstatement. Allen wrote, "Beginning on Jan. 1, prostitution by minors will be legal in California. Yes, you read that right. … So teenage girls (and boys) in California will soon be free to have sex in exchange for money without fear of arrest or prosecution."
The assemblyman argued that Senate Bill 1322 is part of "wave after wave of laws taking effect that are well-intentioned but disastrous embodiments of progressive utopianism." I'm no fan of progressivism and spend much of my time in Sacramento writing about the disastrous policies pushed by the majority party. But it might help Republicans' cause if they didn't misrepresent a reasonable law for some cheap partisan gain.
The Sacramento Bee ran a prominent piece declaring Allen's claim "misleading." "Those soliciting the sex and those arranging the clients can still be charged with crimes," wrote Christopher Cadelago. "People caught having sexual conduct with minors can be charged with penalties ranging from misdemeanors to felonies carrying life terms, depending on the ages of those involved and the individual circumstances of the offenses."
Politifact wrote that "Allen's specific claim, and the column in general, is grossly misleading. We rate Allen's claim Pants On Fire."
As I wrote for the San Diego Union-Tribune about a previous legislative effort, "Currently, these kids are arrested and thrown into the juvenile court system. The 'johns' typically receive a slap on the wrist. These legislators and activists want the children treated as victims, and provided with shelter and help, and the johns treated as sex predators." The law certainly could backfire, but its goal was not to "legalize" sex with minors. It's to focus prosecution on pimps and johns and get social service help for these kids, who are abuse victims.
"This bill creates a model for services provided… through the juvenile dependency and treatment process, rather reliance on the juvenile delinquency court system," according to the Senate bill analysis. "Providing services to sexually exploited minors more quickly and directly than under current practice may be effective."
The law passed mostly on a partisan basis, but it had the support of a small number of Republicans, including a former California Highway Patrol officer. Allen's column acknowledges the law is well-intentioned and makes some reasonable arguments, but the initial overstatement leaves readers with the wrong impression. Moreover, it led to a spate of overheated postings that went viral.
CalWatchdog detailed the backlash against, and quotes from the conservative RedState blog, which called the Allen piece an "unsubstantiated hot take" because of Allen's claim "law enforcement can't interfere with minors engaged in prostitution." But it's increasingly hard to disseminate facts in a world of narrative-driven commentary.
Allen has stood by his column. "The facts are absolutely clear," he told me. "The law that is now in place … is that prostitution (is) … no longer a crime for minors in California." He refers to the criticism of his piece as Democratic spin.
Allen's article was shared widely on Facebook, even from other California GOP legislators. It received TV attention on Fox News' Bill O'Reilly show. And his latest statement ups the ante. Regarding California Democrats' hiring of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to battle the Trump administration, Allen wrote: "The goal of the California Democrats is clear: an open border with no restrictions on human traffickers, gun runners and drug smugglers."
The Holder hiring is a farce, and I'm glad Allen will stand up to it—but is that really the goal of California Democrats? There's endless room for intelligent, principled and even defiant opposition to the state's progressive leadership. Throwing around such statements doesn't help the cause, although after the Trump victory it's easy to understand why Republicans might gravitate in this direction.
"It's inept, sophomoric thinking like this that has led the California Republican Party to the super-minority status that it enjoys today in the California Legislature," said Grant David Gillham, former policy director for Senate Minority Leader Rob Hurtt, R-Garden Grove, regarding the column. I tend to agree with Gillham. If the state GOP wants to be more relevant, it needs to be a lot more careful with its rhetoric.