California's Conservative Jiminy Cricket
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
There’s more to it than “red” and “blue.”
By Sanjena Sathian
It’s been nearly two hours of listening to blogger Jon Fleischman passionately decry taxation and wax ideological on California state politics. So, in an effort to get the flash card version of his politics, we play word association. Kevin McCarthy. “Political animal.” Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Great guy, flawed governor.” Neel Kashkari. “Surprisingly likable.” Barbara Boxer. “Total socialist. And, oh, my God. Thank God, ineffectual.”
And he’s just getting started. For the full tidal wave, see his website, FlashReport.org. But brace yourself — for his, say, rather acerbic “Golden Trashcan Award” (usually given to the “worst bill of the year,” but which he hints I could win if I don’t play nice with this profile).
At 47, Fleischman, the former vice chairman of the state’s Republican Party, has become the Jiminy Cricket for the state’s conservatives, loudly yapping out his views in the tradition of a Rush Limbaugh or an Andrew Breitbart or a Matt Drudge. And though he’s hardly a household name, he is a force. It’s Fleischman who snags interviews with most presidential candidates as they pass through the state, who buddies around with libertarian anti-tax leaders countrywide. Jim Brulte, the chairman of the California Republican Party, says whether you are a Republican Party state official or a Democratic operative out of Sacramento, Fleischman and his report are a “must read.”
All of which might be boring news in, say, Utah or Rhode Island. But this is California, where the GOP may actually have a shot at renaissance by grooming a new generation of moderate Republicans to one day take the national stage. Only, Fleischman doesn’t want it that way. He has his skewers out, red hot and pointed, hoping to keep his party deep in the classically conservative camp.
Which means, ironically, that Fleischman’s greatest impact may be the sabotage he could wreak on his own party. Though clearly a Democratic stronghold, the state that launched Ronald Reagan and is incubating “the next Goldwater” still has some Republican-friendly twists and turns in the near future. For one, Asian-American Republicans are on the rise here — helpful for a demographic face-lift. Plus, the state is getting older, which often means more right-leaning. “If one were an ambitious young Republican,” muses Jack Pitney, a California politics expert and professor at Claremont McKenna College, well … “the lines are a lot shorter in California.”
But all this talk of “moderate” rankles Fleischman. “There should be no day of the year when the state assemblywoman in Sacramento isn’t slamming her door, fed up, saying, ‘Those damn Republicans!’” He’s not fussed about poking his party in the eye: “People don’t like an outspoken conscience,” he says, self-satisfied.
He got married at the Richard Nixon Library … by another state political operative.
The day I meet him, in his office in a nondescript office park in Newport Beach, the bespectacled Fleischman seems harmless enough; I’m a pit stop en route to a day at Disneyland with his 7- and 4-year-old, and he looks more parent than provocateur, outfitted in a Hawaiian T-shirt and blue jeans. On his side table is a shot of him with Arnold Schwarzenegger — but “not because of his politics. He should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Recall Election.” This running commentary on the cast list of California politics is Fleischman at his finest. With a glimmer in his eye behind his rectangular-lensed Oakley glasses, he tells me how everyone has to read him. He boasts of hanging out in Ahnold’s smoking tent. He brags about Jerry Brown dropping the FlashReport’s name at a dinner. He’s giddy as he tells me I’m sure to find more people who will drop nice tidbits about him than who will criticize. Such is the nature of his power.
He attributes that clout to his likability, and says that a battle with stage 2 testicular cancer at the unseemly age of 28 tamed his early tendencies to refuse the company of those with different beliefs. But for all the warm-and-fuzzies, this is a guy who can bust balls. Take the time back in June 2010, when he flashed some impressive investigative chops by discovering that now-former state Sen. Michael Rubio (a Democrat, yeah) didn’t actually live in the district where he was running. That’s no small breaking news story. The guy had to buy a new house to stay in the race (he won, eventually, despite).
Yet such flashy impact is rare. Though he boasts of his addicted readers, FlashReport gets so little traffic that analytics tracker comScore does not even track its numbers. And in the big picture, there’s a gulf between Fleischman and the rest of his party, nationally. The most GOP presidential candidates usually do for their California compatriots is sink just enough money into the state to force Dems like Al Gore into having to spend in a blue state.
Of course, as much as Fleischman wants to stand athwart history yelling STOP, he equally wants to locate himself in as much of that history as possible. When the Jewish kid from West LA, born to two Democrats, got hitched to a nice Catholic girl — whom he met at a Young Republicans mixer — he did it at the Richard Nixon Library … and had another state political operative officiate the ceremony. “Pat and Dick were there with us!” he says, only half-kidding.
Oh, and then there’s the Reagan story. He remembers, precisely: It was Jan. 20, 1989, Reagan’s last day in office, and young Jon, an eager volunteer helping to receive the presidential motorcade in California, ended up carrying the first couple’s luggage into their Bel Air home. Which is how, as he was hanging up a POTUS suit in the bathroom, he encountered the blue jeans-clad president himself. He later got a note, handwritten: “Dear Jon, thank you so much for delivering our luggage.” Still later, Fleischman met Reagan in a more official capacity. He digs up the snapshot of the two of them shaking hands from its spot in a storage closet and decides to place it back on his desk.
Nostalgically, he eyes it. “Just look at that hair,” he says, referring to himself.