California GOP kicks off convention with focus on women; headline speaker pitches independence


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LOS ANGELES — California Republicans are looking to put a new face on their party after decades of declining registration in a state that increasingly leans to the left politically.

The effort starts with wiping out what leaders say are outdated ideas about what it means to be a Republican: older, white, male and socially conservative.

As part of that push, the party kicked off its fall convention Friday in Los Angeles by promoting "the women of the GOP," bringing nearly 30 female candidates for office and party leaders on stage at a dinner banquet featuring the party's highest female nominee this November, controller candidate Ashley Swearengin.

While Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno, is seen as one of the GOP's best hopes this fall, she was an unusual choice to kick off a weekend intended to rally the party faithful. She has distanced herself from the Republican brand in a campaign, promoting herself as an independent, and she did not utter the words GOP or Republican once Friday night.

She later told reporters that she wants to focus on her fiscal credentials rather than partisan politics.

"My roots are deep, I registered to vote as a Republican when I was 18 years old, and yet I serve in a nonpartisan office today, so I'm used to working with people from across the political spectrum, and that's what I intend to do as the next state controller," she said.

Swearengin has not campaigned with the rest of the statewide ticket and declined again Friday night to endorse the party's gubernatorial nominee, Neel Kashkari. She told reporters she is still "looking at the two candidates like other Californians are."

Her dinner address focused mostly on her tenure as mayor since 2009, promoting what she said was a fiscal turnaround in a city once on the verge of bankruptcy that now has the fifth-highest job growth in the state. While her campaign promised a speech offering her vision for a "post-partisan" political landscape, she touched only lightly on politics, saying California needs strong leaders who are willing to stand up "to the status quo thinking in Sacramento."

"We are going to need as big a coalition as possible for any chance of victory," she said. "And in my view, we ought to embrace any and all who are willing to accept the challenge of restoring the long-term financial health of the state."

She received tepid applause for her only party reference in which she said, "let's make sure our party leads the way on forming a new coalition of reform in California."

Parke Skelton, a spokesman for Swearengin's opponent, Betty Yee, said Fresno's bond rating has been downgraded three times since she became mayor.

"The people who assess these things have looked at Fresno and come to the conclusion that they weren't doing the hard work necessary to bring their fiscal house in order," he said.

California Republicans have been reluctant to embrace broad changes.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican who coined the term "post-partisan," implored the party to expand their tent to include more people with a broader spectrum of ideas in 2007, but his message was met with a thud. Republicans had around 35 percent of the state's voter registration then and have since slid to 28.5 percent.

Kashkari is expanding on that theme this weekend, hosting a "big tent" social event Friday night with the New Majority, a socially moderate Southern California group, the gay-rights Log Cabin Republicans and Grow Elect, which has been recruiting Latino Republicans to run for local and state offices.

Republicans also are promoting a roster of legislative candidates who they say are representative of the districts in which they are running, but the party has only one female nominee for California's 53 congressional seats: state Sen. Mimi Walters. Its statewide nominees are all white aside from Kashkari, who is Indian-American, and includes just one other woman, Board of Equalization candidate Diane Harkey.

Also conspicuously absent from a political event centered on women was any mention of abortion rights. Swearengin declined when asked by reporters to take a position on that or on gay marriage.

The biggest draw for many Republicans will be Saturday's lunchtime address by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate who has been traveling the country this year. On Saturday night, California Republicans will hear from newly elevated House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a former state lawmaker from Bakersfield.

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