SACRAMENTO -- Outgoing state Sen. Sam Blakeslee has always walked a path that Sacramento partisans rarely acknowledge exists -- that of a moderate Republican.
The San Luis Obispo resident leaves office next week when his successor, Carmel Democrat Bill Monning, is sworn in. Blakeslee declined a re-election run.
Since coming to the Assembly in 2004 as a highly touted freshman, Blakeslee has clashed with his own party and played a high-profile role as his vote was courted by Democratic and Republican governors trying to strike budget deals.
Blakeslee rose to Assembly minority leader and was later elected to the Senate, all while walking a line between Democrats and more conservative Republicans. He was pro-business and critical of some regulations, but he also warned of the dangers of nuclear power and worked to foster an environmentally friendly climate within Republican ranks.
"It is difficult. It's a challenge because if it's not handled thoughtfully, you can end up a pariah and isolated. It's impossible to lead delegations if you're only a bloc of one," Blakeslee said. "My goal was always to broker true compromise and bring blocs of Republicans to an issue."
Blakeslee still has critics among liberal enclaves of the Central Coast, but he was notable for refusing to sign Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, and over his legislative career he garnered more Democratic co-authors on bills than Republican ones.
Blakeslee negotiated a 2009 pact on the state's water infrastructure, and has authored bills on renewable energy standards, carbon sequestration and seismic studies of Diablo Canyon Power Plant, but he also has been critical of tough Central Coast groundwater rules that many farmers have complained about.
While Blakeslee did have legislative successes, there is one area where his efforts failed spectacularly. Several lobbying reform and gift ban bills died quietly on the vine, despite repeated efforts to get them to the governor's desk.
"Frankly, many of the more powerful lobbyists love the access it provides," Blakeslee said of the gift ban, which he expects eventually to pass.
Blakeslee spoke by telephone from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he is busy setting up the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy. At the institute, he hopes to deploy students to tackle issues related to job growth, technology and the environment.
That mission sounds a lot like a Republican task force Blakeslee once helped set up in the Legislature, dubbed E3 for "Environment, Energy and the Economy." Beginning with four members, its membership peaked at 24.
"We went from being the party of 'no' to the party of solutions," Blakeslee said. "It was one of the things that gave me hope for the renewal of the Republican Party."
It did not renew the Republican Party, however, and GOP ranks in the Legislature seem stripped of relevancy. Once new members are sworn in next week, Democrats would hold supermajorities in both houses. And Blakeslee -- who once called former GOP state chair Ron Nehring a "thug" over a rules dispute -- said the party needs to rethink its ideological underpinnings.
"I'm of the opinion that our challenge is in the policy arena," Blakeslee said. "I believe our real challenge is we have not modernized our party to run a California that looks different than the one Ronald Reagan ran and won in."
Another way Blakeslee intends to do that is through the California Reform Institute, seeded with a $750,000 donation by Republican megadonor Charles Munger Jr. The idea has fallen under criticism as an apparent vehicle for a future gubernatorial run, though Blakeslee said he is focused on his post-Sacramento career.
Munger said Blakeslee is a natural for the job, describing him as a "smart cookie" with experience in both legislative bodies and who has demonstrated efforts at compromise. The institute would be a way for the Republican minority -- which doesn't have access to the same resources as the Democratic majority -- to develop their ideas into "camera-ready" legislation.
"At some point politics is about doing deals," Munger said, describing a scenario in which Republicans could negotiate compromises that help get their ideas passed into law. "Then you can have something you can bring to the table."
Whether that scenario remains viable is an open question. Blakeslee warned about the supermajorities, calling then "one-party rule," and he expects Democrats to target the recall and initiative processes.
"The last remaining threat to complete hegemony is the power of the people to implement reforms over the heads of the Legislature," Blakeslee said. "Those changes, once implemented, will last long after this temporary period of one-party rule expires."
Blakeslee said he has grown since going to Sacramento in 2004, recently rediscovering that politics is about people -- those you represent, and those you debate in the Capitol -- rather than merely notching legislative victories.
"I think that's one of the frustrations of term limits. It takes some years to truly understand the system due to its inherent complexity. There's no question I evolved both as a practitioner and as a person," Blakeslee said. "During the last two years, I think I rediscovered why I ran for office in the first place."
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