SACRAMENTO — Shunning a movement to adopt a more moderate approach, California Republicans narrowly elected a conservative chairman Sunday to revive a party dogged by division and defeat.
Shawn Steel, a health care attorney from Rolling Hills in Los Angeles County, edged out his pro-choice opponent Brooks Firestone on the final day of the state GOP convention. Steel won 53 percent of the more than 1,200 ballots cast.
“We’ve got some unity (building) to do and that starts right away,” said Steel, adding he wants California Republicans to adopt President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and Ronald Reagan’s optimism.
The vote came after a high-dollar, heated campaign that pitted moderates against conservatives – a split that has plagued the party for years. Firestone’s supporters said he spent more than $100,000 on his campaign; Steel officials did not release figures.
The state’s GOP has lost three straight statewide elections even as Republicans won the White House and retained Congress in November.
Steel says he must unify the party now to unseat Davis in 2002 and help Bush take the state in 2004.
He said he will work to attract diverse voters, launch e-mail and absentee get-out-the-vote drives and help the party capitalize on a new campaign finance law that strengthens its fund-raising power.
“He walks his talk and he’s very inclusive,” said Therese Cisneros, a state chairwoman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
Steel’s election suggests the party will take conservative stands, such as opposition to abortion and gun control.
Firestone supporters wanted to lure moderates and independents, including women and California’s growing minority population.
Despite criticizing Steel, however, Firestone said after the vote that he will work with the new leader.
“Over the course of this campaign, Shawn and I have become friends and will work together,” said Firestone, a former Assembly member and winery owner from Santa Barbara. “United, this Republican party is unbeatable.”
Party faithful also used the weekend to criticize the Governor’s handling of the statewide energy crisis.
“The procrastination, the timidity, the arrogance of this administration has affected California and will do so in the long-term,” said Secretary of State Bill Jones, the only potential governor candidate at the three-day convention.
Jones spoke Sunday morning with nearly half of the seats empty and delegates noisily filing into the convention hall.
He said he will decide in the next three weeks whether to oppose Davis.
Recent polls suggest Californians are happy with the way Davis has handled the energy crisis.
Democratic spokesman Bob Mulholland said the Republicans were key players in political events that led to electricity deregulation and the crisis.
In other matters, delegates defeated a rule change that would let representatives the state sends to the Republican National Convention be nominated at the state level instead of by the presidential candidates. Party members also approved allowing independent voters to cast ballots in their primaries.
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