H. L. Richardson Rode Shotgun for the Reagan Revolution in California

Former President Ronald Reagan in 1991 (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

His example has lessons for today’s conservatives.

Politically correct attitudes have toned down conservative officeholders — with the notable exception of Donald Trump. Elected officials all share a private terror that somehow, somewhere they will say something that will offend a political or ethnic minority. Opponents comb through records for out-of-context remarks to trip up presidential appointees.

H. L. Richardson, one of the last prominent California Republicans from the era when Ronald Reagan was governor, died this month at age 92. A state senator from 1967 to 1989, he helped catapult conservative politics to a new level of sophistication. Richardson didn’t give a hoot about political correctness. He was one of the funniest, most effervescent, and most candid politicians I ever knew.

Richardson pioneered a form of grassroots politics in California that proved to be revolutionary. In the 1970s, he grew concerned that Second Amendment rights were being eroded, so he founded Gun Owners of California to pressure his legislative colleagues. With the help of mail specialist Richard Viguerie, he perfected direct-mail appeals to gun owners that brought in millions of dollars in small donations. He then put those dollars to good use.

“Anytime any legislator talked against the Second Amendment, Richardson would recruit candidates and help fund them, train them, and run them against some of these incumbents,” Sam Parades, the current executive director of Gun Owners of California, told the San Bernardino Sun. “They didn’t like that, but they had no means to fight back except to not sponsor legislation like that anymore.”

Richardson’s high-water mark came in 1982, when he helped lead an effort to recall the chief justice of California’s supreme court, Rose Bird, a Jerry Brown appointee who had voted to overturn every death penalty conviction. Richardson turned not only Bird out of office in a landslide but also two of her liberal colleagues to boot.

In that same election, Richardson crushed Proposition 15, a measure placed on the state’s ballot by gun-control activists. It would have required every gun in the state to be registered and frozen the total number of legal handguns in the state to the number in circulation six months after Prop 15’s passage.

Richardson effectively used a large campaign budget to alert voters to the dangers and impracticality of the measure. Voter turnout by gun owners in rural areas surged so much that in the same election Republican George Deukmejian defeated Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, a Democrat, in a surprise upset.

His ability to move the political needle even while he was stuck in the legislature as a member of the minority party inspired many others to believe that they could make a difference from the outside. “Richardson was an early elected politician who was also an activist,” recalled Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform. “Too often good men or women choose to be one and not the other. Real political change comes when elected officials also see themselves as activists out to change the world.”

Even though Richardson often tangled with more-moderate Republicans, he got along well with them on a personal level. And, like his fellow Californian and friend Representative John Schmitz, he even convinced some that he was doing them a favor. Quoting Schmitz, he used to say: “The middle of the road is determined by how far either side, left or right, is willing to push. If no one is going to push to the right, then the middle of the road is going to move closer to the left.”

Luckily, Richardson was a skilled writer and his wisdom and humor survive him in a series of pithy books. While working in the California legislature in the 1980s, I read his book What Makes You Think We Read the Bills? He convinced me that a full-time legislature — which began in California the year Richardson was first elected, in 1966 — had been a mistake. He writes:

The longer [someone] is a full time legislator, the more dependent he becomes upon his salary. His former occupation and its business contacts are in the past and difficult to re-establish; going back to his old occupation seems like a step backward. It becomes all the more important for him to keep his legislative job and make a career out of politics.

Richardson also railed against the favor factory of earmarks, the legislative allocation of money to politically connected projects, long before it became fashionable to do so: “Earmarks are nothing more than covetous actions of legislators stealing from one to benefit themselves and others, in the process breaking two Commandments out of ten.” When then-congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona led the successful charge to kill earmarks in the House of Representatives in 2006, he quoted Richardson’s thoughts on the subject at length.

H. L. Richardson was savvy, outrageous, funny, and a patriot. He was an example of a more forgiving, less judgmental political climate than we have today. “In some ways he was Donald Trump before there was Donald Trump,” his former top aide Bill Saracino told me. Indeed, while he lacked Trump’s habits of crudeness and name-calling, Richardson shared with him the good luck of having blow-dried opponents who were so programmed that they didn’t appear capable of uttering a spontaneous thought.

Would that American politics had more H. L. Richardsons today.

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