The California state budget was awash in red ink and legislators were bitterly battling over program cuts this spring when two Bakersfield mothers walked into Danny Gilmore's Sacramento office.
One mother pushed a frail young boy in a wheelchair. The other was accompanied by her autistic daughter. They begged the first-term Republican assemblyman from Hanford not to cut critical medical services for their children and others like them.
When the mothers left, "I closed my office door and cried," Gilmore recently recalled, noting that during the height of the budget battles, "every 20 to 30 minutes I had people coming in pleading with me not to cut programs."
Gilmore is no stranger to state government. He served more than three decades as an officer with the California Highway Patrol. And he is no stranger to making tough decisions. Before retiring from the CHP, he was the assistant chief of the Fresno district.
But what he calls the "horrid" cuts he and other lawmakers have had to make to education, fire and public safety, plus his frustration with partisan bickering and Democrats' response to California's economic problems, have driven Gilmore to prayer.
"I pray every day. I have doubts about whether I am making a difference," he said. "I have sleepless nights. I wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning. I thought those nights ended when I was assistant chief."
Gilmore spends those sleepless nights with his wife, Cindi, in a 40-foot motorhome the couple set up in an RV park in northeast Sacramento. "I don't know what I would do without her," he said, explaining his appreciation for his wife's willingness to accompany him to Sacramento when the Legislature is in session.
'THE WAY THE SYSTEM WORKS'
On Dec. 1, 2008, his 59th birthday, Gilmore was sworn in to represent the 30th Assembly District, which includes parts of Kern County and Bakersfield. After a tough campaign, Gilmore defeated Democratic candidate Fran Florez, a Shafter City Council member and the mother of state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, to succeed termed-out Democratic Assemblywoman Nicole Parra.
Gilmore was the lone Republican in the November 2008 election to win a seat in the California Legislature previously held by a Democrat.
The Democratic leadership "doesn't get over that," observed veteran Sacramento reporter Vic Pollard, The Californian's former Sacramento bureau chief. Pollard and most other Capitol insiders were not surprised that revenge would be quickly doled out. "That's the way the system works."
Gilmore and his staff were relegated to the "doghouse" - a cramped 391-square-foot office, where staff members and the assemblyman were squeezed together and visitors had to wait in the hall. Although the office has long been used by legislative leaders to punish "offending" lawmakers, Gilmore's assignment was sloughed off as the luck of the draw.
Even Gilmore tried to take the assignment in stride. "It has heating and air conditioning. A lot of the people I represent don't have that." Gilmore moved into a bigger Capitol office recently when Assemblyman Michael Duvall of Orange County abruptly resigned in the wake of a sex scandal.
But what Gilmore doesn't take in stride is the Democrats' refusal to allow him to have a field office in Bakersfield. Gilmore established his primary field office in his hometown of Hanford. His Democratic predecessor had offices in both Hanford and Bakersfield. Most of Gilmore's legislative colleagues, even those with much smaller districts, have multiple field offices.
"I can't even get a post office box in Bakersfield," said Gilmore, who sets up tents in parks to meet with constituents. His field representatives work out of their cars, using laptop computers. Gilmore declines to use campaign contributions to fund a Bakersfield office because he believes his Kern County constituents are entitled to the same service people living in other legislative districts receive.
"I use it to show what is wrong with Sacramento," he said. "They are more interested in partisan political games than in coming together."
Shannon Murphy, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass' spokeswoman, denies the leadership's refusal to fund Gilmore's Bakersfield office is "political." It's just fiscal belt-tightening, she said.
She said spending taxpayers' dollars for Gilmore to have a second field office would be "excessive and inappropriate" in light of California's 12 percent unemployment rate, skyrocketing foreclosures and other economic problems.
"His treatment has been no different than anyone else's," she said. "The Assembly, just like the rest of the state, is doing more with less."
Political observers take another view. They note Bakersfield and rural Kern County communities have the bulk of Democratic registration in the district. By denying Gilmore a second field office in Bakersfield, 30th District constituents are alienated and Gilmore's reelection chances are weakened. Democrats are targeting Gilmore, with Fran Florez expected run again for the seat.
But former Assemblywoman Parra predicts the ploy will backfire. Parra angered leaders in her own party when she refused to vote for a Democratic budget plan last year and when she later endorsed Republican Gilmore to replace her. Speaker Bass didn't just relegate Parra to the "doghouse." She kicked her completely out of the Capitol building, assigning Parra to a small office in another building.
Parra believes Gilmore's tent meetings have received so much favorable news coverage that his image and popularly in Kern County have increased. She also gave Gilmore points for attentiveness.
"If there were two people in a meeting, he was there. This is what people care about."
Gilmore's harsh treatment has not been limited to the assignment of a small Capitol office and denial of a second field office. Some Democratic colleagues, at least initially, have been downright rude.
One Republican legislator recalled introducing Gilmore around when he first arrived in Sacramento. Some Democrats refused to shake his hand.
"He came up here very humble and hardworking," said 32nd District Assemblywoman Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. "It is exceedingly demanding to be in a targeted seat. I admire him. He is even-tempered and persistent. Democratic leaders have been unfair to him for political reasons."
State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, noted that denying Gilmore a field office in Bakersfield can hurt people in Kern County. "A big chunk of our job is taking care of constituent requests and problems. The voters voted. Why should people now receive less representation? It's not Danny Gilmore who is suffering. It is the people."
WORKING ACROSS THE AISLE
Gilmore said he also is frustrated by the apparent disconnect Democrats have with the struggles of small businesses and workers, and their push to impose costly regulations.
He cited one of his few legislative successes - when he teamed up with Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Norwalk - to roll back a costly reporting requirement affecting struggling timber mills. Rather than submitting 300-page annual timber plans, companies now only have to submit these plans every three years. In other states, the plans are much less detailed and are submitted every 10 years.
Despite Gilmore's attempt to reach across the aisle and make Democratic friends, he admits that most of his bills have been DOA - dead on arrival. "I can whine and snivel all I want about legislation. But I know why it doesn't go forward," he said.
But the legislator who most people describe as "an awful nice guy" is quick to identify Democrats he enjoys working with. One is Fresno Assemblyman Juan Arambula, who left the Democratic Party in June to become an independent. "I love that guy," Gilmore said, admiring Arambula's independent streak.
Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, is a Los Angeles County reserve deputy sheriff. Gilmore, who gave Hall a tour of the CHP academy, considers him a buddy. He also has worked with Joe Coto, D-San Jose. He reached out to Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-Lodi, who like Gilmore is in a "targeted seat." Republicans are attempting to derail Huber's reelection.
The Californian placed calls to Arambula, Hall, Mendoza, Coto and Huber for comment for this story. Three did not return calls. Two asked for questions to be sent in advance and then did not return calls.
If you think Gilmore has gotten the cold shoulder during his first year in office, it will only get worse as he seeks reelection, Parra predicted, explaining Democrats who have co-authored bills with him or who have otherwise been helpful, won't be so helpful. They will back away.
"This has been the most frustrating year of my life," Gilmore admits. "That place is far beyond anything I imagined. It is broken."
This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Oct. 17, 2009.