Businesses (including agriculture) need to “think of your lawmakers as children,” says James Brulte. And in many cases, he says, the behavior of these children “should be punished, not rewarded.”

Brulte, himself a 14-year veteran of the California legislature (now senator from the state's 31st District) and an adviser to President Bush, has been described as “the most powerful elected Republican in California” (that was before Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, but he and The Terminator are said to be close buds).

He pulls no punches in analyzing and critiquing the political process.

“If you take the total of the business community's financial contributions to politicians,” Brulte said at the annual conference of the Western Plant Health Association in Maui, “business gives more than half of its money to those who vote against its interests 6 out of 10 times.

“As an employer, I don't think you'd allow an employee to act against your business' interests 6 times out of 10. Yet, you contribute to legislators who do just that. You're rewarding and reinforcing bad behavior. It should be punished, not rewarded.”

Businesses, Brulte says, should take a cue from labor/trial lawyer organizations. “Over 95 percent of their contributions go to lawmakers who vote for them 95 percent of the time. Don't think that's lost on us legislators — we're smart people when it comes to figuring out how to get votes and money. This situation's not going to change until the business community starts treating us like your children.”

When one “dispassionately analyzes” the California legislature, he says, there are two key groups that hold power: (1) labor and trial lawyers — “they're always on the offense and they always play to win” — and (2) the business community, “which is usually playing defense; they get involved in politics mostly because they have to.”

Once, Brulte says, the two groups just wanted a level playing field. “But now, organized labor wants a built-in structural advantage, and they use the legislative process to expand their opportunities.”

Political capital

In dissecting the unprecedented California recall vote that booted Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Schwarzenegger, Brulte notes that Davis in his first two terms had the highest approval rating in history. “But he wasn't willing to spend his popularity capital” to deal with the state's problems. Had Davis taken two or three steps early on in the energy crisis that nearly wrecked the state financially, “it would've been only a small problem — instead it became a major problem.”

A chief executive, he says, “has to be willing to spend political capital to anticipate and solve problems.”

It really doesn't matter, Brulte says, whether the legislature is controlled by Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives.

The key is that “someone in government has to be an adult, and it has to be the chief executive (the governor). The legislature is constitutionally incapable of adult action; it is polarized almost to the point of dysfunction. Conservatives are much more conservative; liberals are much more liberal; if Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) were in the California legislature, he'd be considered a conservative Democrat.”

But, Brulte says, “If the chief executive is a strong leader, the legislature will follow — and Arnold Schwarzenegger has figured that out. California is better off today with him in office.”

To be an effective leader, Brulte says, a governor has to be able to say “no” to his own party from time to time. “Any governor can say ‘no’ to the other political party; a truly great governor learns how to say ‘no’ to his own party.”

And he says, a strong leader “has to believe in something and has to stand for something. Political winds are changing — a leader can't be a be-all, end-all person; he has to have a core philosophy and not play to the crowd.”

When isolated an analyzed individually, virtually every decision Davis made was politically correct, “but it was the totality of his decisions that resulted in the equivalent of a political death sentence. Every decision he made, he played to the crowd.”

Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, “instinctively understands” the legislature, Brulte says.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com