The rise and fall of John Doolittle

The California state Senate was once — a few decades ago — a very clubby, almost nonpartisan, place, and one of its unwritten rules of decorum was that neither of the political parties would overtly attempt to unseat an incumbent senator of the other party.

H.L. Richardson, a very conservative senator from Southern California on a mission to shake up the Capitol, ignored the rule, and in the 1976 and 1978 elections masterminded successful challenges to two liberal Democratic senators, generally accusing them of being soft on crime.

Richardson chose as his third target, in the 1980 election, Sacramento's mild-mannered, almost apolitical, Sen. Al Rodda, a former teacher who virtually ignored campaign politics while concentrating on his legislative duties and pet issues, especially education.

Richardson says he targeted Rodda because his district's suburban fringes had been growing and becoming more conservative and those demographic changes, perceived in polling and voting patterns, created an opportunity to pick up another seat. It was nothing personal; Richardson says he considered Rodda to be "a sweet guy."

But to make it happen, Richardson needed a candidate and considered local possibilities to be too weak. He was having one of his regular Monday-morning staff meetings and asked if anyone lived in Rodda's district. A 29-year-old aide named John Doolittle raised his hand.

The rest, as they say, is history. Doolittle won the GOP nomination and hammered Rodda as a soft-on-crime liberal. It was a big Republican year, Rodda campaigned sporadically and — by Capitol legend, anyway — Rodda suffered because a state senator with a similar name, Alan Robbins, had been tried on — and acquitted of — charges of having sex with a teen-age girl in his Capitol office.

Whatever the reasons, Doolittle, a virtual unknown who looked young enough to be attending high school, defeated the much-older Rodda and threw such a scare into Democrats about losing control of the Senate that they dumped their longtime leader and gerrymandered Senate districts to shore up other potential Richardson targets. Doolittle's victory also elevated crime into an even more potent issue.

Within a few years, Republican George Deukmejian had recaptured the governorship on the crime issue and voters had dumped Chief Justice Rose Bird and other liberal members of the state Supreme Court. The Legislature and voters passed countless lock'-em-up laws and the prison population soared from about 20,000 inmates in 1980 to 170,000-plus.

A decade after winning his Senate seat, Doolittle captured a vacant congressional seat, and when Republicans achieved control of Congress in 1994, he began a rapid rise in the GOP hierarchy. Disciplined, highly focused and more than a bit ruthless, Doolittle also built a powerful local political machine that fostered conservatives in local government and school districts and warred constantly with anti-Doolittle moderate Republicans.

As Doolittle's star rose in Congress, he became increasingly involved with favor-seeking lobbyists — in effect, becoming part of the Washington culture that he had always decried. It's not an unusual syndrome, but one lobbyist with whom he developed an especially close relationship was Jack Abramoff (among other things, he employed Doolittle's wife), and when Abramoff was nailed by federal prosecutors, Doolittle's connections became the subject of a lengthy FBI investigation.

Despite his district's lopsided Republican voter margin, Doolittle barely won re-election in 2006 and was widely seen as a likely loser if he ran for re-election this year. Last Thursday, indirectly acknowledging that his position had become untenable, Doolittle announced he would not run.

Al Rodda may have had the last laugh.


(Contact Dan Walters at dwalters(at)