Who Is Bob Mulholland?

Posted September 2, 2003 at 5:43pm

When Jane Dolan first met Bob Mulholland in the 1970s, he was on his way to Hong Kong — for the Labor Day weekend.

The two California Democrats were attending California State University at Chico, and Mulholland was taking advantage of the cheap student fares.

Today, Mulholland continues to scour the newspapers for bargain basement plane tickets. But Dolan, a Butte County supervisor who is now Mrs. Bob Mulholland, said her husband laments that he can’t hop a flight until at least Oct. 8.

That’s because Mulholland works for the California Democratic Party. And with the election to recall Gov. Gray Davis (D) scheduled for Oct. 7, he’s a little busy right now.

For better or worse, Mulholland is one of the great partisan brawlers and dime-droppers of our time. That’s because every phone conversation with Mulholland, every news release he generates, every e-mail from him, is tinged with some memorably outrageous nugget about the opposition.

Looking for dirt about a Republican in the Golden State, or nationally? It could miraculously find its way to you, courtesy of Mulholland.

When Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was leading the charge for the recall, Mulholland made sure the press and public were

hearing all about his arrest record and the accusations that he had unfairly wrestled control of a profitable car alarm business from one of his partners.

“Darrell Issa is one of America’s wealthy and he got it by stealing cars at an early age,” Mulholland explained, unapologetically.

Now that movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is the biggest threat to Democrats, Mulholland has taken to calling him “the Squirminator.” No sooner does Schwarzenegger say something in public than Mulholland is ready with a blasting e-mail to pan it.

“Any candidate who says they can balance the budget with cuts alone — without detailing exactly what they would cut — either doesn’t know the facts, or is lying!” one missive read.

Most of the time, Democrats can’t help cheering. But sometimes, Mulholland has proven to be an embarrassment — like the time he said the party would be turning its guns on Schwarzenegger if he ran in the recall. Mulholland had to apologize and remind people he was only speaking figuratively.

Even in the throes of the recall, Mulholland recently found time to fax Bush White House adviser Karl Rove a gloating memo about presidential brother Neil Bush’s alleged sexual escapades.

“He’s obviously someone who’s very passionate about his beliefs,” said Sal Russo, a Republican consultant in California who has debated Mulholland on TV, radio and in public several times. “He tends to take things to the edge, though.”

Although he has an office at the state Democratic headquarters in Sacramento, Mulholland is technically only an adviser to the party. That way, one veteran of California politics explained, state party leaders and elected officials can disavow Mulholland if he says something too controversial.

“Everybody in California knows that Bob Mulholland does whatever he wants so there is general deniability,” the operative said.

Many people believe Mulholland knows more about California politics than anyone else in the world. He keeps huge stacks of papers on his office floor, knows what’s in every one of them, and is quick to pull something out of the middle of a pile in the pursuit of rapid response.

Mulholland, a Vietnam vet who was wounded during the Tet offensive, grew up in working-class Philadelphia, the son of a factory worker.

Tom Hayden, the anti-war leader who has been involved in Golden State politics for 30 years, said Mulholland is “best understood as a Vietnam vet. He went over there when he was 18, got blown up during Tet, was heavily exposed to Agent Orange, and went through two serious skin cancer operations.”

Mulholland, Hayden continued, “has a deep hostility to those who promote wars they themselves don’t serve in, and a deep commitment to veterans and working-class people.”

Mulholland is unapologetic about his tactics.

“I’m committed to social and economic change,” he said.

After Vietnam, Mulholland used his disability stipend to hitchhike around the world, and after spending a lot of time in Third World countries, he wound up at Chico State as an engineering student.

As he was graduating in 1974, he answered an ad in a local newspaper seeking volunteers for Dolan, the Chico State student body president who was then mounting a campaign for the county board of supervisors. Dolan lost, but a political alliance — and a romance — was born.

“He was the first person to show up at my door the day after the election and asked me how I felt,” recalled Dolan, who calls her combative husband “gorgeous” and “adorable,” and notes that he phones his mother-in-law every day — even when he’s traveling.

Dolan ran for supervisor again in 1978 and won — a job she continues to hold today as the lone registered Democrat on the five-member, nonpartisan panel.

In 1976, Mulholland went to work for Hayden’s quixotic Democratic primary challenge to then-Sen. John Tunney. Hayden lost, but another alliance was born: Mulholland spent the next several years working with Hayden and his then-wife Jane Fonda on several different projects. He pushed for more solar power projects in California, divestiture of state investments from South Africa, and a tenants’ bill of rights, among other things.

“Bob’s an idealist, fighting for a better world,” said Hayden, who went on to serve several terms in the state Legislature.

Mulholland landed at the state Democratic Party more than a dozen years ago, and is credited with helping to unify the party logistically in the watershed election of 1992. That year, Bill Clinton became the first Democrat to win the state in a presidential election since 1964, and two Democrats, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, won Senate seats. California has been a Democratic stronghold ever since.

“That’s when the state really turned the corner,” Dolan said. “I think it was probably one of his proudest moments.”

It certainly explains why Mulholland is fighting so hard to keep Republicans from succeeding in the recall. Besides, he’s got a plane to catch.