In the fall, California Assemblymember Kristin Olsen will take on a new political role as Republican Minority Leader. Olsen, 40, who represents the 12th Assembly District in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, has a reputation of working effectively on both sides of the political aisle.
The California State Republican Caucus elected Olsen with a united front, announcing the win as unanimous. Assembly colleagues say she's smart, savvy, and ready for the job. Olsen is expected to make the transition in November when Minority Leader Connie Conway’s term is over.
Why did you decide to seek the position and how did you accomplish it?
I decided to seek the position because there is so much we can do as Republicans to unify our party and revitalize the Republican Party in California. I believe we have a winning message and we need to do a better job of articulating our message to people throughout California, including areas that might be considered Democratic strongholds, such as the Bay Area and Los Angeles. We have sound policy ideas of wanting to bring great jobs, good schools, and lower taxes to California families. We need to do a better job of bringing our message to all parts of California. Being the leader of the Republican Caucus gives me a larger platform from which to work to accomplish those goals.
Tell me a little about your background and how you got into politics?I was born and raised in Modesto in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. I first developed an interest in politics and public policy when I was a Junior High student at Modesto Christian. We had a speaker come to class and she spoke about the importance of getting involved in your community. I started writing letters to elected officials in our area. Something stirred inside of me that day and I thought I could really get into this.
Since that time, I have always had an interest -- always on policy, not the politics. I always thought I would be someone working in the background. When I graduated college I was accepted as a senate fellow at the state capital working on policy areas that I loved –- insurance, natural resources, education – but I never anticipated running for office myself. My parents always taught me – something I now teach my kids – that if you’re going to complain about something, you better be willing to be part of the solution. That’s ultimately why I first ran for office (in 2005, for Modesto City Council}, because I wanted to make a difference in my community and help make decisions that would improve the quality of life in Modesto.
So are you shocked that you are the Minority Leader Elect?
It is a little bit shocking compared to what I thought I would do in my life. But I am so excited about it, about the opportunity my colleagues and I have to help lead California’s return to the shining Golden State it once was. We have our work cut out for us.
What would your 7th grade self say to you today?
Wow. Life takes so many twists and turns and is often unpredictable. It can be so rewarding if we work really hard to pursue our dreams. The dream for me is to help make California a place that I can be proud of and that my kids will want to call home when they are adults and be a place where they can pursue their dreams and provide for their families. I think we have gone a long way from that. I think today’s kids grow up wondering if they are going to have the opportunity to get a great job in California or if they are going to be able to build a life here, and that is sad. So, I am excited that I am in a position today where I can help revitalize that dream for kids across the state -- particularly for families who live in the San Joaquin Valley, where there are so many challenges, and yet we have great opportunities if we have people who will stand up for our needs and bring more resources, economic development, and attention to the Valley.
What are your thoughts on why Republican Party registration has been on the decline? Do you have a strategy to reverse that trend?
Both political parties have seen their registration numbers decline. As Republicans, we need to do a better job articulating our message to people in all parts of California. We have winning policy ideas that will help individuals and families find good jobs and put their kids in great schools. We need to demonstrate that we care about people and their daily struggles, and that we will fight on their behalf for a smaller, more responsive government that takes less money out of their pockets and allows them to pursue opportunity and enjoy a more positive quality of life. When we start getting that message out more effectively, I believe we will see people return to the party they were once proud to be a part of.
“Decline to State” voters are the fastest growing political voting bloc in California. Do you have a plan on how to help your members appeal to the “Decline to State” voters in November?They feel the parties are out of touch with the things they care about, and they are tired of the constant bickering. My Assembly Republican colleagues and I are committed to showing voters we share their frustration and are ready to be solution-focused -- that we are committed to solving the problems that have plagued our state for far too long. We will reach out to them in new, creative ways, and we will lead by example in offering solutions to improve our economy and give Californians greater freedom and opportunity to secure good jobs and provide their children with a top-notch education.
You represent the Central Valley of California, a largely agricultural and rural part of California known for its pickup trucks, tractors, and oil rigs, and is home to the most productive agricultural land in the world. Most people associate California more with movie stars, beaches, and high tech companies. Do you find that you and your colleagues in the Central Valley have to scream a little louder and fight harder so the Central Valley is not overlooked?I do. I think there is a growing divide between our coastal communities and our inland communities. Too often we are entirely ignored or we are outright harmed by some of the state’s policies that put so much focus on economic development or quality of life in our coastal communities, but leave us behind, and that’s not okay. So, I am proud to be able to defend and promote the San Joaquin Valley and work with all of my colleagues who represent the Central Valley -- both Republicans and Democrats -- to raise our profile and say our constituents matter too. I realize that I now represent a statewide perspective and that provides further opportunities to promote our Valley and rich agricultural heritage. I believe very strongly in bringing regions together. We will be stronger as a state if we are capitalizing on the strengths of each of our regions. The San Joaquin Valley is a very important region as we are the agriculture base of the entire world.
Recently, incoming Senate Leader Kevin De Leon was quoted in the LA Times talking about the Central Valley, he said, “No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds." How would you respond to the senator’s comment?
I was very disappointed by his comments. I thought they were condescending, arrogant, demeaning to every single one of us that call the Central Valley our home. That’s not acceptable. On one hand, I appreciated the subjects he was referencing -- the criticism about the high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels projects. I think his criticism was well placed. The reason behind his criticism, however, was so unfounded. The facts are that Fresno is one of the largest cities, not only in California, but the nation. Modesto is one of the top 20 cities population-wise in the nation. We have a lot of people in the Valley who work very hard, making a great living. We have incredible amenities like the Gallo Center for the Performing in Modesto. So I was very disappointed by his remarks, but on the other hand, I also took it as instructive, a harsh reminder for those of us who represent the Valley to do a better job of communicating our strengths and values to our colleagues in the state legislature.
Most people are born into their political party and religion? Were you born a Republican?
Both of my parents are Republicans. I come from a family that is very politically active. We were taught that voting is very important. Our family has a tradition of voting at the polls with our children because we believe in teaching them the importance of voting.
Both my parents passed their faith on to us. My Christian faith is very important to me. So, in that respect, yes. But, I think part of growing into an adult is finding your own beliefs and questioning what you believe and why you believe it. So, I would say that I wasn’t born into those things but rather they have become my own.
You have the reputation of working across party lines. Now that you are the GOP Minority Leader in the California State Assembly, how will you balance both your responsibility of getting more Republicans elected to the Assembly and promoting a Republican policy agenda while continuing to work across party lines?I will represent a conservative caucus. I think it is important that, as leader, I represent a statewide perspective for the party involving conservative core principles that focus on great jobs, goods schools and making state government more accountable and transparent to taxpayers. Having said that, I believe the vast majority of Californians -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- want to see legislators working together to get good work done and I think most of the issues that people care about -- education being a great example -- are not partisan, and shouldn’t have to be partisan. I have worked very hard and will continue to work hard as leader to work across the aisle to seek areas of common ground that we can move forward with that are just good for all Californians, regardless of political ideology. I am confident that I will be a leader that can represent a conservative caucus and at the same time work very hard across party lines to get results for the people of California.
A labor expert recently told me that California’s new Top-Two Primary has changed everything for the Democrats, but had done nothing for Republicans. Do you agree?
I am not sure I agree. I think the ultimate results of our new open primary system have yet to be seen. I think it is going to take several election cycles before we are able to discern what the true impact is. Right now, what I have seen is that it is almost having the opposite result. I think both parties, particularly their activists and their central committees, are desperate to continue to find relevancy in the new open primary system. So I think, if anything, they have veered to the right and left as they try to find the candidate to best represent the core. I don’t think that was the goal of the open primary. As I said, I think after several cycles, it will start to flesh itself out and we might see that it will mirror more closely the goal of electing people -- both Republicans and Democrats -- who are more reflective of the communities they represent.
Do you support the right of Independent voters to participate in primary elections by defending California's Nonpartisan Open Primary?
I do. I think it is important that the people of California have as many choices as possible at the polls. I have faith in people to do their homework and educate themselves on the candidates as well as the ability of party members to educate voters and get information out. Ultimately, we must trust voters to make sound decisions and we should give them full choices of all parties. Over time, my hope is that the legislature will reflect a more balanced perspective that is more in line with most Californians.