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The radicalization of Kevin Kiley: A Placer politician’s strange journey from MLK to MAGA

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, stands with supporters on the west steps of the Capitol on Saturday, July 10, 2021, to officially kick off his campaign to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, stands with supporters on the west steps of the Capitol on Saturday, July 10, 2021, to officially kick off his campaign to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election.

In 2007, an idealistic 22-year-old Harvard student named Kevin Kiley wrote in his undergraduate thesis that “politicians are inclined to do the easy thing — cater to the worldviews of their constituents — rather than offer the more challenging task of self-examination.”

Fifteen years later, Kiley resembles the kind of politician he once disdained.

When the Placer County assemblyman and congressional candidate was first elected, he presented himself as a moderate conservative who could make common cause with the Democrats running the California Legislature. Before he began his political career, he taught high school English in South Central Los Angeles through Teach for America, which places graduates of elite colleges in low-income schools. And before that, he wrote his 150-page thesis arguing that “the guiding principles of liberalism itself are most fully realizable through Republican politics” as exemplified by the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.


“What MLK’s philosophy implies is that rights provide the basis by which not merely individuals but communities and societies can live out a vision of the good — through politics,” Kiley writes. “MLK clearly believed that not only a better life, but an altogether new sense of self, could be achieved through the practice of politics.”

Now Kiley has loudly positioned himself as the antithesis of the progressive values of the California majority. The once-thoughtful young Ivy League scholar has molded himself into an anti-“woke”, anti-liberal, anti-Newsom and anti-California crusader endorsed by Donald Trump. But does he actually believe any of it?

‘Utter deception’

Does Kiley the candidate for Congress possess the same values and virtues as Kiley the Granite Bay High School valedictorian and former South Central L.A. high school teacher? In his Harvard thesis, Kiley argues that “some understanding of virtue is essential to meaningful political participation.”

“To exclude one set of values is itself a value judgment,” he wrote in 2007. “To purportedly exclude all values is to live in a state of utter deception, as any political judgment is necessarily motivated by something.”

Last year, Kiley voted against a bill that would require California high school students to complete an ethnic studies course to graduate. He bragged about giving the only speech in opposition to the bill. This from a man who once dedicated 150 pages to argue that the civil rights movement evinced “a republican quality unseen in contemporary American political life.”

Kiley once argued that one could understand the true and present danger of inequality today only by studying the history of American race relations — the very subject matter he now wants to censor.

“Worst of all, as the ignominious history of American race relations so amply demonstrates, falsely distinguishing the right from the good provides no assurance against the perils of inequality and social discord,” Kiley wrote in his undergraduate thesis. “Indeed, the resulting spiritual vacuum may create an opening for exactly the kind of inegalitarian doctrines that rationalized segregation and the still greater crimes of the twentieth century.”

From Kasich to Trump

Kiley’s evolution has continued during his relatively short time in elective office. For instance, last year, he received an abysmal 20% rating from Equality California based on his voting record on bills affecting the LGBTQ+ community. But just three years earlier, he received a 60% rating from the same organization.

Likewise, in 2018, Kiley received a 55% rating from the United Food & Commercial Workers Western States Council, a regional body of a union representing 200,000 workers in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The group calculates its annual legislative scorecard based on how legislators vote on bills related to workplace safety and workers’ rights. Last year, Kiley received the lowest score the union awarded in the entire Legislature: 19%.

Kiley once said he believed that California’s biggest priority should be addressing the state’s “increasingly unaffordable cost of living.” To that end, he co-authored Senate Bill 50, by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, a controversial bill that would have overruled local zoning to allow more high-density housing near public transportation and job centers. More recently, however, the assemblyman failed to cast a vote on Senate Bill 9, a distant, watered-down descendant of Wiener’s bill that allows moderately higher density in highly restrictive residential zones.

The legislator’s transformation hasn’t even spared his Twitter bio. In 2018, Kiley described himself as a “State Assemblyman proudly representing California’s 6th Assembly District, prosecutor, educator, GBHS grad, uncle of Matthew and Joey, suffering Kings fan.” Now he’s a “California Legislator fighting for sanity at our Capitol.” He uses his online presence mostly to take shots at Newsom, the Democratic Party and, increasingly, his opponent in the Placer County-based 3rd Congressional District, Dr. Kermit Jones.

In the spring of 2016, when Trump was vying with a crowd of other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, Kiley told The Sacramento Bee’s Editorial Board that he planned to vote for the relatively moderate Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the primary. Last spring, Kiley tweeted that he was “truly honored” to receive Trump’s endorsement.

Kiley once wrote that “only in a truly integrated society, where individuals are not merely nominal equals in the eyes of the law but genuine equals in the eyes of one another … can true freedom be experienced.” How can he now be honored to be endorsed by a man who marshaled white supremacist forces in an attempt to overthrow a free and fair election?


The radicalization of Kevin Kiley is a microcosm of the Republican Party’s evolution since Trump was elected in 2016 — from the party of Lincoln and Reagan to one that unapologetically sold out to an amoral, authoritarian liar.

Kiley’s transformation accelerated last year, when he thrust himself into the spotlight as the self-appointed chief critic of Gov. Gavin Newsom. He championed a recall effort that ultimately failed, while costing taxpayers approximately $200 million, and tried to seize the moment with a clunkily written, self-published book (a signed copy of which cost me $6).

In the book, “Recall Newsom,” Kiley waxes dystopian about California, describing it as a “state that is literally deteriorating, a state where over half the population wants out, a state where two-thirds believe the American dream is dead.” Unlike his Harvard thesis, the book does not back up these enormous claims with citations.

As the recall gained traction with the national media, if not with the state’s voters, Kiley was in the public eye. He became more extreme, pandered to Placer County’s pandemic deniers and parroted Trumpist talking points.

“In California, our Legislature and governor (are) finding new ways every day to take decisions and power away from parents and families,” Kiley said on the podcast “Real America with Dan Ball” in January, when he shared an episode with far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican Georgia representative. “Part and parcel of this idea that our schools should mold our kids in tune with the radical woke agenda of our Legislature and governor as opposed to the classical understanding of education, which was supposed to empower.”

These days, the former adjunct professor and law scholar isn’t even willing to acknowledge that President Joe Biden was fairly and democratically elected. On Jan. 11, 2021, just five days after Trump supporters staged an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Kiley failed to vote on a resolution, authored by the Assembly’s former Republican leader, calling for the president’s impeachment.

Kiley has also associated with people who took part in the insurrection, including Carlsbad chiropractor Cordie Williams, who stormed the U.S. Capitol and urged others to do the same. Kiley spoke at an event co-sponsored by Williams’ group “1776 Forever Free” and has posed for a photo with neo-Nazi Chelsea Knight.

Kiley’s interest in representing his constituents seems to have receded as his political aspirations and extremism have grown. Last year, he missed a total of 272 floor and committee votes.

Four of the 24 session days Kiley missed were attributed to his campaign for governor during the recall. He ultimately came in sixth in the field of replacement candidates.

Chaos agent

Like the breed of politician he criticized in his thesis, Kiley is saying what he thinks his constituents want to hear. The morals or principles that once preoccupied him are difficult to discern.

In both his thesis and his 2021 book, Kiley philosophizes about the role of local communities — neighborhoods, schools and workplaces — as crucial to true self-government. “For our Founding Fathers, the lifeblood of republicanism was local communities,” Kiley wrote in “Recall Newsom.”

Yet as an elected official, Kiley no longer appears interested in creating communities or supporting existing ones. Quite the opposite: Kiley has supported political candidates who have exacerbated and reinforced divisions; he has backed chaos agents who threaten some of the core tenets of America’s founding principles; and he is complicit in perpetuating Trump’s authoritarian agenda.

At 22, Kiley expressed contempt for the kind of politician he’s turned into. Pandering to your constituents is easy, he wrote, but “to engage in political action is to work towards the common good.” These days, Kiley works for himself.

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