The desk clock in the hotel room showed a minute past 4 o’clock in the morning Wednesday when Curt Pringle put down the telephone and said simply, “Twenty votes.”
The words landed with a thud in the two-room suite at the Doubletree Hotel, where Pringle and friends, family and supporters had gathered to await word of the outcome in his race against Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach for the 72nd Assembly District seat.
As the clock ticked on, a night that had been full of laughs and promise was turning sour. Because, for the first time since the vote-counting vigil had begun about 9 p.m. on election night, Pringle had fallen behind.
Saying little and maintaining the same outer calm he had shown throughout the night, Pringle slumped in a chair and, oblivious to the small talk around him, closed his eyes and appeared to sleep. The somber scene--with only immediate family members in the room--couldn’t have been more unlike the mood in the suite only hours before, as streams of supporters crowded in to pay homage.
For Pringle, the night had begun in earnest about 9:15 p.m. when he arrived at the hotel after a dinner with his family and friends.
As returns started coming in, the Pringle party engaged in the usual election night banter, cheering George Bush’s every move on television and booing every mention of Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hayden of Santa Monica. Pringle even switched channels when former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. appeared on screen.
The young Republican from Garden Grove had known all along that he was not in for a cakewalk against Thierbach, a Democratic deputy district attorney running in a Democratic district concerned about crime.
Although only 29, Pringle was no stranger to election nights. Three times he had run for the Garden Grove City Council, and three times he had lost. But this was the big time. This time, he and Thierbach had spent more than $1 million each trying to be elected.
And with the ante that high, Pringle was playing his cards close to the vest.
He took a lead in early returns but refused to claim victory. As other Republican Party winners gave victory speeches in the hotel ballroom, Pringle stayed in his room.
And as mid-evening turned into late night and early morning, as Pringle’s fortunes rose and sagged in the vote count, the vigil became a series of morale-boosting walks inside and outside the hotel and of reflections on the long and expensive campaign.
In the first few hours after the polls closed, the Pringle camp’s periodic calls to the Orange County registrar of voters had brought welcome news:
10:20 p.m.--Pringle ahead by 625 votes.
11:10 p.m.--Pringle ahead by 742.
12:30 a.m.--Pringle ahead by 640.
1:30 a.m.--Pringle ahead by 862.
And although he wanted mightily to join other Republican Party winners in the ballroom, Pringle resisted.
It wouldn’t be proper, he said, until he won.
And so he waited. And waited.
He waited as streams of friends and family came and left the suite. He waited as his 2-year-old son, Kyle, eventually surrendered his red suit with the American flag on the lapel for his little blue jammies. He waited as Kyle frolicked on the bed at 12:20 a.m. (“he’s a night baby,” friends said) but finally gave out and was taken home. He waited until 2:25 a.m., when his parents left. He waited until 3:15 a.m., when office manager Suzanne Henry and Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange) curled up, fully clothed, and fell asleep.
But as the long night kept getting longer and longer, Pringle remained unflappable.
“I’ve lost three times for City Council,” Pringle said. “I don’t get too excited till the very end.”
While the George Bush campaigners basked in his victory serenade, Pringle knew there were many ballots to count before he slept.
At 2:30 a.m., he was leading by 650 votes. “It looks good, but it’s nothing we can make a statement about,” said veteran party pro Marcia Gilchrist.
By 2:55 a.m., those words were sounding prophetic, as Pringle’s lead shrank to 432. “As I’ve said all along,” Pringle said, “I’ll be happy to win with a margin of one after a recount.”
At 3:30 a.m., Thierbach had closed to 213 votes. Pringle’s percentage lead was 50.1 to 49.5. Pringle got those numbers as he and brother-in-law Bob Nease rested on a sofa in the hotel lobby. A friend walked up and said, “Congrats. What’s the final?”
“There is no final,” Pringle said. “We’re ahead by 213.”
The man wished Pringle luck. “We’ve lost 400 votes in the last two phone calls,” Pringle said, prompting someone to suggest that he should quit making phone calls.
Then, at 4 a.m., came the call to the registrar that showed Pringle trailing.
For the dozen or so relatives, friends and campaign supporters around him, it was time to circle the wagons. “Win or lose, he’s got what counts,” said Delight Nease, his mother-in-law. “He’s bright, energetic--he has a very strong family, and he has all those values so entrenched in every area of his life that he can’t be anything but a winner. Alexis (his wife) is the same way. They have a strong marriage and faith. Win or lose, he’ll be fine.”
Alexis, who had been curled up under the covers for hours, was fidgety.
At 4:10 a.m., she made another call to the registrar. Quickly, however, she hung up.
“I think I dialed the wrong number,” she said, sheepishly. “I think I just woke somebody up.”
“Just tell them you’re Marlene Thierbach (his opponent’s wife) and thank them for their vote,” Pringle joked.
At 4:15 a.m., Alexis tried again. This time, she was smiling. Pringle had regained the lead, this time by 290 votes as another 17 precincts had reported.
At 5:30 a.m., his mother-in-law came in and read the latest figures: Pringle 50.5%, Thierbach 49.1%. “That’s a mandate!” Pringle said, to a chorus of laughs.
By 6 a.m., with the sun up and his lead once again growing, Pringle showed his first signs during the long night of thinking victory was within his grasp.
He acknowledged that, when the returns showed him losing, he had said a prayer. “I don’t think it’s right to pray to win,” he said. “Up until today, I prayed that voters would be wise and be able to clearly distinguish who was the best person to serve them. My prayer today has been all day that God’s will be done and that I could accept it.”
When things were gloomiest during the night, Pringle and his wife took a walk in the hotel hallway.
And when victory seemed assured just before breakfast--when the totals showed him with 50.3% of the vote to Thierbach’s 49.3%--Pringle looked out the hotel window at a bright new day.
“I can see my district out there,” he said.