Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, a subject of the FBI’s investigation into Capitol corruption, was pressured out of his GOP leadership post Thursday and replaced by Assemblyman Ross Johnson, a fiery partisan from La Habra.
Nolan’s resignation from the Assembly’s top Republican job came less than 48 hours after two incumbent Republicans lost their Assembly seats in hard-fought races with Democrats. A third Republican is behind by less than 100 votes with more than 2,000 absentee ballots still to be counted.
Johnson, who has been a Nolan ally, said Nolan could have held onto the job if he had been willing to tough-out a bloody internal battle with about a dozen party dissidents. Johnson won the post on a 20-11 vote over Assemblyman Bill Jones of Fresno, leader of a GOP faction that has been trying to oust Nolan for months.
Johnson, 49, a 10-year veteran of the lower house, met with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) Thursday afternoon but told reporters that he was “not interested” in working with Democrats in a coalition. He gave no indication that he would depart from Nolan’s practice of focusing less on governing than on winning a conservative majority in the Assembly.
“Good government in my mind is electing 41 Republicans to the Assembly,” Johnson said after the 2 1/2-hour, closed-door GOP meeting. Tuesday’s defeats left the Republicans at least seven votes short of capturing a majority in the 80-member Assembly.
Johnson, the son of a union laborer, is an outspoken conservative known for his strong support of the death penalty, opposition to abortion and hostility to social programs such as Medi-Cal. He was a co-sponsor of Proposition 73, the measure voters approved in June to limit campaign contributions and prohibit the transfer of money from one campaign to another.
The quick-tempered Johnson, a lawyer, was swept into office with Nolan in 1978, the year voters approved property tax-cutting Proposition 13. He has often engaged in heated and sometimes vulgar exchanges on the Assembly floor, never hesitating to criticize even those who are supposed to be his allies.
Earlier this year, he called a fellow Republican “foolish and cowardly” for agreeing to work with a group of rebel Democrats in an effort to oust Brown from his speakership.
And in September, he lambasted Gov. George Deukmejian for nominating Auditor General Thomas Hayes, a political unknown, to be state treasurer. He called the decision “outrageous,” “incomprehensible” and a “slap in the face to thousands of Republican activists.”
But colleagues on both sides of the aisle Thursday described Johnson as a talented lawmaker who does not carry a grudge.
“It was a good choice,” said Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Mike Roos, a Los Angeles Democrat. “He’s solid. He’s bright. He’s a tough partisan. He articulates the values of that caucus very well.”
Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run), a leader of the anti-Nolan faction of the GOP caucus, said Johnson might be able to unite a group that is badly divided.
Johnson, Statham said, is “his own man, even though he comes from the ‘Nolanista’ camp. I think he has the ability to reach into the other third of the caucus and smooth things out.”
Nolan, the Republican leader since 1984, had aspirations of becoming Assembly Speaker and running for statewide office, perhaps even governor. But those hopes appear to have been dashed by a series of setbacks that led to his resignation from the leadership job.
Nolan’s power was weakened by his role in a 1986 scheme to forge President Reagan’s signature on the campaign letters of GOP Assembly candidates. A Sacramento district attorney report released in September alleged that Nolan had asked his staff to lie to White House officials who looked into the incident.
Nolan is also one of four legislators who have been targeted in the FBI sting, in which federal agents created phony companies, sponsored bills and paid money to lawmakers while seeking legislative favors in return. No charges have been filed in the case, but the investigation is continuing.
Nolan said he quit because he was failing to make progress toward his goal of electing a Republican majority in time for the 1990 census and the reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts that will follow.
“Two of our members were defeated,” Nolan said. “I’m very frustrated by that. I thought it was appropriate to pass the mantle on.”
In Tuesday’s elections, Assemblymen William P. Duplissea of San Carlos and Paul E. Zeltner of Lakewood were defeated by Democratic challengers. Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk) was losing by 87 votes in a race in which as many as 3,000 absentee ballots are yet to be counted.
Nolan also said that in his four years as minority leader he “made a lot of sacrifices.”
“Frankly, I’m tired,” he said. “I want to spend more time with my wife and my new daughter.”
Times staff writer Mark Gladstone contributed to this story.