Stepping up to the microphone during a recent legislative debate, rookie Assemblywoman Tricia Hunter (R-Bonita) disclosed that she keeps a gun on her nightstand when her husband, a Navy commander, is away from home.
The admission--along with her vote that day against a gun-control measure and the distance she has put between herself and the pro-choice movement--has left some people wondering whether Hunter is now backing off of the selective liberal views that helped catapult her into national headlines and victory last year in a hotly contested Assembly race.
By a fluke of timing, the registered nurse-turned-politician found herself running as the only pro-choice Republican in a legislative election that was the first in the country after the U.S. Supreme Court's Webster decision in July, a ruling that gave state legislatures more say on the politically explosive abortion issue.
That legal opinion elevated what should have been a long-shot candidacy into a political litmus test on abortion. And it galvanized pro-choice advocates, whose support helped Hunter squeeze out a victory last October in a conservative district that encompasses parts of San Diego and Riverside counties.
Hunter's endorsement of an assault weapon ban enacted earlier by the Legislature also drew kudos from the gun-control lobby and won her its backing.
But just five months later, Hunter, 37, is downplaying the significance of her pro-choice position and attempting to precisely explain her views on gun control.
Discussing her pro-choice position, she said recently: "It's not my only issue. I don't want to go to rallies and I don't intend to be a flag-carrying (advocate)."
To prove the point, she turned down an invitation to appear with a long line of other lawmakers at a pro-choice rally outside the Capitol in January to mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Her absence was made all the more noticeable when her victory in the special election was invoked by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) as an example of the political muscle flexed by pro-choice forces.
She has also voted against the pro-choice lobby. During the November special session on earthquake relief, she joined Assembly Republicans to block a resolution that called on Gov. George Deukmejian to restore family planning funds. She voted against the measure, she said at the time, because it was a surprise and was out of place in the special session.
In a milder test, Hunter recently abstained from voting on anti-abortion amendments that were proposed for a bill regarding genetic testing. The amendments failed.
"She abstained against us on that bill, which was disappointing," said Norma K. Clevenger, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. "But I think probably because the amendments came up quickly, nobody had the time to talk to her."
Clevenger and other pro-life supporters say they believe that Hunter will be a vote they can count on during the big fights. Some of the mixed signals, they say, may be attributable to her worries about being reelected.
"I think she sees herself as being somewhat vulnerable," Clevenger said.
Meanwhile, her recent vote against a 15-day waiting period for hunting rifles and long gun sales--a measure that narrowly passed the Legislature--has some people grumbling.
"When she came out against assault weapons (during her campaign), we supported her and here we thought that we had someone very much on our side," said Stan Foster, a San Diego businessman and national vice chairman of Handgun Control Inc. He characterized Hunter's vote against the waiting period bill as a "terrible disappointment."
In response, Hunter said gun-control supporters apparently weren't listening very closely during her campaign. She said she has always been against the waiting period proviso.
Some San Diego County politicos explain Hunter's recent actions as an effort to curry favor with her conservative constituents in time for the June 5 primary, in which she faces an anti-abortion challenger.
"I think what you're going to see from Tricia Hunter is that she is going to vote whatever is expedient," said Poway management consultant Dick Lyles, who lost to Hunter last year. "It's real clear what she's trying to do is appear to be a mainstream Republican."
But the feisty political newcomer says her votes and tactics in Sacramento should come as no surprise. Hunter maintains that she has always been more conservative than portrayed by the media or campaign rhetoric, which latched onto the abortion and gun-control issues.
So far, she said, most of her time in office has been used to feel her way through the often mysterious legislative process and to show her colleagues--especially her fellow Republicans in the Assembly--that she wants to be a team player and holds no grudges for their opposition to her candidacy.
"I could have gone to Sacramento with a chip on my shoulder," she said. "I had a right to be indignant, angry at the way I was treated (by Republicans) in the election. But what purpose does it serve? It doesn't do me any good."
Hunter's primary opponent is Connie Youngkin, a homemaker who is a leader in Operation Rescue's anti-abortion movement in San Diego. Youngkin's hopes are partially pegged to the rules of the primary, which prevent the kind of crossover votes from pro-choice Democrats that Hunter needed to eke out a victory in last year's special election.