It’s hard to picture a more unthreatening guy than Curt Pringle. Even today, at 31, he still looks more like your brainy nephew than a political heavy.
Yet that’s the tag Pringle carried into the state Legislature following his 1988 election victory in Orange County’s 71st Assembly District. Pringle, a Republican, won a close race, but it was tainted by Election Day disclosures that the county Republican Party had paid for uniformed security guards at some Santa Ana polling sites because it feared that unregistered Democratic Latino voters might show up.
From that moment, Pringle, a political nobody who had lost three previous tries for the Garden Grove City Council, became a marked man. Although he denounced the use of the guards and was shown to have had no direct role in their hiring, he became for some the villainous embodiment of people’s worst instincts about politics.
By the time Pringle got to Sacramento to try to do business with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, he might just as well have painted a bull’s-eye on his back.
On his first day in the Legislature, he was given a temporary office. On his second day, he was told the office was no longer his and that he should find quarters with a “friendly Republican.” A month later, he got an office that he says was clearly “the smallest office in the building.”
Although he introduced a minimal number of bills, he often found them going nowhere fast. Pringle knew what was happening to him, but there was little he could do about it.
Last month, Pringle lost his first try at reelection. Last week his conqueror, Tom Umberg, was sworn in. At 31, Pringle may well be a political has-been.
So, I expected to find a glum Curt Pringle last week. Instead, he seemed generally upbeat and able to look with some bemusement on his foray into the rough-and-tumble world of Sacramento politics.
“Going in, I knew games were going to be played, but I didn’t know how severe they were going to be,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to be able to cope and understand the situation. It was another thing for my family, my wife particularly. I don’t think she’s read the paper since 1988, as a matter of fact. She says, ‘Why should I read the paper when I know firsthand how some things have been misconstrued and misrepresented?’ ”
Although Pringle says he was targeted by Sacramento Democrats mostly because he won in a winnable Democratic district, he realizes the poll guard debacle put an additional burden on him.
“I’ve said in the paper many times I thought it was inappropriate to have anybody in uniform at the polling place. So I guess if you want to say where the personal blame is, it’s not on me, because it wasn’t my decision and it wasn’t me who paid for them. But the point is it happened during my election, it was part of my district where it happened, so I’ve had to carry the brunt of it.”
The specific nature of the incident has troubled him more, he says, than would a more mundane political mistake. “Yeah, because the people who look at it as some type of plot against Hispanics bring that back at me. I guess that’s what hurts the most. We could go back to the ’88 election and say that my campaign manager--who was Carlos Rodriguez--that his first job in politics was to work for then-Speaker (of the State Assembly) Leo McCarthy (a Democrat), and that he was the Hispanic outreach coordinator for the speaker’s office. . . . So I guess it’s kind of tough when racial innuendoes are made, because it’s made against me personally. And that is very far from the truth.”
So, has he had it with politics?
“I won’t say I’m washed up at 31. I still have idealism about politics. I think the principles that I had going in haven’t been changed. I think it’s important to get principled people into politics, particularly people who are young enough to get in and work and do something. Even though (other people’s) convictions may not be the same as mine, I think it’s important to have principled people. Often we don’t have principled people who will stand up for their values and stand up for what they believe in, regardless of politics.”
Pringle always has struck me as a babe in the political woods. I spent an all-nighter with him when he won the cliff-hanger in 1988; his most noticeable trait that night was his evenness in waiting out the results. He showed neither the disposition for political conniving nor the lust for power. I remember saying to a colleague that I was curious to see how Sacramento would treat young Mr. Pringle.
“I guess I did have a naive view in that I didn’t realize the legislative process was as partisan and political as it really is. It’s overwhelmingly partisan and political. Nearly every public policy issue takes a back seat to politics and partisanship, on all sides. That’s one of the more disturbing aspects. I thought you go in and wrangle and discuss issues of public policy that affect the state, but that’s one of the last things that gets discussed.”
Given all the bad press the Legislature gets, how could he not know that going in? “I never realized it was as bad as it was portrayed, and I actually don’t think it’s ever been portrayed as bad as it really is. . . .”
Yet, although he says he’s happy to be back at work full time in the family drapery and window covering business, Pringle hasn’t ruled out another shot at politics someday.
“The point is, I think I did something good. I believe I stood up for the right things, I believe I did my job properly, I believe I worked hard and represented this district better than it’s ever been represented before. To say I think it was a two-year downer, absolutely not. Absolutely not. But if I were to look back at some of the things I would have done differently, I’d say maybe a few of those dinners I went to, I didn’t need to go to, and maybe I should have stayed home with my kids and read them another story, if you really want to know.”