Older, Wiser Pringle Takes Second Shot at Sacramento

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County's once-and-future assemblyman is back. After a two-year absence from the political sword fights of Sacramento, Curt Pringle has returned to the ornate chambers of the Capitol, ready to do battle for the things he holds dear--lower taxes, less government and the rights of small-business owners everywhere.

By most accounts, this is hardly the same politician who served a short, relatively innocuous two-year stint in the Assembly during the late 1980s, only to be dispatched from office by Democrat Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove). This, insiders say, is a different Curt--a little bit older, a whole lot wiser. Bloodied and beaten in battle, he's back in the corridors of power to begin the fight anew.

"I think the new Curt Pringle coming up learned a great lesson--he knows now what it's like to lose," said Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), a colleague on the Orange County delegation. "It's humbling. I think he had a reality check. He learned a great deal his first two years in Sacramento, and now he has a great deal to offer."

If titles are any measure, Pringle is off to a good start. Just weeks into his first term as assemblyman for central Orange County's 68th District, the 33-year-old Republican has already achieved greater fame than he did during his first tour in the state capital. Last month, Pringle was named Assembly minority whip for the Republican caucus, nominally making him one of the party's top leaders in Sacramento.

As whip, Pringle will help marshal Republican lawmakers on key votes, a task that wags liken to herding a pack of cats. But the new role puts Pringle in a position of prominence that could, potentially, translate into more cachet when his own legislation hits the floor.

"Curt was picked for a number of reasons--he can hit the ground running, and he doesn't need to learn the system because he already knows the system," said Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who selected Pringle for the new post. "He has the confidence not only of the freshmen members, but of the more senior members of the caucus as well."

Pringle still faces formidable obstacles, among them powerful Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who in the past has singled out the bespectacled lawmaker for poor treatment.

Like many matters in the Kafkaesque confines of the state Capitol rotunda, there are two versions of why Brown came to take such keen aim at Pringle.

As Republicans tell it, the speaker's disdain is a product of political gamesmanship. The Orange County district Pringle represented between 1988 and 1990 was not a Republican bastion, making him a ready target for Brown and other Democrats eager to wound the freshman. Brown did it every way possible, most notably by giving Pringle an office little bigger than a broom closet and ensuring that the Republican's legislation stayed bottled up in committee.

Democratic Party spinmeisters tell a different tale. They say Brown's disdain dates back to the infamous "poll guard" episode of 1988, when Pringle's campaign and the Republican Party hired uniformed security guards to stand outside heavily minority voting places in Santa Ana. Latino activists contend the tactic scared off some newly enfranchised voters and helped Pringle win. Irked by the imbroglio, the story goes, Brown funneled money to help defeat Pringle two years ago in a million-dollar political slugfest.

Whatever the case, the speaker has made it obvious he plans to continue needling the second-time assemblyman. It's as plain as the chair Pringle sits in. In assigning lawmakers their seating spots on the Assembly floor, Brown put Pringle right behind Umberg, a juxtaposition laden with painful irony: Pringle will have to endure long and dreary legislative sessions staring at the back of the man who once defeated him.

"Willie can be pretty petty sometimes. He thinks it's cute," said state Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange), a staunch ally of Pringle. "But that sort of thing backfires. Republicans may be behind Umberg on the seating chart, but they'll only be all the more cognizant of when he casts another bad liberal vote."

For his part, Pringle remains upbeat about his renewed legislative life and heady new responsibilities. The self-described "redshirt freshman" also expects to get a lot more accomplished in this term, particularly because his new district is solidly Republican and he won't have to toe a careful path to avoid Democrat booby traps.

"Everyone is aware I won't be the target I was before, particularly with the speaker," Pringle said. "This new seat is a lot more Republican. Things are going to be different right out of the gate."

Things are also different because of the state's new term-limits law. Pringle is one of the "Proposition 140 babies," so named because they are the first freshman class sworn in under the new limits. With only six years to make their mark, there's no time to waste on political shenanigans.

During his first term in the Assembly, Pringle played the role of Republican loyalist, conservative beyond reproach. To Republican leaders he was a dutiful worker, laboring hard to please his constituents and sticking to the path laid down by the party. Democrats, however, remember Pringle as a milquetoast back bencher, a rote follower of the worst of Republican doctrine.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Panorama City) calls Pringle a "rigid ideologue" more intent on toeing the conservative party line than finding solutions to the myriad problems facing society.

"Curt is ideologically pure," Katz said. "That typically means sticking out on the fringe at the sake of compromise and solving problems. Solving problems isn't something Curt did a lot of when he was up here before."

Pringle makes no apologies for his beliefs. If solving problems means padding an already bloated government, he'll have no part of it. The mild-mannered assemblyman is also every bit as proud of his record of votes against taxes and new regulations as he is of sponsoring legislation.

"Lots of folks in Sacramento view you and value you in the ways you're able to expand the size and scope of government," Pringle said. "I come from a different perspective. . . . No, I won't compromise on things like tax increases and overregulation of business. If that makes me an ideologue, then so be it."

His legislative goals today are primarily twofold: to reduce the scale of government and make life easier for small businesses he feels are overburdened by zealous regulatory agencies. He intends to introduce bills to curb the powerful Air Quality Management District and ease the blizzard of paperwork and regulations burying the business community.

These are issues he knows firsthand. A native of Iowa, Pringle moved to Orange County with his family in the mid-1960s, and his parents started a dry cleaning business. The original firm spawned a drapery business, and Pringle has spent much of his adult life working with his folks in one capacity or another.

An early love, however, was politics. Not long after high school, Pringle ran for Garden Grove City Council--and lost. He ran twice more, each time coming up short. Somehow, Pringle remained undeterred. In 1988, he was plucked from relative obscurity to run for the Legislature after Assemblyman Richard E. Longshore died the day after the June primary election.

After a furious round of campaigning, he pulled out a narrow victory--and immediately jumped into hot water over the poll guard issue. It earned Pringle unwanted notoriety during his first term and lurked like a ghost during the bitter 1990 race with Umberg.

Pringle maintains the guards were hired because of widespread voter fraud during the 1988 race, as Democratic operatives illegally registered scores of illegal immigrants. To curb the fraud, the guards were stationed at 20 polling places holding signs reading, "Non-citizens can't vote."

There was nothing unethical or illegal, he insists. Pringle says he had no idea the guards would wear uniforms, but feels the basic intent was worthwhile--to inform illegal immigrants that it was illegal for them to take part in the electoral process. "I am still perplexed that some people seem to think it's wrong to state the law," Pringle said.

What also troubled him was the results of a subsequent lawsuit brought by Latino activists. Even though Pringle says he wanted to fight the suit to the end, insurance companies that represented him and other defendants ignored their pleas and settled out of court for $400,000. Thus, despite his unwavering insistence that he had done no wrong, Pringle was forever linked to the losing side.

After his defeat in 1990, Pringle's chance for political resurrection was born of the reapportionment process. When new boundaries for legislative districts were drawn, Pringle's house was included as part of the safely Republican 68th Assembly District--and outside of the district represented by his arch adversary, Umberg.

He quickly amassed nearly $240,000 and went on to defeat two opponents in the Republican primary and squash Democrat Linda Kay Rigney in November. Nearly $30,000 of the funds came from groups or individuals associated with the Christian right, while another $20,000 was funneled from former colleagues like Lewis, Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) and state Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier).

So Curt is back, and times have changed. These days, former foe Umberg is gushing like a Hallmark greeting card about the chance to work with the man he defeated in one of Orange County's most bitter and costly races for the state Legislature.

"I think the things that happened in the past are water under the bridge," Umberg said. "My philosophy is to extend the olive branch. Until facts indicate otherwise, I plan to have a working relationship with him."

George Urch, Umberg's chief of staff and political alter ego, doesn't bother with such niceties.

"Maybe he'll be able to find the cafeteria and restrooms easier, but will Curt be able to actually make the system work to help benefit his district? That's the big question," Urch said. "Let's put it this way: It's going to be difficult for a freshman from the opposition party who is out of sync even with his own governor to accomplish anything. He's going to have to work twice as hard."

But others defend Pringle, saying that his past efforts were blunted by Democrats out to get him. They don't expect it to happen again.

"I know there were times when the Democrats went the extra step to kill a Pringle bill in committee," Lewis said. "He was a marked man. They had him targeted for defeat and they played hardball politics. But now they don't have the same incentive to go after him the way they were. He's in a safe district."

Aside from shifting seats, Pringle himself has changed. There's a new Pringle perspective--on the job, on life. Pringle and his wife, Alexis, have two young children. The assemblyman's tough first encounter with the ways of Sacramento reinforced in him the value of the world outside of politics.

"I know that the most important things about life are not there in that office," Pringle said. "I think it's very important to have your foundation and value in your family and faith, and not in your office."

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