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Rogan’s Star Rises on Wings of ‘Fairness’ : Politics: GOP sees ex-judge as mediator in the fractured Assembly.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that nearly every political commentator has portrayed the squabbling state Assembly as (a) a sandbox, (b) a frat house or (c) a cellblock of juvenile delinquents, some legislators are beginning to think it’s time to clean up the act.

But after weeks of partisan bickering that often stooped to new lows, how do Assembly leaders go about bridging gaps and restoring order? Put a judge in charge?

To Republican strategists, that seems as good an idea as any.

Enter GOP Assemblyman James E. Rogan of Glendale who, in a little more than a year on the job, has struck many on both sides of the aisle as judicial in manner and in the way he approaches legislation. He is that rare breed of right-wing Republican: a born-again, conservative Christian who is not an immediate turn-off to liberal Democrats.

“The Judge,” as he’s known, received his basic training during three years on Glendale’s Municipal Court bench, and, according to Republicans, may be just the mediator needed to settle disputes and reassert decorum in the bitterly fractured Assembly.

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Recently, GOP caucus members voted to back Rogan as their rainy-day candidate for Speaker should the opportunity arise to oust current Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress). It was Allen’s elevation in a Democratic ploy June 5 that set Republicans and Democrats at each others’ throats.

The scenario has GOP Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) retaining his role as the caucus leader and key fund-raiser, but turning over the actual running of the house to Rogan’s fresher face.

A party loyalist and defender of Brulte, Rogan, 37, is not above wagging a proverbial finger at the Democrats. He doggedly pursues a conservative agenda that the most liberal consider heartless, but he lacks the shrillness of many right-wing Republicans.

In the heat of debate, Rogan rises at his microphone to rail against what he sees as faulty procedural rulings, lopsided rules and political gamesmanship--but he typically refrains from personal attacks.

“I have a good working relationship with almost everybody,” Rogan says. “This is for better or worse a house which is essentially evenly divided and is therefore a house that must learn to work together.”

When Republicans pulled together a 40-39 Assembly majority this year, putting Democrats at a disadvantage for the first time in more than two decades, many of the old battle-scarred “bulls” among the GOP caucus felt it was their turn to draw blood.

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But where some saw the opportunity for retaliation, others saw a chance to build bridges. Rogan is in line with this new, feel-good type of politician who more closely fits what voters envisioned when they adopted term limits.

On the subject of the GOP edge, for example, Rogan says, “We cannot be so vain . . . as to perceive a bare majority as an overwhelming mandate that would allow us the comfort of ignoring what our friends on that other side have to say.”

Not all Republicans take kindly to such talk, least of all those who have waited impatiently for their time in power. But GOP realists who saw their chances slip away when Allen sided with Democrats are now willing to try Plan C: offering up the guy everyone seems to like.

Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland (R-Granada Hills), who showed little restraint in branding Allen a traitor, says selling Rogan as the GOP’s “compromise candidate” makes sense.

“I think Jim can be the olive branch,” Boland said. “He has a good enough rapport with the Democrats. They know he was a judge and that he weighs everything he does in terms of fairness.”

Former GOP caucus staffer Phil Perry is more direct: “The guy practically oozes fairness.”

Even Democrats apparently recognized that quality at one point, trying to recruit Rogan as an alternative to Brulte in the days before they settled on Allen.

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But that was then. Now, Republicans are trying to offer Rogan as bait and Democrats are saying they won’t bite--even as they are being approached individually by their GOP colleagues.

For one thing, with Allen as their ally, the Democrats are perfectly satisfied with things as they are, said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar).

“The question every Democrat’s going to ask is: ‘Is Rogan going to propose a deal that’s more advantageous to Democrats than the current arrangement? Because if not, why would we abandon the person we voted for?’ ” Katz said.

He also didn’t buy the Republicans’ answer--that it’s worth putting Rogan in charge if the move restores harmony to the house.

“The ones making the argument are the ones who are mostly behaving like children,” Katz contends. “They are the ones engaged in the food fight, engaged in the name-calling and the parliamentary gimmicks and the maneuvering and the tactics. To restore decorum, all they have to do is stop.”

Rogan’s reputation as a bridge-builder was forged as he worked with Democrats on bills in which both sides saw merit. Finding a conservative willing to see things their way surprised some Democrats.

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Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) praises Rogan for sharing her vision on the need for stronger domestic violence laws; Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) was indebted to Rogan for his support for a bill legalizing the medical use of marijuana; Katz won Rogan’s crucial backing for a measure hiking penalties for carrying concealed firearms.

But Rogan is perfectly capable of bringing them all back to earth with a thud. One such reality check came with his vote to kill a bill outlawing Saturday night specials, those cheap handguns that Democrats and many in law enforcement believe contribute to rising crime.

Rogan also opposes abortion rights and supported Proposition 187, the crackdown on public services for illegal immigrants. He has accused Democrats of voter registration fraud and accepts campaign contributions from the Allied Business PAC, a prominent coalition of Christian Right businessmen. The National Rifle Assn. is a solid Rogan supporter.

Sandy Cooney, regional director for Handgun Control Inc., contends Rogan is “irresponsible and out of touch with constituents” for his pro-gun vote. Voter registration figures reveal a heavier balance of Democrats than Republicans in the 43rd Assembly District--45% to 41%.

Rogan, who admits to ownership of three handguns to protect his wife, Christine, and young twin daughters, falls back on the U.S. Constitution’s right to bear arms as rationale for his philosophy.

And, he says, “If anyone wants to know where I stand on criminal justice issues, they can go out to the state prisons and talk to the guys I put there as a prosecutor and judge.”

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Rogan became California’s youngest sitting judge at age 33 when he was appointed by then Gov. George Deukmejian in 1990. Before that, he was a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney best known for winning a closing argument without saying a word: In prosecuting a drunk-driving case, Rogan poured 10 cans of beer in 10 cups for the jury and snapped his fingers.

He was also a Democrat in those days, but switched his affiliation in the late 1980s after deciding the party had become too liberal. The changeover came just in time to catch Deukmejian’s eye as he was getting ready to fill hundreds of new openings on the bench.

An avid collector of campaign memorabilia, Rogan has been a political history buff dating back to his boyhood, when he corresponded with whichever political figures would answer his letters, including former President Harry Truman.

This gives him a longer view of events in the Assembly, he says.

“In a very large sense, part of what’s going on up here that is frequently perceived as gridlock is exactly what the Founding Fathers intended we have in a representative democracy,” Rogan said. “We call it gridlock today. They called it checks and balances.”

Surprisingly, Rogan does not agree with most observers that the Assembly is drowning in a tidal wave of rancor.

“Sparks are inevitable,” he says, nevertheless acknowledging that “at some point we are going to have to resolve to work together for the collective good of the people of California.”

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As for his ambitions, Rogan says he is a somewhat reluctant Speaker’s candidate, and that many others could do the job. “Of the 79 people in the Assembly, if you scratched 78 of them deep enough, you’d find the desire to be Speaker,” he said. “I’m that 79th one.”

Rogan says he has not yet charted his future plans, but speculation among political circles is that he would jump at the chance to run for Congress should U.S. Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead announce his intent to retire. At the same time, conservative Republicans in the state Senate are pulling Rogan in that direction.

If drafted for a leadership role in the Assembly, however, Rogan says he’d feel obliged to stick around to do the “very best I could, to do everyone proud, not just Republicans.”

“Being Speaker of the house is in many ways like being a judge in court--you have to be fair not just for the majority party but for the whole house,” Rogan said. “I didn’t ask for it, but I’m honored that my colleagues believe I can handle it.”

As to whether Plan C will ever become reality, it all comes down to finding a Democrat willing to jump ship to join the Republican bandwagon. So far, Democrats are quick to point out, the trend has been the other way around.

“Had this happened in January,” Katz said, “there might have been something there. But there’s a fallacy with this scenario. There is a Speaker. We are happy with the Speaker we have.”

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