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Speaker Assails ‘Fear’ Tactics of Some in GOP : Assembly: Republican maverick Setencich also criticizes the religious right’s influence within party. But he refuses to give names.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Demonstrating that he is still no follower of party orthodoxy despite his leadership position, Republican Assembly Speaker Brian Setencich let loose with a condemnation Monday of “intolerant” religious conservatives as well as unnamed GOP leaders who he said use fear tactics against moderate Republicans.

The 33-year-old former pro basketball player, vaulted to the speakership by rival Democrats in September, told a meeting of The Times’ Sacramento bureau that he began paying for his maverick ways soon after his election as an assemblyman from Fresno last year.

At the height of the battle over the speakership in December, as Republicans huddled in a hotel across from the Capitol, Setencich said he and other freshmen walked into a GOP meeting at the hotel where he was told by Assembly GOP leaders that there was a “suspect list and you’re on it.”

Told he had been seen visiting GOP enemies in the Capitol, Setencich said he replied to his accusers, “I go wherever the hell I want to go,” adding that there was “a great deal of fear put upon people from our caucus” discouraging independence.

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“Certain people” in positions of GOP power can “make people scared,” he said, explaining that the punishment can include recall elections, primary challenges and a lack of campaign funds from the party.

Setencich says the fear factor continues even as he goes tries to consolidate his hold on the speakership. He said, for example, that he can’t even disclose which Assembly Republicans are giving him advice because they would “get pressured . . . scared . . . and threatened. . . . Unfortunately, these are the circumstances I’m dealing with.”

He said the influence of the religious right within his party troubles him. Setencich said his term for the movement is the “intolerant faction of the party.” Its leaders provide a “very small umbrella and, if you don’t fit under it, you’re not considered a good member of the party--and that’s got to stop,” he said.

Setencich stressed that being religious does not mean being intolerant. He noted that he is a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church and “I’ve got to assume I have as much faith” as most people.

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Setencich, however, has not steered clear of conservative help. Records show he accepted a $11,125 contribution from Allied Business PAC when he ran for his Assembly seat. The group was co-founded by state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove)--though he is no longer associated with the organization. The group regularly funds conservative, often religious-right-oriented candidates.

Though declining to name names he sees behind the use of fear and religion to control Republican lawmakers, Setencich said he deplored the ouster of Ken Maddy of Fresno as Republican leader of the state Senate in August and his replacement by Hurtt.

“What happened to Sen. Maddy was wrong [and] an indication of the kind of power that shouldn’t manifest itself like that,” he said, comparing the moderate Maddy to Hurtt’s narrower conservative appeal. Maddy “was able to work with both sides of the aisle to get things done. He was extremely effective,” Setencich said.

The youngest Assembly Speaker ever said his own difficulties with the Republican Party apparatus began during his Fresno campaign for the Assembly. Setencich fired the consultants the party had supplied him a week after he hired them “because it didn’t feel right” to rely on the decisions of others.

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Later, he learned the Republican leadership had sent mailers and bought television and radio ads supporting his candidacy but “without one word of input from me.” The material included attacks on then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown when Setencich had ruled out negative campaigning. In the end, he won by only 5 percentage points--"disheartening,” he said, because before the party came to his aid, he had been up 11 points.

Upon reaching Sacramento, Setencich became a central figure in the fierce intraparty Assembly fight that denied the new Republican majority the full clout of the speakership. The gavel went first into the hands of veteran Democratic Speaker Brown of San Francisco, then to renegade Republican Doris Allen with solid Democratic votes, then to Setencich, again thanks to Democratic votes.

His is a tenuous hold on the position in the closely divided house. If a recall election on Nov. 28 against Allen, of Cypress, results in her replacement with a Republican loyal to caucus leader Curt Pringle of Garden Grove, Setencich could lose the support he needs to hang on.

But he said he is determined to keep the job and is traveling widely to meet with all 79 Assembly colleagues and “let them know that this is a house that is going to be run equitably and fairly” where all may pursue their agendas.

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Setencich said he believes his personal visits have gained him the support “of quite a few” new votes for Speaker among Republicans. When the legislative session ended in September, he said, “I had two” such votes, his own and Allen’s.

Whether he has won enough Republicans--and held enough Democrats--to remain Speaker will probably be tested soon after the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Setencich described himself as a “very independent Republican. Most of the time, my philosophy does come down, at least fiscally and economically, [on the side of] the Republican Party.”


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