Several Republican legislators complained Friday that their party overstepped its bounds by demanding they sign a loyalty oath as part of the Assembly leadership fight between Speaker Brian Setencich and GOP Leader Curt Pringle.
Although most Assembly Republicans were signing the pledge, even a few of those suggested that the party's top leaders had no business meddling in what is essentially an internal fight among elected officials.
The pledge, included with a letter from state Republican Party Chairman John S. Herrington and Vice Chairman Michael J. Schroeder, asks Republican legislators to support the candidate selected by the Assembly GOP caucus.
The pledge does not mention names but is viewed by most legislators as an effort to help Pringle--an Orange County conservative--wrest the speakership from Setencich, a freshman Republican from Fresno hoisted to the top leadership position in September by Assembly Democrats.
Herrington said the pledge "is not anti-Setencich," but suggested that his request for the GOP legislators to rally around one candidate was borne out of an embarrassing and frustrating year of stumbles that have allowed the minority Democrats to control the speakership despite being outnumbered by Republicans in the Assembly.
"Asking them to sign this pledge is not asking them too much after what has transpired," Herrington said. "No one should take offense at pledging party loyalty at this point, unless they have another agenda."
While insisting the pledge was not intended to help Pringle, Herrington didn't hold back from blasting Setencich. He said the current speaker has yet to prove himself as anything but a willing participant with the Democrats.
"Brian is a first-term legislator who, through his inexperience or naivete, has been captured by the Democrats," Herrington said. "I don't consider Brian Setencich a Republican. He's not on the team. But he's welcome back in the fold if he started behaving like a Republican."
Setencich on Thursday criticized the pledge, saying such loyalty oaths "do nothing to solve the problems of California."
Several legislators, including a few who vow not to support Setencich, said party leaders had gone too far by asking for the pledge.
Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) dashed off a letter to Herrington on Friday saying that although he agrees with Herrington's sentiments about the party's mistakes over the past year and plans to join with the caucus majority, he cannot sign the pledge because it represents a dangerous precedent.
"If such a practice were established and members of our body succumbed to such requests, I would expect similar demands on other vital issues that will come before us in the future," Richter wrote. "Such a situation would alter our form of government . . . and violate the tradition of political independence of our legislative bodies developed over centuries of struggle."
Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) also said he had no plans to sign the pledge.
"I'm not big on pledges," Firestone said. "I started working for the Republican Party with Citizens for Eisenhower, and will continue to work for Republicans. I'll just leave it at that. John Herrington is a good man, a good leader. But I would like to speak to him about this."
Others saw potential pitfalls.
Assemblyman Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes) expressed concern that the pledge could backfire and drive a wedge between Assembly Republicans instead of uniting them. He also worried that it could undermine those GOP legislators who face a tough Democratic Party challenger in next November's election.
"If they're called the treacherous Republicans, is that going to help them get reelected?" Kuykendall said. "To me you have to be pragmatic about it. When you start doing things like this I'm not sure it's a good way to keep your caucus together."
Assembly Republicans spent much of the early part of the year circulating similar pledges, vowing their loyalty to the majority and former GOP Leader Jim Brulte. Virtually every Assembly Republican signed the oaths--including two who later became speaker.
Indeed, supporters of the latest pledge outnumbered detractors.
"I've been up there this past year and have seen one thing after another go wrong," said Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard). "I think a call by our party chief for us to hold together and ensure we have a solid Republican caucus behind our next speaker is very appropriate."
Assemblyman Bruce Thompson (R-Fallbrook) signed the pledge, but noted that he was prepared to circulate a similar letter he penned to Assembly Republicans asking that they vow their support to Pringle.
"It probably would have been better [coming] from me, because it is an internal matter," Thompson said. "There are members who might see this as heavy-handed. But it is so important I would hope that every member would sign it and we can get on with our agenda."
Thompson added: "If we have those who are selling out to the current speaker, we need to flesh that out. Find them. Expose them. Try to convince them that what they're about to do is wrong for California."
"Good letter. Very timely. Needs to be sent," said Assemblyman Larry Bowler (R-Elk Grove). "With Brian Setencich spinning this thing that he has so many members [supporting him], which is untrue, we need to be sure that our Republican Party leadership is doing all that it can to keep us in line, in a sense of unity."
Democrats, meanwhile, did their best to make hay with the pledge.
"It's an attempt at bossism," said state Democratic Party Chairman Bill Press. "I don't think it plays in California."
Times staff writer Max Vanzi contributed to this story.