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GOP Finally Elects Assembly Speaker: O.C.'s Curt Pringle

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Seizing a post they’ve coveted for a quarter-century, Assembly Republicans on Thursday ousted Speaker Brian Setencich and replaced him with Orange County’s Curt Pringle, a staunch conservative backed by the statewide GOP hierarchy.

Pringle’s election was greeted by cheers from Republicans, who stood, applauded and called out, “Go, Curt.” Across the aisle, Democrats sat glumly.

Pringle’s elevation capped a yearlong quest by Republicans to translate a narrow majority won at the polls in the 1994 elections into a working majority on the Assembly floor. Pringle becomes the fourth speaker in a year, but the first elected on the strength of GOP votes.

Coupled with his selection Wednesday as chairman of a newly empowered Rules Committee, Pringle now is the Legislature’s top Republican. Indeed, he and his panel will have the power to set the Assembly’s agenda, determine committee chairmanships, make appointments to influential boards and commissions, and allocate funds.

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“It’s what the extreme right wing of the Republican Party has pursued for a long time,” said Assembly Democratic Leader Richard Katz of Sylmar. “Today’s victory for Curt Pringle was symbolic. It was the final victory dance around the field.”

In savoring their win, Republicans also were beginning to talk about the nitty-gritty of being in control: finding bigger offices, expanding their staffs and punishing Democratic loyalists.

Among the first casualties was longtime Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Charles E. Bell, who was removed from his post because of his ties to former Speaker Willie Brown. And the Rules Committee abolished the job held by the panel’s top Democratic staffer, Geoff Long, who was paid $93,000 a year. A Republican now will become the committee’s sole administrator.

Veteran Democratic staff members described the atmosphere on the first day of the Pringle regime as chaotic as they anxiously awaited their own pink slips.

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Pringle, 36, known as an aggressive lawmaker with a strong knowledge of the state budget, was noncommittal when asked about Democrats’ assertions that they would lose up to 200 staff positions.

“There’s absolutely no question there’s going to be a restructuring and a redirection of how this place is run,” he told reporters. “I believe that’s necessary. Over the next few weeks we’ll have a full assessment of how it has run in the past and how it will run in the future.”

Addressing the Assembly just after his election, an emotional Pringle choked up as he thanked his wife, Alexis, and his family. “I know they provide the basis of support that I have had as I have ventured off into this very difficult job,” said Pringle, a three-term lawmaker who was elected last August as Assembly GOP leader.

Pringle, a onetime Eagle Scout who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Cal State Long Beach, said his victory ends a 25-year quest by Republicans to regain the power of the speakership. He said it also begins an effort to advance an agenda intended to help business and strengthen the economy.

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But even as he spoke, he was quickly put on notice by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, the Legislature’s top Democrat, that the Republican agenda will face obstacles in the Democratic-controlled upper house.

“If the extremists in the Assembly send us their legislation to ruin the environment, to allow big corporations to injure people without being held accountable, to harm education, to limit women’s rights, the moderates in the Senate will represent the mainstream views of the people of California and defeat them,” the Hayward Democrat said in a prepared statement.

Lockyer also bemoaned Setencich’s loss, saying “the kind of reasonable, inclusive, bipartisan leadership Brian tried to provide was simply unacceptable to the right-wing extremists.”

Setencich, 33, an obscure freshman Republican from Fresno, was elected in September to the speakership, in a move engineered by former Speaker Brown. But with Brown’s recent election as mayor of San Francisco and resignation from the Assembly, Setencich’s grip on power slipped.

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On Thursday, Setencich, who believed that he had the support of other GOP lawmakers, failed to attract votes from any of them. All of Setencich’s 40 GOP colleagues sided with Pringle. Setencich won his own vote, that of Democrat-turned-Reform Party Assemblyman Dominic Cortese of San Jose and 35 Democrats. Democratic Assemblymen Tom Hannigan of Benicia and Phillip Isenberg of Sacramento were attending a funeral.

Despite his confidence, Setencich’s future was thrown into doubt Wednesday when Republicans stripped the speakership of much of its authority, placing it instead in the Rules Committee. The Republicans said they wanted to prevent another speaker from accumulating the kind of power Brown wielded for 14 1/2 years.

But as they entered uncharted territory, Republicans initially held off trying to eject Setencich as speaker. GOP lawmakers said they wanted a day to catch their breath after enacting sweeping rules changes and allow Setencich time to come back into the fold by volunteering to step aside.

After his ouster, Setencich seemed surprisingly upbeat and hopeful that he can recapture the job. “There’s always another day,” he said.

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Other legislative sources said some Republicans were wary of the possibility of Pringle having a dark cloud over his administration because of allegations of election wrongdoing by Scott Baugh, an Orange County assemblyman elected in November with Pringle’s endorsement.

Democrats suggested that Pringle may not have had the votes to win the speakership until after the GOP changed the rules and expanded its control over the Assembly’s purse strings.

In its first meeting under Republican control, the Rules Committee rewarded Cortese for supporting the rules change and for his switch last year from being a Democrat to Ross Perot’s Reform Party. The committee said it intends to give Cortese $100,000 to finance the Assembly “Reform Party Caucus,” even though Cortese is its sole member.

The Rules Committee also rearranged seating on the Assembly floor, forcing Democrats who are rivals in upcoming primary elections to be seatmates.

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Willard Murray of Paramount was placed next to Juanita McDonald of Carson, one of Murray’s opponents in a congressional primary. Barbara Lee of Oakland landed next to Robert Campbell of Martinez, an opponent in her state Senate race.

“Yeah, we did some tweaking on the Democratic side,” said Assemblyman Steven Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes), who drew up the seating chart. “It kind of sends a signal that the Rules Committee is going to change your life and the change starts with your seat.”

The seating ploy “shows what the Republican Party is all about,” said Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park). And “for them to smirk about it and think it’s cute shows how petty and vindictive they are.”

Times staff writer Max Vanzi contributed to this story.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

How Long They Lasted

A look at how long Assembly speakers over the past 25 years have stayed in office:

Jesse M. Unruh (D-Inglewood), Sept. 30, 1961-Jan. 6, 1969. Seven years, three months.

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Robert T. Monagan (R-Tracy), Jan. 6, 1969-Jan. 3, 1971. Two years.

Bob Moretti (D-Van Nuys) Jan. 4, 1971-June 26, 1974. Three years, six months.

Leo T. McCarthy (D-San Francisco), June 27, 1974-Dec. 1, 1980. Six years, five months.

Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) Dec. 1, 1980-June 5, 1995. 14 years, seven months.

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Doris Allen (R-Cypress), June 5, 1995-Sept. 14, 1995. Three months, nine days.

Brian Setencich (R-Fresno), Sept. 14, 1995-Jan. 4, 1996. Three months, 22 days.

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Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), Jan. 4, 1996-

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