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His Toughest Shot : Assemblyman Brian Setencich Is Used to Facing Competition, but His Write-In Campaign for Reelection Is a Real Uphill Battle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If this were his beloved game of basketball, the odds would be obvious: longshot at best, like sinking a 70-footer at the buzzer.

Assemblyman Brian Setencich is running for reelection--but not in the usual way. To keep his job in the Legislature, the Fresno Republican must persuade voters to write in his name on their ballots when they go to the polls Nov. 5.

This is a Herculean task, one rarely accomplished in the annals of state political history. The last California politician to pull it off was Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) in his maiden bid for Congress in 1982.

As he fights for a second term, Setencich (pronounced SET-in-sitch) shoulders an extra burden--the enmity of the GOP establishment.

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Republican leaders from Gov. Pete Wilson on down are salivating at the prospect of taking him out.

His sin, they say, was unforgivable.

A year ago, Setencich defied the GOP hierarchy and used Democratic votes to become speaker of the Assembly. Deposed after just four months, he has been suffering various forms of punishment ever since--a small Capitol office, a lousy parking space.

March brought the cruelest blow. In a stunning upset, Setencich lost his own Republican primary--the only incumbent lawmaker to meet such a fate.

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He was knocked off by a young man named Robert Prenter, a surgical instruments salesman and a virtual unknown in the 30th Assembly District, where he moved from nearby Visalia just days before declaring himself a candidate.

Prenter’s only previous political experience was campaigning unsuccessfully for junior class president at Indio High School. But in politics, seasoning isn’t everything.

Two weeks before the election, Prenter vaulted from obscurity with help from one of the state’s richest political funding sources, the conservative California Independent Business PAC.

Prenter’s uncle, Christian radio network owner Edward G. Atsinger III, is co-founder of the PAC, which gave Prenter about $200,000 for his primary campaign.

The dollars clearly made a difference. With a flurry of mailers and television ads, Prenter portrayed Setencich as a GOP turncoat who consorted with the enemy for personal gain. He won by about 500 votes.

“It was disappointing, not because I lost but because they just came in and took out somebody who stood up for what he believed in,” said Setencich, 34, the son of a Fresno grape grower. “They bought the race for this guy that nobody had ever heard of.”

The investment in Prenter, 31, should come as no surprise. The GOP is fighting to hold its razor-thin majority in the Assembly, and the conservative Prenter promises to be a reliable Republican vote.

The same cannot be said of Setencich. A maverick in his first political post on the Fresno City Council, the lanky assemblyman--who played professional basketball in Europe before entering politics--continued to go his own way after his election to the statehouse in 1994.

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Setencich first split with his colleagues in mid-1995, when he became the lone Republican to support fellow Republican Doris Allen for speaker after Democrat Willie Brown engineered a deal to get her the job.

After her reign crumbled, Setencich ascended to speaker in another deal with Democrats. That enraged GOP leaders by again denying them their choice for the powerful post.

Setencich said he sought the speakership because he felt he could ease the partisan warfare engulfing the Assembly. He accused his party of being controlled by a faction he calls “the intolerant right” and said he was offended by “the party mentality that requires you to march in lock-step on every issue.”

“I didn’t enjoy being speaker. It was like running a day care center, with members calling at 4 a.m. to demand bigger offices,” Setencich said. “But I thought I could help reduce the partisan nonsense so we could get things done.”

Others believe his motives were less pure.

“When he sided with the Willie Brown contingent, that was the last straw,” said Mark Borba, a Fresno County farmer who once supported Setencich. “I don’t mind a little independence, but he went way off course. You’ve got to be faithful to your party when it counts.”

Like Borba, most of the district’s farmers--as well as numerous mayors, the district attorneys of Fresno and Kern counties, and nearly all other establishment Republicans--have endorsed Prenter.

Although Assembly Democrats support Setencich--and not their own party’s candidate, Linda Morales, who is also running a write-in campaign--they have other priorities and no money to shift his way.

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Although Setencich says his polling numbers are favorable, political analysts say a write-in victory would be an extraordinary surprise.

“It’s very difficult because you have to get a majority of voters to do something that lengthens their time in the voting booth and takes some planning and forethought,” said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. “Voters will go to the trouble, but they have to have a pretty strong reason to do it.”

The Setencich message, not surprisingly, is a Populist one. He paints himself as an independent man of the people and his opponent as an outsider who is a captive of a Southern California PAC. Elect Prenter, he warns, and the San Joaquin Valley’s water, education funding and other prize assets will be at risk.

To help voters remember his name, the incumbent is distributing pencils urging them to “Write in Brian Setencich.” Fortunately for Setencich, election laws do not require that a name written in by voters be spelled correctly. It must simply bear a “reasonable resemblance” to the candidate’s in order to count.

Despite having a clear edge in the race, Prenter is taking nothing for granted.

Fueled by caffeine and rookie idealism, he is roaming all corners of the sprawling, rural district, trying to alter his image as an outsider handpicked and bankrolled by a wealthy PAC.

“After I won the primary, a lot of people were upset because they didn’t know who I was,” said Prenter, who grew up in Southern California. “But once they meet me, they see I’m not some right-wing fanatic and they like me. . . . You know the Nike expression, ‘Just do it?’ That’s me. I get things done.”

Prenter said he decided to run after hearing a radio talk show discussion about Setencich and his “betrayal.” He spent three weeks futilely trying to publicize his candidacy, then called his uncle to seek help from the PAC, which has spent millions to elect conservative candidates throughout the state.

Prenter said his uncle called the PAC’s executive director, who approved a donation without knowing he was Atsinger’s nephew: “I fit their ideal profile--pro-business, anti-tax and I work hard,” Prenter said.

As of the June 30 reporting deadline, Prenter’s campaign had raised $266,777. Of that, $248,327 came from the PAC. Since then, Prenter has focused his fund-raising effort on the district. Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) has appeared at several campaign events, helping Prenter raise $50,000.

Despite Setencich’s campaign claims, Prenter insists that, if elected, he would serve “the interests of my district,” and not an agenda that might most please his uncle and the PAC.

“When I go to Sacramento, it will be to serve my constituents,” Prenter said, “nothing more.”


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