GOP Defeat in Assembly Stalls Pringle's Rise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was his first time in the pilot's seat of the Assembly Republican campaign machine. Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) figured the GOP would fly high, bolstering its control of the Assembly on election day.

Instead, Pringle and the Republicans took a nose dive.

Democrats captured a majority of seats in the Assembly, and now are poised to name one of their own to replace Pringle as speaker when the Legislature reconvenes the first week in December. Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) is expected to be the next Assembly speaker.

It would bring to a close Pringle's 11-month tenure in the Assembly's top job just when the 37-year-old Orange County conservative appeared headed on a flight path that could have ended with a run in 1998 for a statewide office.

For his part, Pringle is unfazed.

"There have been Pringle obituaries written probably four times now," he said. "I don't plan every step of my career. I know there's a plan I don't see now."

While lofty possibilities in the future still cannot be ruled out, few in the Capitol deny the assemblyman's prospects have plummeted.

Republicans argue it wasn't his fault, that Pringle did everything possible before election day, but was done in by the lackluster performance of GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole. As Pringle himself put it: "The Republican vote stopped going to the polls at 5:30 or 6 p.m. They were depressed, demoralized and didn't turn out the way they usually do."

Moreover, what Democrats called a rout was really a squeaker. Had a handful of races decided by a few hundred votes gone the other way, Republicans would still be in control of the lower house. Pringle would have been labeled a political genius.

Buoyed by such beliefs, Assembly Republicans gave Pringle a consolation prize, naming him their 1997 leader just two days after the election disaster.

"He performed up to everyone's expectations, but we were done in by a Democrat tidal wave," said Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Irvine). "There were mistakes made during the course of the campaign, but not by the speaker."

Added Republican Assemblyman Keith Olberg of Victorville: "Curt poured out his heart and time. The results were beyond anyone's control."

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Some of Pringle's opponents were hardly so charitable. They crowed how the results demonstrated the electorate's distaste for Pringle's Orange County brand of conservatism. They also lambasted Pringle's short stint as speaker.

Pringle "pretty much lived up to his motto, which was scorched earth," said Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). "I think that for the most part, the way he went about taking power and exerting power was fairly abusive."

She cited the firing of the Assembly elevator operators and the secretarial pool as examples of "unnecessary decisions--things that really had nothing to do with waste or saving money and had a singular cruelty about them."

Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Huntington Park) agreed that some of the firings seemed unnecessary, but said Pringle treated Democratic lawmakers with a surprising degree of fairness when it came to allocating money: "I frankly think he was fairly generous. He could have given us zero."

Escutia said Pringle's chief error was in allowing the Republican agenda to be dominated early on by "silly, frivolous" issues, such as a bill that would have permitted the paddling of graffiti vandals and another that banned same-sex marriages performed in other states.

"It was a mistake to have all those hysterical bills--like spanking children--come to the forefront early on," Escutia said. "I think he squandered time on things like that" and hurt his party's image and odds of success.

Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, a moderate Republican from Cupertino, laments that the paddling bill and others "became a useful campaign tool for the Democrats. Those bills were distractions that allowed us to be viewed as much more extreme than our record showed."

At the time, Pringle expressed private irritation that the paddling bill and a few others, which he inherited from the 1995 session and by house rules had to be heard first thing this year, eclipsed in the public eye fundamental Republican efforts to cut taxes and improve the business climate. But he chose not to stand in the way of GOP colleagues determined to have their issues heard.

Pringle was reluctant to pressure members of the GOP caucus for fear of being branded a dictator. "I think the speaker felt he had no right to tell any member they could not pursue a specific bill," Olberg said.

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Today, Pringle criticizes the Democrats for misconstruing on the campaign trail what Republicans are all about.

"Though some people want to emphasize two or three bills they feel were frivolous, the Republican agenda was very clear," Pringle said. "We stand for tax reduction, regulatory reform and an emphasis on creating more jobs in California."

Pringle said he is proud of what ultimately was accomplished during his year as speaker.

He helped craft what he calls "the largest tax cut passed by any legislature in America," a package of nearly $600 million in savings for residents and businesses.

He also played a pivotal role in marshaling support and negotiating with Democrats to win approval for deregulation of the electric power industry and increased funding to public schools to reduce classes sizes in early grades.

His Republican colleagues also credit Pringle for returning a level of decorum to a house that in 1995 was sharply divided by bipartisan warfare, as a pair of maverick GOP lawmakers broke ranks to briefly become speaker with the support of Democrats only.

"He did a pretty darn good job when you consider when he came in," Cunneen said. "We were in total chaos in 1995."

By reputation a rigid ideologue during his first term in the Assembly, Pringle was anything but that as speaker. He regularly worked for compromises, and gave Republicans like Cunneen leeway to speak against issues supported by a majority of the GOP caucus.

"I was never punished for any position I took," Cunneen said. "I spoke against paddling, and against some of the assaults on a woman's right to choose. Maybe in another time, Republicans would have beat me up for that."

Some Democrats agreed. Escutia called Pringle "a man of honor" whose word she knew she could trust.

"One thing I've always said about Curt: He is a man who, when he says something and gives you his word, you can take it to the bank," the Democrat said. "You know where he stands and his bottom line doesn't move. . . . He's a pretty rare quality in our business."

Pringle did suffer a few embarrassments.

He was brushed by controversy when freshman Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) was hit with felony charges for alleged election wrongdoing.

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Pringle and Assembly Republicans also were scuffed for preaching fiscal responsibility and then giving their staffs big salary increases, in some cases retroactively. Olberg and others say the increases were blown out of proportion by the press--some Democrat staffers continued to make more than their GOP counterparts. He also said the Republicans managed to dramatically cut the Assembly's total cost of doing business.

In the reduced role as minority leader, Pringle will have a smaller staff as well as a less spacious and opulent office. He'll also lose control over the power to name chairpersons of policy committees that control the flow of legislation.

In effect, he will become the leader of an insurgent minority, a guerrilla in pinstripes.

"Curt has proven he can lead us when we're out of power," Brewer said. "He did it before. He can do it again."

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