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Pringle Still Haunted by Poll Guards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A political incident that targeted Latino voters in Orange County a decade ago has emerged as a key point of attack in the state treasurer’s race.

Democratic candidate Phil Angelides has begun airing a TV ad blasting Republican foe Curt Pringle for his part in the 1988 episode in which Pringle’s Assembly campaign and the county Republican Party placed uniformed security guards at some Santa Ana polling places.

The guards, including some who asked voters for identification, carried signs in English and Spanish warning: “Noncitizens can’t vote.” The incident prompted an FBI investigation and a civil rights lawsuit.

Without admitting any wrongdoing, Pringle and the local GOP agreed to pay $400,000 to settle the lawsuit. No criminal charges were filed.

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In response, Pringle campaign consultant Sal Russo charges that the Angelides campaign is resorting to “sleazy” campaign tactics. He laid blame for the guards on the county GOP.

Pringle’s campaign manager, Jeff Flint, said Pringle didn’t know about the guards at the time “and would have stopped it if he knew.”

Angelides said voters deserve to know Pringle’s role in an act that was “contrary to the very notion of American democracy.”

The ad coincides with an effort by a coalition of Latino and labor groups to spotlight the issue. On Thursday, the coalition began dispatching volunteers to primarily Latino neighborhoods across the state to remind voters about the poll-guard incident.

“The betrayal of democracy was so offensive that it raises serious doubts about [Pringle’s] ability to serve in high public office,” Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said in announcing the volunteer effort for the Nov. 3 election.

Until this month, Pringle had said little about the incident and dismissed it as part of his political past. When pushed about his role in the matter at a Sacramento debate earlier this month, Pringle denied that he knew or approved of the idea, and insisted that he had spoken out against it when he became aware of it.

On election day 1988, however, Pringle told reporters that he was aware that poll watchers would be used to monitor voting in his race but said he didn’t know that they would be in uniform, something he said he didn’t approve of.

Pringle at the time repeatedly defended poll watchers as necessary to ensure that Democrats wouldn’t use illegal immigrants to stack the vote in the hotly contested race--his first. He said he was satisfied with the election’s outcome and denied that his campaign or the party had done anything wrong.

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The local Republican Party paid for the guards; Pringle’s campaign paid for the red-and-white signs that they carried. Both county party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes, who later apologized, and the party’s then-executive director, Greg Haskins, said the security plan for Pringle’s race, including arranging for the guards, was done by Pringle’s campaign.

The guards, dressed in dark blue uniforms, had been given written instructions not to approach voters. But several did, and others copied voters’ license-plate numbers. At least one guard was photographed handling ballots.

In depositions taken in 1989 for the civil lawsuit, Pringle declined to answer questions about the guard plan, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination. Angelides’ ad points that out, as well.

Criminal investigations by the FBI and Orange County district attorney’s office ended without charges being filed. The state Legislature in 1989 made it a felony for anyone to hire uniformed guards to be poll watchers.

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The poll-guard incident contributed to Pringle’s loss in a reelection bid in 1990, but he was elected two years later to a neighboring Assembly district seat. He has been reelected twice since and in 1996 served as Assembly speaker.


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