SANTA ANA — As Orange County Republicans tried to put behind them this week's $400,000 settlement over the posting of security officers at Latino polling sites, local Democrats promised Thursday to use the explosive issue as their most potent weapon to defeat state Assemblyman Curt Pringle.
Bolstering Democrats' hopes was the emergence of Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas Umberg, a federal prosecutor based in Santa Ana, as a strong potential candidate in the closely watched race for Pringle's Garden Grove seat in November, 1990.
FOR THE RECORD - Orange County Focus COUNTYWIDE Clarification
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 9, 1990 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 3 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Column; Brief; Correction
Polling place guards--Articles on Dec. 28 and 29 erred in describing statements by Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange) in connection with a lawsuit over uniformed guards at Santa Ana polling places in 1988. In a deposition, Lewis said he had "a vague recollection" that during a pre-election meeting he attended, "someone" joked about creating the impression that immigration agents were active on Election Day. He said he did not recall any "serious discussion" about it. Lewis said in the deposition he did not remember who made the joke. County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes and county GOP executive director Greg Haskin were also at the meeting, Lewis recalled. His attorneys say there were more people at that meeting.
"This whole poll guard mess for the Republicans now moves from the legal realm to the political realm," said John Hanna, Democratic activist and former head of the county party.
"Pringle is the No. 1 target on everyone's list," Hanna noted. "He is the most vulnerable Republican assemblyman in the state. He has the lowest (Republican) registration of any district in the county. He had the smallest margin of victory in the last race, and he has the biggest political scandal on his back."
That scandal, in the view of Democrats, is the potential political fallout prompted by the Republicans' hiring of security guards who warned non-citizens not to vote at polling places in primarily Latino districts in Santa Ana last November. Pringle won the 72nd Assembly District contest by 867 votes.
Republican officials responsible for the security guards this week finalized a $400,000 settlement with five Latino voters who brought a civil rights complaint over the incident, claiming harassment. The plaintiffs pledged to donate $150,000 of the settlement to Latino voter registration and education efforts.
In a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit, Assemblyman John R. Lewis also disclosed that he once joked with other Republican officials about the possibility of driving green vans around polling places to give the impression that immigration officers were on hand. That never happened.
Lewis, Republican county chairman Thomas A. Fuentes, Pringle and other Republican officials did not return repeated phone calls Thursday.
Republican political consultant Eileen Padberg, declining to comment on the incident's political ramifications, observed: "There's been enough said on this one. I think everyone would just like to forget about it now."
But another Republican strategist, Harvey Englander, said he believes that the issue may not hurt Pringle in the upcoming election.
"The whole (poll guard) event was distasteful. It was bad strategy, but I don't think there's any evidence that Pringle himself was involved in this.
"The Democrats will try and put glue on this issue and make it stick to (Pringle), but I think he'll be able to dodge it. . . . I don't see any candidates out there strong enough to knock off Pringle."
"They can run poll guards, poll guards, poll guards, but I don't think it will be enough," Englander added. "People's memories, when it comes to political events, are quite short."
Pringle, in a September, 1989, court deposition, said he had talked a few months before the election about having "poll watchers" to guard against rumored fraud by Democrats. But he said he did not know until Election Day that uniformed security guards were on hand.
"In my opinion," Pringle said, "it was inappropriate to use uniformed security people in the polling places."
Orange County prosecutors, working with federal law enforcement officials, are still investigating the possibility of criminal charges arising from the poll guards, Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade said Thursday.
But even without criminal action, local Democrats say the combination of the $400,000 settlement and state legislation that arose from the incident, banning security guards near poll sites, are enough to hurt the Republicans.
"This is over as far as the courtroom battle is concerned," said Santa Ana City Councilman Miguel A. Pulido, who is considering a run for Pringle's seat. "But it will be many, many years before the outrage in the community over this passes."
State Assemblyman Richard Katz, a Democrat who helped in Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach's failed race against Pringle in 1988, added: "This one is going to be tough for the Republican Party in Orange County to shake."
One person who some Democrats think could take advantage of that situation is Umberg, 34, who has concentrated largely on drug prosecutions in his more than two years as a federal prosecutor in Santa Ana.
Umberg said Thursday that he could not comment on a possible run but acknowledged that "a number of people are encouraging me." And his name has been widely mentioned by Democrats in recent weeks as an attractive candidate.
One potential liability mentioned by some Democrats and Republicans alike, however, may be the perception of Umberg as an outsider in the district. He had lived in Irvine but just recently moved to Garden Grove.
"It's very commendable that he wants to run for office, but I think a candidate should live in a district for a while and know it well to represent it," said Westminster City Councilwoman Lyn Gillespie, a Democrat who said she herself has effectively ruled out a run for the seat.
The sole announced candidate so far for the seat is Jerry Yudelson, a strong environmentalist who worked in Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s Administration and lost a bid for Congress in Orange County.
Times staff writers Catherine Gewertz and Dave Lesher contributed to this story.