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GOP Assembly Gains May Make Brulte Speaker


SACRAMENTO — Jim Brulte, a former advance man for President George Bush, may be on the verge of a political coup so rare in the California Assembly that Brulte was all of 12 years old the last time it happened: a Republican's election as Speaker.

The pragmatic two-term Rancho Cucamonga legislator had figured he would get GOP legislators within striking distance of taking control of the Assembly this year and then watch his successor finish the job in 1996, when he is barred by term limits from seeking reelection, or even 1998.

To his surprise, however, his campaign legwork paid off on Election Day and Republicans expect the 38-year-old Brulte to be the first GOP Assembly Speaker in a generation, ending the record 14-year reign of San Francisco Democrat Willie Brown.

Although Brulte's ascendance is not certain, Republicans are optimistic. The Assembly will convene in December to choose a Speaker, which requires 41 votes from the 80 members. Based on unofficial election returns, the tally stands at 40 Republican votes and 40 Democratic ones, but Republicans expect to pick up one more seat when absentee ballots are counted. Even then, a single defection could stop Brulte or, as has happened in the past, a coalition leader could emerge with backing from some members of both parties.

On Thursday, to cheers and applause, GOP colleagues unanimously reelected a beaming Brulte as the Assembly's Republican leader. At a news conference later, Brulte sounded a conciliatory note--even though he has yet to tally the necessary 41 votes--saying he wanted to work with Democrats but also warning against any attempts "to steal a Republican victory."

Who is this man that most Californians have never heard of and whose formidable, 6-foot-4, 349-pound frame is reminiscent of the legendary Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh, the original "big daddy" of California politics?

Brulte's friends describe him as a pragmatic conservative who relishes the back-room strategizing of politics. Others say he is non-ideological, allowing him to walk a narrow line between staunch conservatives and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, especially in budget squabbles.

Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who did not seek reelection, said Brulte's style is flexible, similar to that of U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). If he assumes the speakership, Ferguson predicted, Brulte "will try to emulate Willie Brown in the building of power."

Democrats, too, praise Brulte for his political sense, which has brought him to the verge of accomplishing what half a dozen other GOP legislators have only dreamed about. They describe him as a cunning political operative fixated on winning an Assembly majority.

The shape of a Brulte speakership in a chaotic and narrowly divided Assembly remains uncertain.

During Brown's lengthy tenure as Assembly Speaker, the job has been generally considered the second most powerful political position in state government. The Speaker appoints all the Assembly's committee heads and members, who screen all bills. Brown also gains power by collecting large amounts of campaign contributions from special interest groups and dispensing them to his Democratic allies.

Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, a Hayward Democrat who took over his leadership post this year, said Brulte is "constructive and upbeat" but worries that the GOP legislator "occasionally feels compelled to assert the right-wing dogma that emanates from many of his caucus members. That's always a bit of a show stopper." Lockyer is expected to retain his post because a majority of Democrats remain in control of the state Senate.

Brulte says he would lobby for the Republican agenda that GOP legislators have pressed in recent years, including immigration reform, cracking down on crime and improving the business climate in California.

"When 41 Republicans are sworn in Dec. 5, and when we elect a Republican Speaker, the focus will turn to Republicans to govern," Brulte said Thursday. "We are excited about the opportunity and the prospect. It is our turn. And I promise you that Republicans will use this opportunity wisely."

Asked if he would favor a school prayer bill, Brulte said: "If you ask me if I think there is anything wrong with a moment of silence in the public school, no I do not. I would support such a bill."

But Assemblywoman Kathleen Honeycutt (R-Hesperia), who did not seek reelection, said Brulte does not believe in fighting unnecessary political battles, adding that "he's very much a realist."

Brulte said he initially figured Republicans would pick up two or three seats. But several weeks ago he realized GOP chances might be even better. He began to focus attention and money on four races: two in the Central Valley, one in San Diego, and one in Long Beach, where Democrat Betty Karnette won a close race in 1992.

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