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O.C. Republicans in Line for New Assembly Power


SACRAMENTO — It's a time Orange County Republicans never dreamed would arrive so soon.

With last week's surprising series of Election Day victories, the GOP is on the brink of seizing control of the state Assembly. In one swift stroke, the Orange County delegation--a conservative clan once dubbed "cavemen" for their ideology--could go from a bunch of outsiders to perhaps the most potent bloc of votes in the lower house.

Barring a last-minute political miracle by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and the Democrats, the Orange County group--who make up nearly one-quarter of the GOP majority--can finally be in a position to truly make their mark under the Capitol dome.

"Orange County will and should reap disproportional benefits," said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who won't enjoy the new majority status because he is vacating his seat early next month to run for the state Senate. "One reason is, there's so many of them. No. 2 is because they provide the philosophical basis that the Assembly Republican caucus will have."

Along with the newfound prestige come the perks of the party in power, be it a better parking space in the Capitol's subterranean garage or a better grade of carpet on the office floor.

Many among the Orange County GOP delegation have long subsisted in dungeon-like quarters. Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), for instance, was shoe-horned during his freshman term into a tight, two-room Capitol office with nary a window to be found. He and others representing Orange County could get the office equivalent of front-row center--big windows with views of leafy Capitol Park, newer furnishings, much more space.

Most of the delegation pooh-pooh such improvements, saying it would be against the Republican creed to spend very much on remodeling or other perks.

"I don't know how the view out of one's window has a lot to do with how one performs," said Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Placentia).

Added Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), "Those are under-the-dome things that really have little significance in the scheme of things."

A more tangible benefit would be the additional staff and office equipment--computers, typewriters, laser printers--that heretofore only the Democratic majority had enjoyed. "The Democrats had budgets three and four times those of most Republicans," Ferguson said. "As the majority party, you have the resources to run the government and the resources to help yourself get reelected because you control the government."

In addition, several Orange County Assembly members would probably be named to chair prime legislative committees. The new assignments would not only provide added prestige and campaign fund-raising prowess, but also give a lawmaker as many as three or four additional staff members, the sort of brain trust needed to tackle big-picture, omnibus policy legislation.

"The Republicans were always at a disadvantage in trying to research legislation," noted Pete Conaty, chief of staff for Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange).

All the members of the Orange County delegation remain tight-lipped about their prospects for committee chairmanships. But conventional wisdom under the Capitol dome suggests that Conroy would end up chairing the Utilities and Commerce Committee and that Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) would get Education or Natural Resources. Morrow could be in line for Judiciary or Health. If he wants it, Johnson could head the powerful Ways and Means Committee, although his plans to run against Ferguson and Allen for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) might prompt him to defer.

The biggest Orange County winner would probably be Pringle, the current assistant minority leader. Though he is not beloved among GOP moderates, the Orange County conservative is in line to assume the No. 2 spot in the Assembly and would be the heir apparent to GOP leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga).

"I think Curt Pringle in particular is going to be a real player in the process," Johnson said.

Orange County's taxpayers would also benefit, Johnson said. For years the county has gotten the short end of the stick when funding formulas were concocted. For everything from health care to schools, a disproportionate share of the funding went to urban areas represented by Democrats.

"We've been cheated by a Legislature dominated by big city Democratic politicians," Johnson said. "There has to be some opportunity for some correction in those inequities."

Moreover, Orange County's delegation would finally be freed to more effectively push its conservative economic and social agenda. Bills that once were killed or bottled up in Democrat-controlled committees now would have a chance to reach the Assembly floor.

Conroy, for one, is already gearing up to revive the bill he pushed unsuccessfully this past year that would allow the paddling of convicted juvenile graffiti vandals.

Other members of the delegation, meanwhile, talk of pushing for tax cuts and bigger incentives to attract business to California.

"Whether you're talking about crime, illegal immigration or jobs and the economy," Johnson said, "some of the important issues for us are going to rise to the top."

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