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CAPITOL JOURNAL

An Assembly That Acts Like a Parliament

August 07, 1995|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — One of the most bizarre chapters in the annals of the California Legislature soon will end when Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga steps down as Assembly Republican leader.

The strange saga of the lower chamber will continue, however, and nobody can predict how the rest of this tale will unfold.

Since the ascension of rebel Republican Doris Allen to Speaker on June 5, the Assembly has been organized more like a European parliament than an American legislature. And that arrangement just doesn't figure to last, unless our two-party system really is on the way out.

Allen is being kept in power by a coalition of all 39 Democrats--the minority party--and a handful of renegade Republicans. Brulte is leader of the GOP regulars, who--depending on what's at stake--number from 34 to 38.

It's an odd situation where one coalition (Democrats and Allen renegades) controls the power structure while another, overlapping coalition (all 40 Republicans) controls the fate of most bills. The GOP's public policy dominance will increase after Sept. 12, when a 41st Republican is expected to be elected from Orange County.

By then, Brulte plans to have stepped down as GOP leader. He hasn't formally announced it, but his intention is to bow out shortly after the Legislature reconvenes Aug. 21.

Realizing he'll never be elected Speaker and anxious to focus on a 1996 campaign for the state Senate, Brulte believes it is time for a transition to new blood, to somebody who--unlike himself--won't be forced out of the Assembly after next year by term limits.

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There are two candidates to replace Brulte as leader of the GOP regulars-- Assemblymen Curt Pringle, 36, of Garden Grove, and Fred Aguiar, 46, of Chino.

Despite an affable disposition, Pringle is an attack dog and one of Allen's most aggressive antagonists. Aguiar is popular with almost everybody and, unlike Pringle, is not aiding the Orange County effort to recall Allen.

Pringle was chairman of the Appropriations Committee until dumped by Allen and stuffed into a closet-size office. The new Speaker also initially bounced Aguiar from the Rules Committee when he refused to pledge his total loyalty, but she later reinstated him as "alternate chairman" in her frequent absence.

Like most elected Republicans, Pringle and Aguiar both are conservatives. Pringle may be more adamant about it.

Traditionally, the winner of this contest would become the caucus's potential candidate for Speaker. But recently the GOP regulars chose Assemblyman James E. Rogan of Glendale as their next Speaker nominee. He now is seriously considering a 1996 bid for Congress. Regardless, the regulars are bent on the unprecedented course of selecting one colleague as floor leader and another as their Speaker candidate.

The thinking is that in a closely divided house, with perpetual turnover because of term limits, the kind of pit bull partisan a party might want as its leader probably could not generate enough broad support to be elected Speaker. In the new era, the theory goes, a Speaker will have to be less partisan.

The vision is of a Speaker who administers the House fairly, although with a partisan bias, and a separate, autonomous political leader. This would seem to be a recipe for rivalry and politically impractical. However, Pringle--echoing other GOP regulars-- insists, "It may never have been tried before, but it's what is going to evolve. This Legislature is in for fundamental change."

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In some respects, Brulte has been the most effective Assembly GOP leader in a generation. He took the caucus from a 32-member minority after 1992 to a 41-member majority last November. He also united a badly fractured caucus, with two disastrous exceptions--Allen and defector Paul Horcher, whose turncoat vote for Willie Brown denied Brulte the speakership.

Despite his other skills, Brulte always will be remembered as the guy who flunked remedial math, the naive pol who "couldn't count to 41," the vote total needed to be elected Speaker. He was Brown's last victim and also a victim of his own success. Democrats were determined that no Republican with his talent for election strategy would become Speaker. In their legispeak, he could "not be trusted."

So the minority party eventually divided and conquered the majority and elected the weakest Speaker in decades, if not ever.

Still, Brulte says, "I've done everything the caucus asked me to. I picked up seats, united us and now we're moving the policy agenda. It's time to step down and allow for a smooth transition."

Smooth somehow doesn't seem an apt word for this strange legislative body.

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