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Pringle Delighted at Turn of Events : Profile: After being left for dead several times in his political career, the Garden Grove assemblyman finds himself with a stack of chips to play in the Capitol's political games. At stake is the Speaker's post.

August 22, 1995|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — There was a deal to be done, and Curt Pringle was right where he wanted to be--in the thick of it.

Trying to broker a billon-dollar funding shift to pull Orange County out of bankruptcy, the third-term assemblyman paused one recent evening to take a deep breath on a bench tucked in a remote Capitol corridor. A smile soon emerged just below the glasses and blond hair. Pringle murmured happily.

"Isn't this great?"

For the fair-haired politician from Garden Grove, the answer was more than a bit obvious. Pringle the Player was in the game.

Now the stakes have become even higher. On Monday, Pringle secured his party's top partisan post in the lower house, becoming the GOP Assembly leader and instantly a top contender to succeed his most bitter intraparty foe--embattled Republican Speaker Doris Allen.

It was a remarkable comeback for a politician who has been left for dead more than a few times in his career.

There was the 1990 defeat after one term in the Assembly, when Democrats targeted him as Political Enemy No. 1 and whipped up resentment over an infamous episode in which Pringle's campaign team and the Orange County GOP hired uniformed security guards to stand outside heavily minority voting places.

Earlier this summer, Allen stripped Pringle of the powerful Appropriations Committee chairmanship and banished him to Sacramento's equivalent of the gulag--a cramped, two-room office across from the noisy Capitol elevators.

But Pringle is back once again, and his enemies have been left shaking their heads in disbelief. There will be no more underestimating the boyish Orange County conservative.

"Curt's major strength is his tenacity and work ethic," said Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange), probably Pringle's closest friend in the Legislature. "He is just an incredibly hard-working legislator. Even those who may personally dislike him or his politics, or think he's too strident, will admit he is a hard worker."

For Democrats, the question remains just what the Pringle regime will mean.

"There are two sides to Curt Pringle; it's very much a Jekyll and Hyde kind of situation," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar). "On one hand, Pringle is a hardball player, an ideologue. On the other hand, he chaired Appropriations in a fair manner. It will be interesting to see which Curt shows up--the even-handed committee chairman or the shrill member on the floor."

Pringle's legion of boosters in Orange County Republican circles was gleeful Monday, singing the praises of a man the county GOP's conservative rank and file can happily embrace.

"Curt has grown tremendously; today he is a superstar," said Thomas A. Fuentes, Orange County GOP chairman and a mentor early in Pringle's career. "He is very idea-oriented. He's very thoughtful and has a wholesome agenda.

"What Newt Gingrich has done in Washington, Curt Pringle has ready for California."

Pringle's political history has been marked by hard work, an all-American brand of ambition and dogged persistence in the face of defeat.

An Eagle Scout, Pringle ran unsuccessfully for Garden Grove City Council three times, beginning at the age of 20. But he was elected to the Assembly before his 30th birthday in a district that had been dominated for years by Democrats.

During his first term, Pringle played the role of Republican loyalist, a backbencher who rarely strayed from his strict conservative beliefs: less government, lower taxes and a helping hand to business. He also was a target of attacks from Democrats eager to regain his Assembly seat. Even his most innocuous ideas were squashed in Democrat-controlled committees.

Among the flash points for such treatment was the poll guard episode. It enraged Latino activists, who maintain that the tactic threw the close election to Pringle, and helped ignite Democrats eager to throw out the bespectacled conservative. They did just that in 1990, after a contest that saw the warring campaigns combine to spend $1 million.

Pringle returned to the family window-covering business--and plotted his return. After reapportionment put his home in a different Assembly district in 1992, he ran for and easily captured a safe Republican seat.

In his return to the Capitol, Pringle's experience gave him a leg up on other GOP freshmen. He rose quickly up the ranks, becoming, in little more than a year, second in command and heir apparent to outgoing Assembly GOP Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga).

This year, Pringle gained celebrity--and added a dash of bipartisan pragmatism to his credentials--by shepherding the budget bill through the Assembly and assuming the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee before his ouster by Allen.

Since then, Pringle has become one of the leaders of the recall movement against the embattled Speaker, who earned the ire of Republicans after she gained the post with her own vote and those of 39 Democrats.

But can Pringle unite the deeply divided Republican Assembly caucus and gain the edge to replace Allen as Speaker? Lewis gives him a 50-50 chance. Katz is far less sure Pringle could ever get the smattering of Democratic votes he would probably need.

"I don't even know if he'll be able to reflect the diversity of the Republican caucus, such as it is, and put all 40 members together as a working group," Katz said. "A lot of it with both Republicans and Democrats will depend on the job he does--which Curt Pringle shows up in the next six months or so."

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