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No Ordinary Freshman Senator : Politics: The new GOP leader started out financing conservative candidates and set his sights on a quick rise to power. Critics say he aims to impose a Bible-based platform on Californians.

August 25, 1995|JENIFER WARREN and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — He arrived in the Capitol with a bang, a wealthy Orange County industrialist eager to test his might against California's entrenched political elite.

Before he had even cast his first vote, it was clear that Rob Hurtt was no ordinary freshman, content to observe and absorb quietly from the wings. On the contrary, this was a man intent on a quick rise to power--a man unafraid of making waves and accustomed to being in charge.

On Thursday--little more than two years after his election to the state Senate--Hurtt captured his prize. In a surprise turn of events, the Senate's 17 Republicans ousted moderate Sen. Ken Maddy of Fresno as Republican leader and handed the reins to Hurtt.

For some, the transition is cause for alarm. Critics say Hurtt, a Christian fundamentalist from Garden Grove, is an ideologue who aims to impose a Bible-based platform on Californians. One group that tracks fundamentalist Christian activities calls Hurtt "the most dangerous man in Sacramento."

"It's been apparent for some time that extreme, radical right-wingers were taking control of the California Republican Party," said Sen. President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward). "Today, they tightened their grip."

Hurtt, 51, denies he is out to turn California into a theocracy, as Lockyer suggests. True, he is a Christian, and true, he has spent his share of time in a men's Bible study group. He also staunchly opposes abortion, believes in two-parent families, opposes specific rights for homosexuals and wants to see creationism taught in public schools.

But Hurtt says he is far more interested in championing the rights of business, shrinking the size of government and improving California's economy. The influence of religion on his political philosophy, he says, has been exaggerated by opponents seeking to demonize him for their own political gain.

"They have been alleging that for three years," the senator said after his ascension Thursday. "As far as I'm concerned, they are false allegations."

Hurtt's supporters agree, and praised their new leader for his accomplishments and dedication to the Republican cause. Although his legislative achievements have been modest, Hurtt has used his personal fortune to bankroll conservative candidates--and finance recall attempts against enemies of the GOP.

Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay) said Hurtt would "bring new ideas and energy" to the leadership position Maddy held for more than eight years. And Sen. Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino), one of Hurtt's most ardent supporters and his seatmate on the Senate floor, called his colleague an amiable person capable of unifying the Republican caucus.

"He is frank to the point of being blunt, always honest," Leonard said. "There's no hidden agenda, no ulterior motive. He'll tell you upfront what his interests are."

Born in Santa Monica, Hurtt spent his boyhood in Pasadena and attended Claremont McKenna College, where he studied economics. After graduating, he went to work in his father's manufacturing firm, Container Supply Co., even laboring on the assembly line for a time. The firm, which makes plastic buckets and decorative tins, employs about 200 people and had sales of $23 million in 1993.

An evangelical Christian inspired by the works of James Dobson of the group Focus on the Family, Hurtt decided in the late 1980s to try his hand at politics. First, he founded a conservative group to lobby on family issues, but before long, he saw the limits of pressuring a Democratic-controlled Legislature. So he turned his focus to repopulating the Capitol with conservatives.

In the beginning, his campaign contributions were modest. But then he created the Allied Business PAC with Orange County savings and loan heir Howard Ahmanson, and quickly became a benefactor extraordinaire--helping to elect 12 of the more than two dozen conservatives he aided in 1992.

Over two years, Hurtt and three other Christian businessmen gave an astonishing $3.6 million to conservative candidates and causes. More recently, the senator invested $32,000 in the unsuccessful campaign to recall Assemblyman Mike J. Machado (D-Linden), and he is sinking large sums into the effort to oust Republican Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress) as well.

In 1993, Hurtt decided to run for office himself. Investing $300,000 of his own wealth in the campaign, Hurtt easily captured a vacant central Orange County Senate seat, beating six rivals with 76% of the vote.

Unlike many Senate freshmen, who are careful to keep a low profile while they learn the ropes, Hurtt quickly let his opinions be heard. He wasted no time, for example, revealing that he had designs on Maddy's leadership job, and even made an unsuccessful run at the post before his first year in Sacramento was over. Some called him brash, others labeled him a bully.

More recently, observers say Hurtt appears to have matured, adopting a less outrageous style on the Senate floor and smoothing his interpersonal skills.

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