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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / ASSEMBLY

Republicans Trying to Protect Thin Edge

Politics: GOP officials confident they can retain control of speaker's post. Democrats hope to ride Clinton's coattails back into power.

September 17, 1996|MARK GLADSTONE and MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Having tasted the rewards of power for the first time in a quarter century, Assembly Republicans are heading toward the November elections scrambling to hold onto their narrow majority in the lower house.

The state GOP is seeking to buck what so far appears to be a big year at the top of the national ticket for Democrats. The Republicans, for the first election since 1970, control the Assembly, and they have the edge in campaign fund-raising.

"For the first time in a couple of decades, the Democrats are the ones that have to run up the hill," said veteran GOP campaign consultant Ray McNally.

Meanwhile, Democrats have tasted minority status and the loss of power, including a sharp drop in staff and a loss of influential committee chairmanships. They are hopeful that the big tide of votes expected for President Clinton will sweep them back into control of the Assembly.

Democrats, however, must recapture the Assembly without their longtime leader, former Speaker Willie Brown, and are hamstrung by a weaker fund-raising operation than when they were the majority party in the 80-member house. Also, dissension in the Democratic ranks could hold them back.

At the heart of the power game is how to reach the majority number of 41.

The current lineup is 41 Republicans, 36 Democrats, one Reform Party member and two vacancies in seats considered safely Democratic.

With 30 of his members seeking reelection, Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) said Republicans are coming off the March primary in a stronger position than in any recent election.

"Unlike past decades, Assembly Republicans for once hold an advantage over Democrats in terms of campaign financing," Pringle said. In 1994, candidates for the Assembly spent $28 million, and most involved in the current campaigns believe spending this year will at least equal that amount.

Republicans are confident but not cocky about retaining the majority.

They say voters are satisfied with the direction of the Assembly, citing a pro-business agenda and popularity of a class-size reduction plan approved by the Assembly and the Democratic-controlled Senate and signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson.

They argue, too, that Clinton's coattails will be short, citing victories in the 1980s by GOP Presidents Reagan and Bush that were landslides in California and yet didn't filter down to the Assembly, where Democrats retained control.

Democrats acknowledge they will be outspent and face an uphill fight but are guardedly optimistic about their chances to win back the Assembly.

Democrats say that even in the landslide GOP year of 1994, Republicans only managed to eke out a narrow majority.

"With a president who is 20 points up and issues breaking our way like minimum wage, a woman's right to choose [an abortion] and funding for public education, our candidates are well situated for November," said Assembly Democratic Leader Richard Katz (D-Sylmar). "We feel good about the ability to hold on and pick up seats."

The most intense skirmishes are being waged in districts that could swing toward either party.

Among these battlegrounds are what is known as the Steinbeck seat in the Salinas Valley, named after the novelist John Steinbeck; the Republican-leaning South Bay of Los Angeles County, where Democrats have done well in recent years; and coastal San Diego, where Democrats have established a beachhead.

The election is particularly important for Pringle, whose rise to the speakership in January culminated one of the Assembly's most tumultuous years ever.

In trying to keep his Republican majority, Pringle has been aggressively raising funds to keep wielding the speaker's gavel, making a recent appeal to lobbyists in a slick mailer soliciting "investments" of $1,000 to $25,000.

As they have so often in the past, Republicans are still running against Brown, now mayor of San Francisco. In his fund-raising pitch, Pringle said: "We must not allow the political heirs of Willie Brown to turn back the clock. Our success in the Assembly elections in November will set the course for California on into the next century.

"That is why I am calling on all friends of California's working families and job-producing businesses to redouble their efforts and make an investment in our crucial 1996 Assembly campaigns."

Citing Democratic divisions, Republican strategists say their candidates are poised to strengthen their numbers in the lower house.

"We think we can be in the neighborhood of 43," after election day, said Jeff Flint, Pringle's top political strategist. Flint said he is confident that even if California voters back Clinton they will split their tickets and return GOP legislative incumbents.

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