SACRAMENTO — Democrats on Wednesday were savoring a surprisingly strong election comeback in the state Legislature, where they strengthened their 25-year dominance in the Senate and edged out Republican Speaker Curt Pringle to narrowly recapture the Assembly.
Even with some races still up in the air, Democrats were talking about extending an olive branch to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and collaborating on a moderate agenda, including implementation of federal welfare reforms and expansion of the governor's popular plan to reduce the size of public school classes.
Eyeing the closeness of many contests, Democrats indicated that they had no plans to add new state spending programs but expect that the conservative Republican social agenda, such as limiting abortion rights, will go nowhere.
Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), a big winner in Tuesday's elections, was restrained in his forecast. He said that legislative programs would "reflect the necessity of compromise" with Wilson.
In post-election jockeying for power, some Republicans were complaining about losses that occurred on the watch of Senate GOP Leader Rob Hurtt, a staunch Orange County conservative whose fate was made uncertain by Democratic wins.
Democrats in Los Angeles County picked up two Senate seats in Republican strongholds, with former federal prosecutor Adam Schiff beating GOP Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland in the Burbank-Glendale area and teacher Betty Karnette topping Assemblyman Phil Hawkins in the Bellflower-Cerritos area.
In the Assembly, behind-the-scenes maneuvering began immediately over Pringle's successor as speaker.
Assembly Democrats knocked off two-term Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), the only incumbent lawmaker defeated. He was beaten by former Pasadena City College President Jack Scott.
In other closely watched Assembly races, Democrat Sally Havice, an English professor, held a narrow lead over Republican Richard Lambros in a classic swing seat in the Cerritos area with final ballots still uncounted. And Democrat Scott Wildman, a teacher, held a slim lead against Republican John Geranios in a Glendale battleground.
The final outcome of these and a few other tight races statewide, including contests in the Central Valley and Contra Costa County, will probably be decided by thousands of absentee ballots, some of which might not be tallied until next week.
In one Contra Costa County race, the candidates were separated by 20 votes.
Assembly Democrats could control as many as 44 districts, although both sides say it is more likely that the Democrats will have a paper-thin 41- or 42-seat majority in the 80-member lower house.
Assembly Democratic Leader Richard Katz of Sylmar, who is leaving because of term limits, said voters viewed Pringle of Garden Grove as an extreme conservative in the mold of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and failed to buy into GOP stands against abortion rights and in favor of legislation that would have allowed virtually anyone to carry a concealed gun.
"The Pringle agenda was much like the Gingrich agenda, and that got rejected both on the national level and here in California," a beaming Katz told reporters. "The voters have proved once again that they are moderate. . . . That's why our candidates won."
"The Assembly Democratic caucus did a phenomenal job in a year they weren't expected to," Katz said.
Pringle said it appears that the GOP controls 36 seats and could capture as many as 39.
"You don't have to be a surfer to know when you've been hit by a big wave and that is what happened to Republicans across this state last evening. . . . We saw that this was not a good year for Republican candidates," Pringle said, adding that he expects to remain the GOP's Assembly leader.
A surprisingly cheerful Pringle told a news conference: "I was, of course, quite surprised."
Even before the votes were counted, speculation was running rampant through the Capitol about Democratic lawmakers jockeying to succeed Katz and become the first Democratic speaker since Willie Brown, now mayor of San Francisco, was forced to give up the reins of power after the GOP's gains in 1994.
Several Democrats were openly in the race, including Sheila J. Kuehl of Santa Monica, Kevin Murray of Los Angeles and Cruz Bustamante of Fresno. Others regarded by Democrats as potential candidates are Wally Knox of Los Angeles, Carole Migden of San Francisco, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and newcomer Don Perata of Oakland.
Kuehl was equally focused on keeping her caucus united.
"We're rolling up our sleeves . . . trying to organize a new government," she said.
Still, a bruising internal fight is expected between now and Dec. 2, when the new Legislature convenes. Whichever Democrat emerges as speaker will share center stage with Lockyer, who has been the Capitol's most powerful Democrat. Lockyer flexed his muscle as a fund-raiser by amassing millions of dollars that he dumped into targeted races.