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GOP Defeat in Assembly Stalls Pringle's Rise

November 10, 1996|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It was his first time in the pilot's seat of the Assembly Republican campaign machine. Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) figured the GOP would fly high, bolstering its control of the Assembly on election day.

Instead, Pringle and the Republicans took a nose dive.

Democrats captured a majority of seats in the Assembly, and now are poised to name one of their own to replace Pringle as speaker when the Legislature reconvenes the first week in December. Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) is expected to be the next Assembly speaker.

It would bring to a close Pringle's 11-month tenure in the Assembly's top job just when the 37-year-old Orange County conservative appeared headed on a flight path that could have ended with a run in 1998 for a statewide office.

For his part, Pringle is unfazed.

"There have been Pringle obituaries written probably four times now," he said. "I don't plan every step of my career. I know there's a plan I don't see now."

While lofty possibilities in the future still cannot be ruled out, few in the Capitol deny the assemblyman's prospects have plummeted.

Republicans argue it wasn't his fault, that Pringle did everything possible before election day, but was done in by the lackluster performance of GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole. As Pringle himself put it: "The Republican vote stopped going to the polls at 5:30 or 6 p.m. They were depressed, demoralized and didn't turn out the way they usually do."

Moreover, what Democrats called a rout was really a squeaker. Had a handful of races decided by a few hundred votes gone the other way, Republicans would still be in control of the lower house. Pringle would have been labeled a political genius.

Buoyed by such beliefs, Assembly Republicans gave Pringle a consolation prize, naming him their 1997 leader just two days after the election disaster.

"He performed up to everyone's expectations, but we were done in by a Democrat tidal wave," said Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Irvine). "There were mistakes made during the course of the campaign, but not by the speaker."

Added Republican Assemblyman Keith Olberg of Victorville: "Curt poured out his heart and time. The results were beyond anyone's control."

*

Some of Pringle's opponents were hardly so charitable. They crowed how the results demonstrated the electorate's distaste for Pringle's Orange County brand of conservatism. They also lambasted Pringle's short stint as speaker.

Pringle "pretty much lived up to his motto, which was scorched earth," said Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). "I think that for the most part, the way he went about taking power and exerting power was fairly abusive."

She cited the firing of the Assembly elevator operators and the secretarial pool as examples of "unnecessary decisions--things that really had nothing to do with waste or saving money and had a singular cruelty about them."

Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Huntington Park) agreed that some of the firings seemed unnecessary, but said Pringle treated Democratic lawmakers with a surprising degree of fairness when it came to allocating money: "I frankly think he was fairly generous. He could have given us zero."

Escutia said Pringle's chief error was in allowing the Republican agenda to be dominated early on by "silly, frivolous" issues, such as a bill that would have permitted the paddling of graffiti vandals and another that banned same-sex marriages performed in other states.

"It was a mistake to have all those hysterical bills--like spanking children--come to the forefront early on," Escutia said. "I think he squandered time on things like that" and hurt his party's image and odds of success.

Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, a moderate Republican from Cupertino, laments that the paddling bill and others "became a useful campaign tool for the Democrats. Those bills were distractions that allowed us to be viewed as much more extreme than our record showed."

At the time, Pringle expressed private irritation that the paddling bill and a few others, which he inherited from the 1995 session and by house rules had to be heard first thing this year, eclipsed in the public eye fundamental Republican efforts to cut taxes and improve the business climate. But he chose not to stand in the way of GOP colleagues determined to have their issues heard.

Pringle was reluctant to pressure members of the GOP caucus for fear of being branded a dictator. "I think the speaker felt he had no right to tell any member they could not pursue a specific bill," Olberg said.

*

Today, Pringle criticizes the Democrats for misconstruing on the campaign trail what Republicans are all about.

"Though some people want to emphasize two or three bills they feel were frivolous, the Republican agenda was very clear," Pringle said. "We stand for tax reduction, regulatory reform and an emphasis on creating more jobs in California."

Pringle said he is proud of what ultimately was accomplished during his year as speaker.

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