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California and the West

Hurtt Quits as Senate GOP Leader

Politics: Orange County conservative plans to devote more time to family and business. He says he still will seek reelection.

March 17, 1998|ERIC BAILEY and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Rob Hurtt, the conservative Orange County industrialist who shook up California politics by freely spending his wealth to elect Republican candidates, including himself, stepped down Monday as Senate GOP leader to devote more time to his family and business.

With the election season fast approaching, Senate Republicans acted quickly to name another Orange County lawmaker, veteran legislator Ross Johnson of Irvine, to replace Hurtt as leader. Johnson, in turn, named Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) to the No. 2 post.

Hurtt's announcement caught most colleagues by surprise but was not entirely unexpected.

During much of last year, critics accused Hurtt of appearing disengaged from his leadership responsibilities. At one point he admitted to frustration and boredom with a legislative process that was far more ponderous than his fast-paced business life.

The lawmaker, who still plans to seek reelection this year to his Senate seat, decided to reduce his involvement to spend more time with his family, including increasingly frail parents in their 80s and a sister who suffered a stroke, as well as running his Garden Grove manufacturing firm.

Hurtt, who ascended to Senate GOP leader in 1995, has had nagging problems with high blood pressure.

"There was not any one big thing, just a lot of little pieces," said Hurtt, 53. "I know what it takes to do this job right in an election year: hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of hours. I just got back up here and realized I wasn't going to be able to spend the time I needed to be effective."

Hurtt made his mark in state politics in the early 1990s by joining with three wealthy Southern California businessmen to form a conservative organization that became one of the most aggressive political outfits in the state, outspending nearly all other special interest groups.

Since 1992, Hurtt and the group he helped found, the California Independent Business PAC, have spent more than $10 million on conservative candidates and causes.

After helping get several Republicans elected to the Legislature in 1992, Hurtt decided to run for office the next year, spending $300,000 of his own money on his successful campaign. He quickly became a target for Democrats, who accused Hurtt--an evangelical Christian--of plotting to reshape California as a religious state.

Hurtt eventually broke from his wealthy partners in 1995 after state campaign watchdogs raised legal concerns about the lawmaker's conflicting role as a director of the campaign organization while serving in the Senate.

He continued to give to politics extravagantly, tapping his company and his bank accounts to spend $1.3 million before the 1996 elections.

In his new, more limited role, Hurtt said he plans to continue to give generously, but will have more independence to choose the benefactors.

Hurtt said his own Senate seat is in something of a political "danger zone" because Democrats are expected to pour in money to support Rep. Loretta Sanchez's bid for reelection in an overlapping congressional district. Any spillover into the Senate race could harm Hurtt's chances.

Democrats said they didn't expect many changes with Johnson and Brulte running the show for the Republicans.

Johnson, who served a short stint as Republican leader while in the Assembly, said the Senate GOP would play the role of "loyal opposition" as the minority, but wage an aggressive fight to gain ground in November's election. With many more Democrats than Republicans leaving office this year, Johnson said, "we do have some excellent opportunities to pick up seats."

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