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GOP Assembly Leader Quits Post in Wake of Losses

Legislature: Leonard, other Republicans are subdued as Democrats savor the prospect of a level of power they haven't enjoyed in many years.


SACRAMENTO — The first aftershock of the Democrats' big win in the Legislature was felt Wednesday when Assembly Republican leader Bill Leonard resigned his GOP post.

"I believe that no matter what the fault is . . . that when a loss occurs on the leader's watch that it's time to change leaders," a subdued Leonard (R-San Bernardino) told reporters. Leonard, who remains an Assembly member, had held the leadership position since the summer of 1997.

The Democrats' overwhelming legislative victories in Tuesday's election increased their majorities in both houses beyond expectations, quite likely bringing one-party power in Sacramento to a level that could resonate for years to come.

Jubilant Democrats, backed by the election of a Democratic governor, advanced their clout in the 80-member Assembly from 43 to 48 seats and in the 40-member state Senate from 23 to 25 seats in election results that included the ousting of Republican powerhouse Sen. Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove.

Among Republican casualties, along with Hurtt, were Assemblymen Jim Morrissey of Orange County and Robert Prenter of Hanford, both beaten by Democratic Latino challengers. The Democrats' other gains were in three open seats previously held by Republicans.

The election, like others in recent years, advanced Latino legislative clout in the Central Valley, the Inland Empire and Orange County. Morrissey's defeat by real estate agent Lou Correa of Anaheim will send Orange County's first Latino legislator to Sacramento.

In the Inland Empire, reflecting increasing numbers of Latino voters in the area, a 72-year-old great-grandmother and Latina Democrat, Pomona City Councilwoman Nell Soto, pulled an upset over her Republican opponent in an open seat race.

Among Republicans, Latinos increased their numbers in the Assembly from one to four by running in relatively safe GOP territory, but the newcomers also added to what GOP leaders said was some much-needed diversity.

Until now, the Assembly Republicans had only two minorities, Latino Rod Pacheco of Riverside and Nao Takasugi, a Japanese American, of Oxnard. Assembly Democrats, in contrast, include 13 Latinos in their ranks, four African Americans and, after Tuesday's voting, two Japanese Americans.

Besides capturing Hurtt's Senate seat with a victory by trial lawyer Joseph Dunn of Laguna Niguel, Democrats picked up another Senate seat with the election of former Assemblywoman Jackie Speier of Burlingame, who won an open seat.

While Democrats have a larger majority, they won't "go hog wild" with a pent-up liberal agenda, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) told reporters, though Democrats will set out to "correct some past wrongs."

First up when the Legislature convenes in January, he said, will be quick approval of pay raises for state employees, who have gone without one under Gov. Pete Wilson since 1995.

After that, Burton said, will come approval of measures enhancing rights for domestic partners, improvements to public education, a new ban on assault weapons and legislation allowing patients to sue their HMOs.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) cited similar goals--minus the reference to domestic partners--and said he and Gov.-elect Gray Davis agreed on the outlines of a legislative agenda during several private meetings before the election.

"Gray's issues are the Legislature's issues," Villaraigosa said. "We're committed to working together."

Moderation will be the watchword of the new Legislature, he said. Villaraigosa, a self-proclaimed liberal, said, "My ideas are just that: my own." The election result, he said, "was no mandate to go to extremes. People want us to lead from the middle."

Of Hurtt's defeat, Burton said the reasons included resentment among Latinos at the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187, the increasing turnout of Latino voters and the bitter congressional fight between Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez and fiery ex-congressman Bob Dornan in a district that overlaps those of Hurtt and Morrissey.

Assembly Republicans are scheduled to meet today to pick a new leader. Among possible choices mentioned are Pacheco and Assemblyman George Runner of Lancaster.


Times staff writer Mark Gladstone contributed to this story.

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