SACRAMENTO — Less than two weeks after being cleared of election misconduct charges, Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) on Tuesday unseated Rod Pacheco of Riverside as leader of the house's Republicans.
Reflecting turmoil over which way the party is headed, Baugh, an affable conservative lawyer, becomes the fourth leader of Assembly Republicans in less than two years.
"The bulk of the caucus felt it was necessary to make a change and empower a leader who would draw bright lines in [the] policy arena that shows why Republicans stand for liberty and why Democrats stand for big government," a beaming Baugh told reporters after ousting the more moderate Pacheco during a closed-door meeting of GOP lawmakers.
Still, the 36-year-old Baugh declined to crow further.
"This is somewhat of a somber moment. We have a lot of work ahead of us. We've got to capture nine seats [to win a majority]," Baugh said. Pacheco, an aggressive former prosecutor and the first Latino to lead the GOP in the Assembly, assumed the leadership after Democrats added five seats to their majority in last November's election.
"Everything happens for a reason, though you don't always know what that reason is," a reflective Pacheco said after the caucus. "I'll have a lot more time to spend with my wife and children and my constituents, and that's a good thing."
Almost immediately after his selection last year, Pacheco, the first Republican Latino legislator in 115 years, ran into trouble.
Some of his GOP colleagues fretted that he was away from the Capitol too much. Others worried that he wouldn't raise enough money to win back seats next year. Then, last month, Pacheco described three Republican colleagues in a New York Times interview as "the three stooges."
Meanwhile, Baugh resigned as an assistant Republican leader in a dispute with Pacheco. And Pacheco was forced to beat back a challenge from dissident Republicans who believed he was keeping them in the dark on key decisions.
Late last month, an Orange County judge dismissed charges of criminal campaign misconduct against Baugh that stemmed from his 1995 special election victory in which Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) was recalled.
Baugh had faced removal from the Legislature and up to eight years in prison if convicted on two felony charges and 10 misdemeanor counts. State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer asked that the charges be dismissed and referred the case to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which can levy civil fines.
Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Granada Hills) said he believes Baugh is well positioned to raise money from anxious corporate donors who want to help the GOP win back seats in the lower house. "The caucus failed to offer a contrasting vision to the Democrats," McClintock said.
Other Republicans, many of whom never favored Pacheco, offered several reasons for ousting the Riverside lawmaker, including his confrontational style in dealing with Democrats and concerns that he could not raise enough money to win back seats.
Some suggested that Pacheco's support for abortion rights contributed to his ouster. "It didn't help that I was pro-choice," Pacheco acknowledged.
Democrats welcomed the change in leadership.
"Mr. Baugh is much more conciliatory. He still fights for what he believes," said Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who came to Baugh's office to offer a congratulatory hug. Hertzberg added that he did not know if Pacheco's style torpedoed his leadership.
Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), who made no secret of his differences with Pacheco, said he looks forward to working with Baugh. He described Baugh as someone who has the "trust and confidence of members on both sides of the aisle."
Villaraigosa said he had nothing to do with Pacheco's ouster.
"I don't need to interfere in the internal Republican politics of the Republican caucus. They are doing just fine on their own," the speaker said.
Times staff writer Jenifer Warren and researcher Patti Williams contributed to this story.