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The Fall and Rise of Scott Baugh

Politics: Perseverance and grace under fire see legislator through lows and into higher office.

April 11, 1999|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Overcoming enormous odds, Assemblyman Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach transformed himself from pariah to pooh-bah in three years at the state Capital.

His comeback, capped last week when he was elected Republican leader of the Assembly, was all the more remarkable because his political career seemed doomed even before it got underway.

Baugh, though, never saw it that way.

He was charged by Orange County prosecutors with felony and misdemeanor campaign reporting violations stemming from the 1995 special election that first put him in office. He proclaimed his innocence and then went about his legislative business as if he didn't have a target on his chest.

The 36-year-old cherubic-faced Redding native won friends and allies in both parties by playing the cheery jokester and putting others at ease with self-deprecating humor.

"The Bible says in order to have friends, you must show yourself friendly," Baugh said. "In a short period of time, people saw me for who I was, which was amazing to me, especially after the indictment."

Last month, all criminal charges were dropped. But Baugh's grace under fire since he arrived in Sacramento has earned him respect.

"He's got a lot of courage," said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who serves with Baugh on the Judiciary Committee. "I find him to be thoughtful and intelligent . . . a very, very personable and energetic member. . . . He did his work and won everybody over up here."

He will need to call on all that goodwill as he embarks on his new challenge: rebuilding a dispirited, fractured caucus still reeling from November election defeats. With just 32 of 80 votes in the Assembly, Republicans have very little say in state policy issues.

Baugh promises to turn that around by drawing "a bright line on policy differences between Republicans and Democrats," while sidestepping the kind of partisan bickering that turns off voters.

As the third minority leader in the past five months, Baugh now is the person who must prepare the party for the 2000 elections. He will be responsible for raising campaign funds and overseeing the efforts to regain lost Assembly seats.

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Such statewide presence also could help the ambitious politician win a different seat, perhaps in the state Senate or statewide, after term limits end his Assembly career at the end of next year.

Baugh won't talk about his political plans except to say he loves all aspects of his job, from debating public policy to appearing at Eagle Scout events in the district.

Assembly Democrats are among those happiest about Baugh's ascension to the leadership role. They praise him for working to find common ground and get things done, rather than standing on the sidelines with nonnegotiable positions.

But Baugh's coziness with Democrats worries some members of his own caucus.

"If, in fact, the Democrats are happy with this change, if they perceive Scott Baugh as being more conciliatory and not as forceful as Assemblyman Rod Pacheco [whom Baugh succeeded as leader], that may be to the detriment of the Republican Party," said Republican Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer of Irvine.

All the speculation about his future is heady stuff for a lawmaker who spent his first year in Sacramento holed up in his Capitol office every night trying to prove that he was not a crook. He did acknowledge making a few campaign reporting mistakes.

Baugh was vindicated after state prosecutors decided the alleged campaign reporting violations were not criminal in nature and sent the case to the Fair Political Practices Commission on March 19 for possible fines.

Despite the tribulations, Baugh says he is a better person for having gone through them. He is a different person too.

Baugh's political re-education was jump-started early one morning five years ago. Seven armed men from the district attorney's office were at his home with a search warrant, Baugh said, and told him to let them in or they would knock down the door.

When he tried to take photos of the search, Baugh contended, the investigators threw him up against the wall and tried to confiscate the camera. The investigators denied roughing him up.

Until then, Baugh thought claims of police brutality were greatly exaggerated.

The experience "profoundly changed me," he said. It turned the lawmaker into a civil libertarian, who is sponsoring legislation on grand jury reform and police officer training on the Miranda warning on arrestees' rights.

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Baugh also took on a Republican sacred cow this year: the three-strikes law. He questions the wisdom of possibly locking up forever some small-time felons like petty drug addicts. He's asking for a study of the law's efficacy, with an eye toward fine-tuning it.

"I tell my conservative colleagues, 'If three strikes is working, we shouldn't be afraid to evaluate it,' " Baugh said.

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