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California and the West

Scott Baugh Emerges to Lead a Comeback

Politics: Officials hope rise of new Assembly leader since charges of campaign misdeeds were dropped will translate into a partywide resurgence.

April 13, 1999|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Overcoming enormous odds, Assemblyman Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach has 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 remarkable because his political career seemed doomed even before it got underway.

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

The 36-year-old, cherub-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. "He did his work and won everybody over up here."

He will need to call on 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 alienates voters.

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

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--although Baugh won't talk about his plans.

Assembly Democrats are among those pleased about Baugh's ascension. 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 good relationship 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 Newport Beach.

All the speculation about his future is heady stuff for a lawmaker who spent his first year in Sacramento trying to prove that he was not a crook.

Baugh, who did acknowledge making campaign reporting mistakes, was vindicated after state prosecutors decided the alleged violations were not criminal and sent the case to the Fair Political Practices Commission on March 19 for possible fines.

Baugh's political re-education was jump-started early one morning 3 1/2 years ago. Seven armed men from the district attorney's office were at his home with a search warrant in the campaign reporting case, 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 against the wall and tried to confiscate the camera. The investigators denied roughing him up.

Until then, Baugh thought charges of police brutality were exaggerated.

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

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 is asking for a study of the law's efficacy.

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

This former high school football captain, who lost a kidney in a 1993 bout with cancer, who emerged from indictment as the GOP's leader in the Assembly, is now smelling the roses.

"I emerged from a difficult time," he said, "and I came out on top."

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