SACRAMENTO — In a surprise move, state Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine resigned as leader of the California Senate's Republicans on Thursday, saying he must devote more time to caring for ailing family members.
Johnson, who held the post for two years, immediately was replaced by Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. Brulte was the No. 2 leader in the party hierarchy, as caucus chairman.
First elected to the Assembly as a "Proposition 13 baby" in 1978, Johnson said he will continue to campaign for reelection to his Senate seat. "I'm healthy as a horse," he said.
Brulte, 44, an ambitious player on the political stage and a former California co-chairman of George W. Bush's presidential campaign, said he plans no major changes under his leadership.
Both he and Johnson are conservatives.
Brulte stressed that Johnson's resignation was voluntary and represented no dissatisfaction in the ranks with his performance, which included electing Republicans to the upper chamber.
"I cannot do justice to members of my family and meet the additional and demanding responsibilities" of the GOP leader, Johnson said. He said it was "important to me to spend the time with my family."
He declined to discuss the illnesses of his wife, Diane, or mother, Joyce Johnson. He said he also will care for a daughter, Susan, who is recovering from back surgery.
The shift in leadership occurred when Republicans interrupted a floor session and met privately in a Senate lounge where Johnson disclosed that he was stepping down.
A few minutes later, the resignation was formally announced to the full Senate, whose members, led by Democratic President Pro Tem John L. Burton, gave him a standing round of collegial applause.
Democratic Gov. Gray Davis issued a statement calling Brulte a "bright, accomplished leader" whom he looks forward to working with.
In a house dominated by Democrats for nearly three decades, the powers of the Republican minority leaders are limited. Some previous minority leaders have complained they have only a bit more influence in the selection of parking spaces in the Capitol garage than they do over state budget expenditures or tax cuts.
As a result, recruiting and electing Republicans has become a chief preoccupation, especially in this election year, when 10 of the GOP's 15 seats are at stake.
As Democrats seek to add to their 25 seats, the task of defending current Republican seats and at the same time trying to capture net gains is shaping up as a stiff challenge for Brulte.
One Republican incumbent, Sen. Richard Rainey of Walnut Creek, is the top target for defeat by Democrats, who want to build on their 1998 landslide of victories in California.
But Brulte, who is finance chairman of the California Republican Party, appeared to relish the fight. "I've always worked hard," he told reporters.