Curt Pringle was a 29-year-old Republican upstart running for the Assembly in 1988 when he did something that cast a shadow on the rest of his political career. On election day, his campaign hired uniformed security guards to stand outside polling stations in heavily Latino neighborhoods, holding placards reading "Non-Citizens Can't Vote."
Today, Pringle is running for mayor of Anaheim. But Orange County is a far different place both politically and demographically than it was 14 years ago, and voters must decide whether Pringle has changed with the times.
Anaheim is now nearly 50% Latino. For several weeks, the hottest issue in town has been the Planning Commission's decision to thwart the Mexican-owned supermarket chain Gigante from moving into town after a city official called it too Hispanic. Last week, the City Council overturned the Planning Commission's denial of Gigante's request.
In a move that surprised some of his critics, Pringle came out in support of Gigante, even appearing at a rally beside some of the very Latino activists who blasted him for the poll guard incident.
"This issue has united individuals and organizations with divided viewpoints around a basic American principle of property rights and fairness," said Pringle, who served as speaker of the Assembly during the mid-1990s.
While the activists are far from endorsing Pringle, they said they can't help but respect what they took to be an unspoken mea culpa.
"It speaks well for him that he's here," said Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a leading Latino rights group. "What happened [in 1988] brought forth a lot of pain. Sometimes we can move on and sometimes we can't."
Ruben Smith, who organized the Gigante rally, said Pringle's stance marks an important first step. "I don't think it just goes away with one issue," he said. "There's no doubt he wants to do the right thing and change the image he has."
Pringle's candidacy comes at a time of great change for the Orange County GOP. It has seen its traditional domination of county politics slip in recent years. In the increasingly diverse central county, several high-profile Democrats have won office, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), who defeated legendary conservative Republican Robert K. Dornan.
Communities long known as rock-solid Republican strongholds, such as Anaheim, have seen a wave of immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries in the past decade.
The GOP is shifting with the times.
"Things have changed," said Fred Smoller, head of the Henley Social Science Research Center at Chapman University in Orange. "Clearly, the Republican Party has. Politicians look to what works, and [targeting immigrants] failed for them."
Smoller said the posting of guards at polling places, and even the tough rhetoric against illegal immigration used by Gov. Pete Wilson in his 1994 reelection, would not fly with today's Orange County Republicans, who are trying to make inroads among Latinos. "We now are a minority-majority county and good politicians ought to be able to count," Smoller said.
What became known as the "poll-guard incident" confirmed for many Orange County's reputation as a hub of intolerance. The county's history is pocked with divisive politics: In 1924, Anaheim was the site of the largest white supremacist rally in California history. In the 1950s, the extreme anti-communist John Birch Society found a home in Orange County.
In 1988, Pringle's campaign, aided by the local GOP, stationed private guards at 22 polling places in Latino neighborhoods in Santa Ana to monitor voters. Some challenged voters and demanded identification.
Local GOP leaders testified later that they were responding to fears that Democrats planned to drive busloads of illegal immigrants to cast ballots in the central Orange County race. The local party and Pringle eventually settled a civil rights lawsuit for $400,000. There was no evidence of the busloads of illegitimate voters.
Pringle, defeated for reelection to his district seat in 1990, won a neighboring seat in 1992 and in 1996 was elected Assembly speaker. Dismissed as an insignificant far-right ideologue during his first stint, he rose to Assembly speaker with a reputation for effectiveness and fairness.
Termed out of office in 1998, Pringle ran for state treasurer that year. Several Latino organizations ran television ads in key markets reminding voters of the poll-guard incident, and he lost to Democrat Phil Angelides by a wide margin.
Pringle remains uncomfortable talking about the poll guards and the impact the incident has had on his political career. He has repeatedly said that he knew about the guards but didn't know they would be in uniform or that his campaign paid for their signs. If someone suggested hiring such guards today, he said he wouldn't agree to it.
"What's more important to me is that where you can find the ability to work with people to get things done, you do," he said.