Sacramento — Former Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy of Monrovia had his own style of eloquence, and he never was more profound than when heading out the door in August.
Standing on the Assembly floor, the termed-out, rough-hewn conservative, speaking at characteristic high volume, declared to his colleagues: "I'm not a lawmaker. I'm a Republican assemblyman."
It was meant as a joke. But it was also close to the bitter truth.
With both houses dominated by Democrats -- 48-32 in the Assembly, 25-15 in the Senate -- it's rare that a Republican is allowed to maneuver a major bill through the Legislature. That has become especially true in recent decades.
Republicans have controlled the Assembly for only three of the last 48 years and the Senate for less than two. But until around the 1980s, a Republican still could win passage of a big bill. Then the atmosphere turned increasingly partisan.
Ever since, Republican legislators have been frustrated and fighting for relevance.
And that was at the heart of the Assembly Republicans' abrupt dumping of their rookie leader, George Plescia of San Diego, two days after the November election. Plescia was seen as too docile in his dealings with Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As the 2007 Legislature convenes today, the new Assembly minority leader is Michael Villines, 39, of Clovis in Fresno County. He's an unabashed conservative, but that hardly distinguishes him. Practically all GOP Assembly members are, including the 11 newcomers.
Villines, an articulate former owner of a PR firm, appealed to fellow Republicans because of his promise to stand up for them -- not only to Democrats but also to the centrist GOP governor.
And that has both the governor's office and Democratic leaders worried.
The Kumbaya bipartisanship that defined this year's legislative session and resulted in the eye-popping enactment of hefty bills -- a rare on-time budget, record infrastructure bonds, a minimum wage hike, the nation's first attack on global warming -- could fade into history, a very brief chapter.
Indeed, Villines did not vote for any of those bills.
"What concerns me," says Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), "is that [Villines] may have an ideological swerve that gets in the way of addressing things in a bipartisan fashion.
"We've been in the process of setting an example for the rest of the country. We've shown that stalemate and stagnation don't improve peoples' lives, but bipartisanship does."
The Democratic leader adds: "I don't see this governor making a turn to the right -- certainly not to please Assembly Republicans, not after voters just gave him a huge vote of confidence."
Schwarzenegger advisors refuse to be drawn publicly into the Republicans' internal leadership quarrels, but privately they're quick to point out that the governor received 91% of the GOP vote last month, based on The Times' exit poll. They ask, what makes Assembly Republicans think they have their fingers on the party pulse? They're to the right of most Republican voters.
Gubernatorial aides and Democratic leaders fear that Republicans led by Villines will be obstinate merely for the sake of proving they're not pushovers. That certainly has happened in past legislatures in the name of "caucus unity."
This year, the legislation that Schwarzenegger and Democrats consider their crowning achievement -- the $37 billion in public works bonds -- is, paradoxically, what Assembly Republicans regard as their scuttled leader's fatal failure. Plescia signed off on the deal without first consulting the GOP caucus, members say.
Assembly Republicans felt disrespected by their leader and the governor.
Ousting Plescia and anointing Villines was aimed at sending a message to the governor that he'd better change his MO.
"The Republicans basically are defying the entire way the governor has done his bipartisanship," one GOP insider says. "The way he got those bipartisan deals was to ignore or abuse Republicans. They're not going to be taken advantage of next year. Plescia rolled too easy.
"If the cost of sitting in the smoking tent and having a cigar with Arnold is selling out your caucus, it's a cost not worth paying."
Villines doesn't state it in those words but says essentially the same thing.
"We hope to keep the same civil tone," he says, "but we need to do a better job of making sure we're included in the negotiating as bills progress....
"On global warming and other issues, the governor went pretty far left.... He's saying he won't raise taxes, he'll balance the budget and propose a big healthcare plan. I'm interested in how that's all going to fit....
"To do the people's business you've got to be pragmatic. But sometimes we'll have to stand on principle and say, 'No, we're not going to go forward if we don't get what we need.' "