SACRAMENTO — Republicans in the state Assembly ousted their leader Thursday, replacing San Diegan George Plescia, whom the governor's chief of staff had compared to a startled deer, with a fiscal conservative from the Central Valley.
After meeting for more than four hours, Assembly Republicans unanimously chose Michael Villines of Clovis to lead their 32-member caucus. Villines ascribed the change in leadership to a need for stability -- Plescia will be forced out of the Legislature in 2008 by term limits while Villines may serve until 2010.
But some Republicans had been grumbling for months that Plescia was a pushover in budget and legislative negotiations with Assembly Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Although Schwarzenegger is a Republican, he and the Democrats who dominate the Assembly and Senate recently struck deals on prescription drug discounts, minimum wage increases and global warming legislation that passed with few Republican votes.
There are so few Republicans in the Assembly that their votes are not needed to pass most bills. At least six Republican votes are needed, however, to pass the budget with the required two-thirds majority. Thursday's change in Assembly Republican leadership could foreshadow tough budget talks; Villines voted against the last budget, while Plescia was one of seven "aye" votes.
Asked after his ouster Thursday whether Assembly Republicans would take a firmer stand with Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the coming year, Plescia said, "I think we have to, absolutely."
Villines said: "We're going to work with the governor; we always have. We want to be a team player with him. When we have honest differences, we're going to make known our differences."
In written statements issued shortly after the announcement of Villines' election, Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) welcomed him and expressed hope for continued cooperation.
"We have a historic opportunity to achieve even more accomplishments by continuing to build on the bipartisan spirit of cooperation in the state of California," Schwarzenegger said.
Nunez, who was quickly and enthusiastically reelected speaker by his fellow Democrats on Thursday, congratulated Villines, saying: "If there is any lesson to be learned from the election, it is that California voters want us to be partners, not partisans."
Plescia was chosen in March to replace Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who stepped down to run for Congress.
Plescia inherited the job of helping to negotiate the $37-billion infrastructure bond package that voters approved on Tuesday's ballot.
During those negotiations last spring, in a private chat that was recorded in Schwarzenegger's office and made public by the Los Angeles Times in September, Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, said that "Plescia looks like the deer that keeps getting caught in my yard when I leave the gate open."
In the recording, the governor laughs at the comment. Kennedy goes on to say that Plescia has "big eyes that just kinda like stare like a Stepford wife. He's a good-looking guy. Happy. Perky."
Schwarzenegger then describes the Assembly Republicans as "that wild bunch upstairs" and analyzes whether Plescia can control them.
The governor and Kennedy apologized to Plescia after their comments were made public, but some Assembly Republicans -- who asked not to be identified because rules forbid them from discussing caucus business -- said the disclosure reinforced their sense that Plescia was not well-respected.
Republican frustration with Plescia erupted in a late-night session in March as legislators and Schwarzenegger finalized the infrastructure bond package. Assembly Republicans demanded 48 hours to analyze the legislation before a vote on the Assembly floor, but Plescia conceded to the governor's demand that it be voted on immediately.
Villines voted against the infrastructure bond legislation and signed the ballot argument against Proposition 1B, the $20-billion bond to improve roads and public transportation. Voters approved that measure 61% to 39% on Tuesday.
In his argument against the measure, Villines wrote: "We all want better roads and less traffic congestion. However, if the Legislature turned its attention to streamlining construction projects and easing over-burdensome regulations, we wouldn't need to borrow billions of dollars."
As Plescia reflected on his seven-month tenure after introducing Villines to reporters as his replacement, he said: "I, personally, I want to build highways. Look at my district. We need the money."
A former aide to Gov. Pete Wilson, Villines was previously chief of staff to state Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno), who was defeated Tuesday in a bid for attorney general.