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Republicans recall the 10th anniversary of Pringle’s Assembly speakership

It was 10 years ago this week that Curt Pringle, a Republican assemblyman
nurtured in the rough-and-tumble of Orange County politics, became speaker
of the California Assembly. His reign was brief, from January to November
1996, and outside the world of the Capitol and California’s political class,
his tenure is all but forgotten. But even a decade later, memories of the
ferocious infighting that culminated in his ascension to the speakership are
strong. And the impact of his role are is still felt in the Capitol.

“The bottom line is that it showed that anything can happen in politics,”
Pringle, now the mayor of Anaheim, told Capitol Weekly. Pringle was in
Sacramento this week to attend a reunion of Assembly Republicans from that
era and host a dinner with former staffers.

Pringle was the first Republican speaker backed by the GOP rank and file in
more than 25 years, the first since Republican Bob Monagan was elected
speaker at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term as governor. Two other
Republicans, Brian Setencich of Fresno and Doris Allen of Cypress, briefly
served as speaker in the year before Pringle took power, but they were
figureheads of the Democrats led by Willie Brown, who bent parliamentary
rules, wooed them to take the speakership, gave them the Democrats’ support
and retained power behind the scenes. Allen, now deceased, was denounced as
a traitor to the GOP and booted from office in a recall election and
Setencich was later defeated in the 1996 GOP primary by Robert Prenter.

Setencich’s problems didn’t end there: He was later convicted of looting his
own campaign funds, and sentenced to seven months in prison–a sentence that
was upheld in 2001.

A third key figure in the GOP speakership battle was Paul Horcher, now a
Diamond Bar lawyer, who stunned Republicans by turning on his colleagues and
voting for Brown as speaker in a dramatic December 1994 floor session. It
was Horcher’s vote that showed the weaknesses in the Republicans’ razor-thin
majority that emerged from the November 1994 elections–weakenesses that
Brown cannily exploited and allowed him to deny the speakership to the GOP
leader who appeared to be a shoo-in for the job, Jim Brulte. Brown, a
liberal Democrat who later left to become mayor of San Francisco, was no
stranger to Republican votes: He served 14 1⁄2 years as speaker, winning the
job in 1980 with more GOP than Democratic votes

Like Allen, Horcher’s action ultimately cost him his job. His fellow
Republicans mounted a recall against him and he was tossed from office
months later. But the maverick Horcher, who made little secret of his
unhappiness with the Assembly’s Republican leadership, has no regrets.

“They say all politics is local, but it’s not. It’s personal. With the right
set of circumstances, anything is possible in politics,” Horcher said.
“The problem,” he added, “was the Republican leadership. I wouldn’t knuckle
under. There was a consensus that Willie Brown was brilliant, and it was
true. He was playing three-dimensional chess and they were still trying to
master checkers.”

For political junkies, the wonder of that era–which remains to this day–is
not that Pringle became speaker but that Brown, the wily parliamentarian,
was able to retain a semblance of power for a year after the Republicans won
a majority. One Keystone Kops maneuver stands out: Republicans, hoping to
block a quorum on the Assembly floor, fled to the Hyatt Hotel to forestall a
final vote. “Willie publicly proclaimed that he had the right to be speaker.
(The Assembly clerk) was hospitalized, and Willie said the house had to sit
and elect a new speaker. Jim Brulte was the Republican leader, and he said
that if we (Republicans) never went to the floor, they can never have a
quorum and therefore they can never vote on this issue. So they went to the
Hyatt,” Pringle recalls.

Republicans won handily in the 1994 elections, nationwide as well as in
California. In California, they had 41 Assembly seats, the bare minimum
needed to decide the speakership in the 80-member house. “I think we picked
up eight seats. It was monumental, it caught everyone off guard,” Pringle
says.

But their 41 votes dwindled to 40 after Horcher’s defection, putting the
house into a 40-40 split. But then Brown sought–and won–a procedural ruling
that blocked newly re-elected Republican Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy from
taking his seat in the house. Mountjoy, at the same time, had been elected
in a special election to a vacant Senate seat. Brown argued that Mountjoy
should not be allowed to sit in the Assembly, and demanded a vote on the
issue. House rules preclude a member in such a case from voting on his own
status. Thus, there were 40 votes to block Mountjoy–39 Democrats plus the
newly independent Horcher–and only 39 Republicans voted in favor of
Mountjoy, who could not vote on his own behalf. Mountjoy was barred from the
Assembly and Brown retained the speakership with 40 votes.

Mountjoy remembers the moment well.

“Willie had to get rid of me, but it was unconstitutional. It should have
been a two-thirds vote to kick me out, but they did it with a majority
vote,” he recalls. “That night, I was leaving and I was down in the garage,
and I got a call from the Senate Pro Tem, saying they would have my
swearing-in in the Senate the next morning. Well, I went and Willie was
there. I asked him what he was doing there, and he said, “I just wanted to
make sure you were really gone.”

The upshot was that 1995 was spent in maneuvers over the speakership. In the
end, Horcher and Allen were recalled, and both were replaced by pro-Pringle
Republicans.

On Jan. 4, 1996, Pringle was sworn in as speaker. For Pringle, the irony was
sublime. There was still a vacancy in the house, and Pringle won with only
40 votes–like Brown the year before.

“Willie Brown’s clarification of the rules to protect himself allowed me to
use that same rule to be elected speaker. Those were the only two times in
the history of the state of California that a speaker was elected with 40
votes,” Pringle said.

It was also the last time a Republican was elected Speaker of the California
Assembly.


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