California’s past shenanigans shed light on House speaker votes – San Bernardino Sun

For those who kept an eye on the California State Legislature about 30 years ago, the kerfuffle over the U.S. House speakership might seem a tad familiar.

And politicos say that legislative melee is one that holds lessons for the ongoing turmoil in Washington, D.C.

Now, it’s a California congressman, Kevin McCarthy, who is struggling to get enough of his GOP colleagues to coalesce behind him to secure the speaker’s gavel. He’s lost several rounds of votes in a historic fashion as about 20 hardline Republicans refuse to back him.

But in the mid-1990s, it was another fight featuring Republican lawmakers in the California Legislature that led to some speaker shenanigans. As Alex Vassar, a legislative historian with the California State Library, puts it: Both situations involve many moving pieces.

At the start of the 1994 session, Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, the leader of a Republican caucus that had a narrow majority, seemed to be set for the speaker role.

But a few things happened: Paul Horcher of Diamond Bar bucked his Republican colleagues and voted for longtime Democratic Speaker Willie Brown, and Democrats were able to block Richard Mountjoy, a Republican who had recently won a special election for a vacant Senate seat, from participating in the vote.

Thus, Brown held onto the speaker role, and Horcher lost his seat after Republicans mounted a recall.

But the drama wasn’t over.

Doris Allen speaks from the podium during her first day as Speaker of the Assembly. June 5, 1995. The volatile fight for House Speaker in Washington, D.C., in 2023 is reminiscent of Allen’s own speakership election in 1995. (Photo by Mark Rightmire/The Orange County Register)

A few months later, Assemblymember Doris Allen, a Republican from Cypress, became the first woman to hold the speaker position in June 1995. Brown had said he’d only remain in the post until another member could put together the requisite number of votes needed for the job — and with the help of Democrats, Allen did.

She won the speaker spot with no Republican votes except her own.

Democrats said Allen was the right person for the job because she could maintain bipartisan control and would foster working relationships. Republicans, though, accused Allen of betrayal and making “a deal with the devil,” according to the Orange County Register’s reporting at the time.

Allen would only remain speaker for 102 days, resigning amid a recall effort. Her ally, Brian Setencich of Fresno, won the job for a short time — until Brown left the Assembly to become San Francisco’s mayor and Allen was replaced in the Assembly by Scott Baugh. She died in 1999.

And Assemblymember Curt Pringle of Garden Grove took over for nearly a year — the last Republican to hold the position.

Former California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, a Republican, likened politics to a team sport amid the fight over the U.S. House speaker vote. (Photo courtesy Cal State Fullerton)
Former California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, a Republican, likened politics to a team sport amid the fight over the U.S. House speaker vote. (Photo courtesy Cal State Fullerton)

“I believe that politics is a team sport,” Pringle, now a government affairs consultant, said. “You need to be a part of a team, a caucus, a party. That doesn’t mean you’re bound to everything that team does, but the only way you have any power is if you work together with the team.”

“In 1995, two members joined the other side. It’s somewhat interesting to see, in this case, that these 20 representatives (who aren’t voting for McCarthy) represent about 10% of the overall Republican makeup of the House, but they expect the 90% to do what they want as opposed to them working with the team they’re elected to,” Pringle added.

Brulte sees some similarities between the Republicans bucking the party leader both then and now: “The folks opposing McCarthy did nothing and gave little or no money to help elect Republicans in Congress. Those who opposed my election also did nothing to help elect GOP members to the Assembly.”

But in California, the vote margin was much narrower than what congressional Republicans have now. And in California’s Capitol, the speaker fights were “certainly not helpful at fostering good relationships” in a building where colleagues meet often and there are fewer members compared to Washington, Brulte, a former Republican Senate leader who is now a partner with California Strategies, said.

As for politics being a team sport, Brulte added: “On every team, there is always somebody who doesn’t care (if) the team wins or loses. They’re only for themselves.”

As of late afternoon on Wednesday, Jan. 4, McCarthy had lost six votes over two days as hardline Republicans continue to block his speakership.

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