Aftershocks of Term Limits Rattle California Assembly

'Forest Gump' figure takes over as Speaker in Sacramento shuffle

THE abrupt resignation of Doris Allen, the first woman to hold the post of Speaker of the California Assembly, now puts the helm of the legislature in the hands of a freshman being labeled the "Forrest Gump" of California politics.

Brian Setencich, a staunch GOP conservative, cuts a striking figure in his characteristic black, double-breasted suits. His youth - he's the youngest to hold the post - and his high-pitched voice have prompted the Hollywood comparison.

Ms. Allen's demise and Mr. Setencich's rise are being seen here as fresh evidence that California's entrenched system of career-long professional legislators is crumbling.

The nation's first experiment in state term limits - adopted in 1990 and taking affect for many key lawmakers by 1996 - is providing an early lesson on possible results of similar measures in other states.

"[Setencich's election] is the continuation of the deal masterminded [in June] by [previous Speaker] Willie Brown," says Alan Heslop, director of Claremont McKenna College's Rose Institute. Mr. Brown was one of the biggest politicians to leave office because of term limits.

Setencich's stands

Mr. Setencich describes himself as an independent lawmaker. He is pro-agriculture, against abortion and gun control, and has introduced 23 bills or resolutions reflecting a pro-business stance. The job he now assumes, once seen as the second most powerful in California politics, is quickly becoming a weakened role of parliamentarian.

"It wasn't unusual to have a short-term speakership in pre-modern California," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "But it is highly unusual since [longtime Speaker] Jesse Unruh reshaped the institution. Now that institution is reverting backwards."

But it is easy to find Setencich defenders among both parties.

"We think he's fair. He's shown a remarkable ability for someone who is a brand-new member to go in just nine months to preside over one of the most difficult, cantankerous sessions we've had here," says Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz. "He does it with humor and evenhandedness and competence, and from our perspective that's what a speaker ought to be."

Despite Setencich's youth and inexperience, even some Republicans here say a greater possibility exists for the California legislature to move forward than under Allen.

"The jury is still out," says Mickey Conroy, a GOP assemblyman representing Orange County. "If he changes the rules so that the Democratic minority no longer controls the majority, he may find peace and quiet. If not, the war will continue and things will be just like they were."

Many analysts do believe the period of instability and gridlock that began with Allen's election in June will continue for a legislative body once considered among the most respected and influential in the country.

Willie's last maneuver

By giving Brown the title of "Speaker Emeritus" and agreeing to change Assembly rules to keep most Democrats in charge of key committees, Allen won a June 6 election with the vote of every Democrat and no GOP votes but her own. Essentially the same situation continues after Brown engineered a carbon-copy, 41-to-39 vote last week. Brown, Setencich, and Allen arranged the deal in Allen's office hours before the election.

Democrats stood and applauded the announcement while Republicans remained seated and silent. Setencich is being seen as the new Democratic puppet, although he is less of an anathema to Republicans than Allen was. "He's a nice easygoing kid, which is exactly what the minority party [Democrats] want," says Mr. Conroy. "They want someone they can control."

Capping a volatile three-month tenure, Allen stepped down to end what she called a job "in Dante's Inferno." Since her election in June, the Orange County Republican has been under attack from her party and constituents for cutting a deal with Assembly Democrats to win the speakership.

A petition to recall Allen from office mounted by party members qualified the same day she resigned.

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