After Losing His Grip on Anaheim City Hall, Is Former Mayor Curt Pringle’s Lobbying Empire Crumbling?

Curt Pringle. Photo courtesy California High Speed Rail

For much of this decade, Curt Pringle & Associates cast a shadow over Anaheim City Hall. The namesake of the public-relations and government-affairs firm, served two terms as Anaheim mayor from 2002 to 2010 and wielded a significant—some would say inordinate—amount of influence over council majorities afterward. Political observers elevated him to Sith Lord status, seeing his hidden hand everywhere from questionable projects coming before council to electoral muscle moves meant to preserve his power. Becoming a media recluse after completing his terms as mayor only added to the Pringle lore.

The reputation isn’t purely borne out of political paranoia. A year after leaving office, Pringle met with Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait at the Catch near Angel Stadium. On the first day he could legally lobby his former employer, the city of Anaheim, Pringle pushed for a full subsidy benefiting a pair of GardenWalk hotels, a project of one of his clients. When Tait declined, a pro-Pringle council majority later ran roughshod over the mayor, approving the hotels with a generous $158 million in subsidies.

But there’s deep, visible cracks in the Pringle empire these days. Tait, a former ally who broke with his onetime friend after the GardenWalk vote, formed his own council majority following the 2016 elections. And the fissures aren’t solely visible on the dais: By the end of the following year, Peter Whittingham and Todd Priest, two longtime vice presidents at Pringle & Associates, quietly departed within a month of each other. The exodus sent shockwaves through OC’s political establishment and lobbying circles. “Peter and Todd were the face of the firm,” says a source who requested anonymity. “Their departure is a huge blow to its horsepower. I think what you’ll see is a precipitous decline in the firm’s influence and book of business.”

Whittingham, the first vice president to leave, joined the firm in 2001, two years after it began in the wake of Pringle’s failed bid for state Treasurer. He steadied the business during the eight years that his boss politically reinvented himself as Anaheim mayor, but then he abruptly left in November. Whittingham emerged as founder and CEO of Whittingham Public Affairs Advisors in January. The announcement came with a chorus of congratulations from OC politicos on his Facebook page, with former Assemblywoman Young Kim, Santa Ana city councilmen Sal Tinajero and Jose Solorio sending well wishes. Fred Whitaker, Orange city councilman and chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, gave the most telling response: “Wow, that was out of the blue,” he wrote.

By that time, Pringle & Associates also lost the services of a staunch loyalist in Todd Priest, its vice president since 2007. Unlike Whittingham, Priest visibly enlisted in the political pushback against Tait starting in 2013, before the mayor won re-election. The attack plan? Label Tait a Garden Grove hypocrite on hotel subsidies for his association with Great Wolf Lodge’s developer and allude to contracts Tait & Associates, the mayor’s civil-engineering and environmental-services company, gained in the city’s own resort area. The charge also surfaced on a September 2013 social media spat, in which Priest got personally involved in a thread on Solorio’s Facebook page.

“Nobody loves Garden Grove right now more than Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait,” Priest wrote. “He is making a fortune.”

Before that, Pringle enjoyed a council appointment to Anaheim’s charter review committee, a highly politicized panel convened in 2013 during an ongoing American Civil Liberties Union district elections lawsuit. As the Voice of OC reported, Priest criticized purported “hidden agendas” behind criticisms of the committee’s lack of Latino representation in online comments defending his boss. Tait fired back by suggesting panel members file Form 700s to disclose potential conflicts of interest. Pringle ultimately stepped down from the committee.

Illustration by Richie Beckman

The Tait attack plan simmered following the mayor’s decisive re-election in 2014. Priest carried on his duties as vice president until this December. Like Whittingham, he now heads Todd Priest & Associates, his own public- and government-relations firm. Started in January, the firm’s website doesn’t tout Priest’s wealth of experience with Pringle & Associates, as Whittingham’s does. The two departed colleagues don’t appear to harbor ill will toward each other. “Exciting news—congratulations,” Whittingham wrote to Priest online after he announced the move.

Why the pair of vice presidents left at the end of last year remains a mystery. Neither Whittingham, Priest nor Pringle could be reached for comment on this story. “Pringle doesn’t go out and do meetings,” says the anonymous source. “It’s almost like he’s too good for them.”

Including the former VPs, five Pringle & Associates staffers have left the firm within a year’s time. Elizabeth “Liz” Ramirez, who worked as director of community outreach for two years, became director of government affairs for Athens Services in May 2017. Andrew Petteruto, former communications associate, exited in August 2017. While still listed and pictured as staff on the Pringle & Associates website, Jessica Martinez was the last to leave; she ended her tenure in February after just seven months as office manager and scheduling coordinator. The firm now stands at nine employees, including Pringle’s wife, Alexis, and their daughter, Katie.

While Whittingham and Priest announced the new professional chapters in their lives, Pringle & Associates had to do the same. “It’s a New Year, and we have some new faces to introduce you to,” the firm declared on its Facebook page. Over three days, a trio of new hires were spotlighted, including two new vice presidents. Paul Simonds had a four-month consulting stint with Cerrell Associates and spent four years as public-affairs manager for Southern California Gas Co. Clare Venegas, a former OC Register reporter, spent much of her recent career as executive director of the Lincoln Club of Orange County before becoming president of the anti-abortion Obria Medical Clinics. Together, the two new vice presidents are “green pea” lobbyists compared to the seasoned duo they replaced.

Venegas and Simonds join Jennifer Fitzgerald, the vice president who didn’t leave. The Fullerton city councilwoman has served in that capacity since 2014 and is building up her political and lobbying muscle. In April, Pringle personally installed Fitzgerald as board president of the Association of California Cities—Orange County during a swearing-in ceremony for the elbow-rubbing conservative nonprofit.

Even though Pringle’s once-iron grip on Anaheim City Hall has slacked, and his firm underwent a shocking shakeup, any political obituary is premature. He still wields an undiminished ability to instill fear. Tellingly, none of the people contacted for comment on this story wished to go on record. And it’s not the first time Pringle has been down and out. His political career began with a shellacking three times over in Garden Grove City Council races before ascending to Speaker of the California State Assembly. Another opportunity to re-establish his reign over City Hall and the reversal of fortunes that accompanies it comes in November when voters go to the polls to elect a new mayor and three council members.

“Pringle’s not like any other lobbyist,” says the anonymous source. “Constantly trying to manipulate elections in Anaheim? Nobody does that. He just may get a majority back there.”

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