Besides governor, there’s no office in California government more powerful than Assembly speaker. That’s why competition for the job can be fierce.
And is now.
There’s a bruising speakership fight being waged mostly out of public view between current Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood and Assemblyman Robert Rivas from Hollister in San Benito County.
The challenger seems to have the upper hand. But Rendon still has the office, and the outcome is unclear.
The bitter brawl is among Democrats who hold a supermajority of the 80 seats. They’ll control 60 after two vacancies are filled in Tuesday’s primary. A simple majority vote, 41, is needed to elect a speaker.
Rendon, 54, has been speaker six years. That’s longer than anyone since Willie Brown, who held onto the job for 14 and a half years.
Rivas, 42, was elected to the Assembly in 2018 and would be the first Northern California speaker in 24 years. Seven of the last eight speakers have been from Los Angeles County, so his ascension his would mark a geographical power shift.
The former county supervisor also would be the first speaker from a rural district in 52 years.
The rural roots are significant because a top Rivas priority is to make life better for agriculture laborers. He has been chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee.
This is what’s so inviting about the job he seeks: The speaker appoints all Assembly committee chairs and members, fills scores of seats on state boards, including the Coastal Commission, and is a University of California regent.
The speaker and the Senate president pro tem — currently Toni Atkins of San Diego — are the Legislature’s principal negotiators with the governor. They can co-write the legislative agenda and singlehandedly kill any bill they don’t like.
In fact, five years ago Rendon scuttled Atkins’ bill to create a gargantuan state-run, single-payer, universal healthcare system. He was right. The Senate-passed measure was fiscally irresponsible, lacking a funding mechanism although it had a $400-billion annual price tag — double the state budget. But Rendon’s brave action created enemies.
He generated more enemies by acting less nobly at the end of the pandemic-marred 2020 legislative session.
He denied the request of Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks,(D-Oakland, to vote by proxy because she was nursing a newborn baby. Wicks feared exposing the infant to COVID-19 if she brought her to the Assembly floor. But she did, to vote on hundreds of bills on the session’s final day. Meanwhile, senators were allowed to vote by Zoom.
Rendon was also accused by Atkins and other lawmakers of “running out the clock” on the final night, preventing several major Senate bills from being passed before the midnight deadline. Rendon called the accusation “absurd.” But it apparently wasn’t.
This is a natural power struggle. Rendon is on his way out anyway. He’ll be booted by term limits in 2024.
Right before Memorial Day weekend, Rivas walked into Rendon’s office holding 34 cards, each with the signature of a Democrat pledging a vote for speaker. That was a majority of Democrats. Normally it would lead to united caucus support.
Rivas asked the speaker to agree on a timetable for transfer of power. Rendon told him to buzz off.
Then Rivas did something unprecedented. The challenger issued a press release declaring he had “secured enough votes [from Democrats] to become the next speaker.” He was sending a message of inevitability — everyone should jump aboard.
But clearly Rivas didn’t have enough votes to oust Rendon now or he would have.
Rendon acknowledged that Rivas had “the support of the current Democratic Caucus to succeed me.” But no timetable.
Rivas seems destined to be the next speaker. But it’s not a cinch. Votes on pledge cards don’t count until they’re cast on the chamber floor.
George Skelton is a Los Angeles Times columnist.