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Skelton: Battle continues for California Assembly Speaker

Besides the Governor, there is no office in California government more powerful than the Speaker of the Assembly. This is why competition for work can be fierce.

And it is now.

There is a deadly fight for the presidency taking place mostly out of the public eye between current President Anthony Rendon of Lakewood and Assemblyman Robert Rivas of 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 tussle is unfolding among Democrats who hold a supermajority of the 80 seats. They will control 60 after two positions are filled in Tuesday’s primary. A simple majority vote, 41, is required to elect a speaker.

Rendon, 54, has been a speaker for six years. That’s longer than anyone since Willie Brown, who held the position for 14½ years until a brief Republican power grab and impending term limits forced him to step down in 1995. Then he was elected mayor of San Francisco.

Rivas, 42, was elected to the Assembly in 2018 and would be Northern California’s first speaker in 24 years. Seven of the last eight speakers were from Los Angeles County, so his rise would mark a shift in geographic power.

The former county supervisor would also be the first speaker from a rural district in 52 years.

Rural roots are important because one of Rivas’ top priorities is to improve the lives of farm workers. Unlike the speakers raised in the city, he grew up in farm laborers’ quarters, eight crammed into a two-bedroom house on a vineyard. He was chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture.

That’s what’s so appealing about the job he seeks: the President appoints all Assembly committee chairs and members, fills dozens of seats on state boards, including the Coast Commission, and is a regent of the University of California.

The Speaker and Acting Senate Speaker—currently Toni Atkins of San Diego—are the Legislature’s primary negotiators with the Governor. They can co-write the legislative program and single-handedly kill any bill they don’t like.

In fact, five years ago, Rendon scuttled Atkins’ bill to create a gargantuan single-payer universal health care system. He was right. The measure passed by the Senate was fiscally irresponsible, devoid of a funding mechanism, although it had an annual price tag of $400 billion, twice the state budget. But Rendon’s courageous action created enemies.

He generated more enemies by acting less nobly at the end of the pandemic-tainted 2020 legislative session.

He denied Congresswoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland)’s request to vote by proxy because she was breastfeeding a newborn. Wicks feared exposing the baby to COVID-19 if she brought him to the Assembly floor. But she did, to vote on hundreds of bills on the last day of the session. Meanwhile, senators were allowed to vote by Zoom.

Rendon was also accused by Atkins and other lawmakers of “running out of time” last night, preventing several major Senate bills from passing before the midnight deadline. Rendon called the accusation “absurd”. But that was apparently not the case.

“Each speaker has a lifespan. This is the reality,” says an Assembly member who supports Rivas but did not want to be identified as criticizing the still-powerful Rendon.

Everyone I spoke to about the fight requested anonymity so they could speak candidly, with the exception of Rivas. But he wouldn’t publicly slam Rendon.

“The Legislature is ready for new energy, new leadership — a speaker who can work closely with caucus and other leaders, like pro tem,” Rivas told me.

His supporters in the Assembly argue that under Rendon the House has become fractured, tense and chaotic. But it’s ignited by a loudspeaker fight.

It’s a natural power struggle. Rendon is about to leave anyway. He will be pushed out by term limits in 2024. Eager aspirants fought for the job, making introductions to fellow Democrats.

In November, Rendon stripped Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) of a committee chair as he rushed for votes.

Also in the running was North Hollywood Congresswoman Luz Rivas (no relation to Robert), whom Rendon appeared to be helping by pouring out campaign money to her would-be supporters. This worried Robert Rivas, so he picked up the pace.

Just before Memorial Day weekend, Rivas walked into Rendon’s office with 34 cards, each with the signature of a Democrat pledging to vote for president. It was a majority of Democrats. Normally this would lead to the support of a united caucus.

Rivas asked the speaker to agree on a handover timeline. Rendon told him to buzz, refusing to acknowledge the promises. He said it was unclear whether these were commitments to withdraw him now or to vote for Rivas when the speaker was ready to leave. And he wasn’t ready.

Then Rivas did something unprecedented. The challenger issued a press release stating that he had “gotten enough votes [from Democrats] to become the next speaker. It sent a message of inevitability – everyone should jump on board.

But it’s clear that Rivas didn’t have enough votes to oust Rendon now, otherwise he would have.

He called for a caucus vote at a bitter six-hour Democratic meeting last week. But Rendon wouldn’t allow it.

They issued a tense joint press release.

Rendon acknowledged that Rivas had “the support of the current Democratic caucus to succeed me.” But no schedule. And there will be a new caucus mix after the November election.

Rivas said he agreed with the majority of the caucus that Rendon “should remain president for at least the remainder of this legislative session.” It will end on August 31.

Rivas seems destined to be the next speaker. But it’s not child’s play. Votes on pledge cards do not count until they are dropped on the floor of the chamber.

Los Angeles Times

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