AP/Sacramento Bee file
One of the most competitive races in California politics is not on the Nov. 8 ballot. Yet it looms over legislative contests across the state.
Who will be California’s next Assembly Speaker?
Supporters of Assemblyman Robert Rivas, a Central Coast Democrat, say the job should be his soon.
“Why not give stability from day one of the new legislative session?” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, an outgoing Democrat from the Los Angeles area.
Those loyal to Anthony Rendon, the Los Angeles County Democrat who has been Speaker since 2016, counter that Rivas will only take over if and when he gets the support — and right now he doesn’t have it.
“There is no opening for Speaker,” said Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes, a Democrat whose district includes parts of San Bernardino. “We have a Speaker.”
Tensions over the standoff for one of state government’s most powerful positions have only heightened this fall, with Rivas’ proponents bucking the traditional California Democratic Party funding operation. Instead, they are contributing to a new political action committee that intends to make Rivas the next Speaker.
That has frustrated some of their colleagues and raises the stakes for Election Day, when the Assembly’s 80 seats — three quarters of them currently held by Democrats — are on the ballot. Each contest could be pivotal in determining the speakership.
Under perhaps the most pressure will be newly-elected Assemblymembers, who could face what may be a high-risk political decision on their first official day in office. The Assembly will likely vote on a Speaker Dec. 5, the start of the 2023-24 session.
Rivas and Rendon are expected to be re-elected to their seats. And they have spent the summer and fall campaigning for, and meeting with, candidates who could align with them.
“I can’t think of a precedent in recent history for a leadership fight getting intertwined with the general election,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California. “But when you combine the two, it’s not surprising — it’s competing power centers emerging.”
Rivas vs. Rendon
The scuffle began in late May, when Rivas strode into Rendon’s office and said he had enough support to be Speaker.
While Rendon can serve for two more years under term limits, this kind of power move is not unusual. In 2015, Rendon approached then-Speaker Toni Atkins, who was a year away from reaching her own term limit. Rendon took over the role six months later. Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, is now the President pro Tempore of the state Senate.
On that morning back in May, a Rivas spokesman put out a press release saying the Assemblyman had enough support to be the next Speaker.
Days later, Democrats held a six-hour meeting inside the Capitol behind closed doors. If Rivas had expected to emerge as Speaker-apparent, he was in for a disappointment. When it ended, the two rivals put out a joint statement. Rendon congratulated his challenger for gathering support from a majority of the current Assembly Democrats to succeed him. Rivas said the Speaker should remain in the role until at least the end of the legislative term.
No transition date was announced.
“While it may be sooner than the Speaker was asking for, or wanted, Robert followed what we believe are the time-honored traditions of the house and was rebuffed,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, whose district runs along the coast north of Santa Rosa. “And that’s disappointing.”
In interviews, Assemblymembers didn’t point to a single moment that led them to support Rivas. Their grievances with Rendon included bills that failed to pass and a leadership style, they said, that benefits some but not all.
Rivas said Democrats were divided before May.
“My goal has been to bring the caucus together,” he said. “So we can do the important work of legislating and fighting for those values that are most important to our state and the districts we represent.”
Rendon spokespeople did not make him available for an interview despite multiple requests.
Reyes, the Assembly majority leader, described the Speaker as an inclusive leader who lets the heads of committees decide what bills they are going to hear instead of telling them what to do. Even though Rendon has limited time in the Assembly, Reyes sees no need for a quick change.
“Why, if we have a good leader and that good leader can take us through the next two years?”
Typically, ahead of an election, Assemblymembers make contributions to the Democratic Party. The party works with a campaign operation called Assembly Democrats to spend money to support candidates.
Susan McEntire, political director for Assembly Democrats, used to work for Rendon. She said the goals of the operation are to “defend vulnerable caucus members and elect more Democrats to the Assembly.”
Yet Rivas supporters are sending some of their money to the Democratic Leadership Coalition PAC. It was created in June, not by Rivas or another Assemblymember.
Matthew Herdman, a spokesman for the new committee, said its goal is to “expand the Democratic majority and ensure that Rob Rivas is the next Assembly Speaker.”
Some donors to the fund said they were concerned Assembly Democrats could use money to support candidates who will back Rendon for Speaker. In all, 19 Assemblymembers, through their campaigns and individually, had contributed more than $880,000 combined through Thursday.
Wood, the member from the Santa Rosa area, had chipped in $100,000 to the new fund, records show. That made him the second biggest donor behind Rivas, who had contributed $215,000.
During the last election cycle, Wood’s campaign gave almost $246,000 to the party. But for the 2021-2022 cycle it has sent the party a little more than $84,000. The most recent contribution came in March.
Wood said he wanted to give to the new committee and directly to candidate campaigns instead of sending money to the party to be used by Assembly Democrats.
“At the end of the day, I want to do my part to help elect Democratic Assemblymembers,” Wood said. “But I chose to do it differently.”
Rendon supporters say an underfunded Assembly Democrats operation only opens the door to Republicans.
“This isn’t about the caucus’ interest,” said Assemblyman Christopher Ward, a Democrat from San Diego. “It’s about one individual’s interest.”
Records show the Democratic Leadership Coalition has spent money supporting candidates in races both perceived as safer and more competitive. The contributions it makes are through independent expenditures, which means the committee cannot coordinate with campaigns. The vast majority of its spending has gone toward mailers and consulting services.
The new committee had spent more than $89,000, through Thursday, to support the campaign of Esmeralda Soria. The Democrat is in what is expected to be a tight race with a Republican for a district in the Fresno area. Both Rivas and Rendon met with Soria at separate campaign events in October.
By contrast, the Democratic Party had spent more than $1.8 million in monetary and non-monetary contributions to help Soria’s candidacy. A spokesperson for Soria’s campaign did not respond to interview requests.
Assemblyman Matt Haney, a Democrat from San Francisco, has not given campaign money to the Democratic Party since joining the Legislature in May. But his campaign contributed $4,900 to aid Soria, the maximum allowed.
“It’s unprecedented in many ways to have members coming together, independently giving their own funds and supporting contested races and supporting our future colleagues,” Haney said. His campaign also sent $40,000 to the new committee.
The Democratic Leadership Coalition, through Thursday, had contributed more than $25,000 to aid Dawn Addis. The Democrat is running against a Republican in a district along the Central Coast. That race is perceived to be a safer one for Democrats. Addis’ campaign had received a little over $3,000 in monetary and non-monetary contributions from the Democratic Party.
An Addis spokesperson declined to make her available for an interview.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Democrat who is running for re-election in the Orange County area, is frustrated by Assembly Democrats’ spending. Her campaign had not received money from the operation through Thursday, records show. She believes it is because she supports Rivas.
“It makes me feel like I’m completely on my own.”
The Democratic Leadership Coalition also had not spent money to support her candidacy. Quirk-Silva’s campaign contributed $40,000 to the new fund.
Bill Wong, who previously was the political director of Assembly Democrats and earlier served as Rendon’s chief of staff, is one of those critical of the new committee. He said it creates a bad look.
Adding: “The perception is that the expenditures are being made to influence the speakership race.”
Stephen Hobbs: 916-321-1692, @bystephenhobbs
Lindsey Holden: 916-321-1207, @lindseymholden