Challenges remain for lame-duck speaker in legislative session

Rich Pedroncelli AP file

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, left, and Assemblyman Robert Rivas, D-Salinas, in May 2022. The Lakewood Democrat, the second-most powerful Democrat in the state, announced in November that he would relinquish the role to Rivas at June’s end.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon is finally facing his lame duck era.

Rendon, 53, has served more than six years as speaker — the longest tenure since the legendary Willie Brown held the gavel from 1980 to 1995.

He is preparing to end his tenure following a bitter, six-month fight with Assemblyman Robert Rivas, D-Salinas, who will assume office on June 30.

Lawmakers are hoping the brokered transition — under which Rendon will remain speaker for the first part of the legislative session that resumed on Jan. 4 — brings the Democratic caucus together.

“Our decision as a caucus (was) to give Speaker Rendon six more months,” said Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, a Rivas supporter. “I think these last six months are going to be about the truest reflection of his desire to bring people together, or not.”


Rendon vs. Rivas

Only the governor wields more power than the speaker in California state politics.

The speaker appoints chairs of all Assembly committees, controls the flow of legislation, fills seats on statewide boards and is a member of the University of California Board of Regents. But those official duties are not the full measure of his clout.

He also leads the Assembly Democratic caucus, manages members and helps direct campaign fundraising.

The power and responsibility make it a position few want to relinquish once it’s in their grasp. That means it’s fairly typical for California lawmakers seeking the Assembly speakership to gather support and oust a leader who is close to terming out.

But the hostility around the Rivas-Rendon handoff was anything but normal. A protracted fight ran from Rivas’s initial May overtures to the final November Democratic caucus.

Assembly Democrats’ selection of Rendon as their leader in September 2015 featured far less drama. Outgoing Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, remained in the role for a transition period that lasted until March 2016. At the time, Atkins was approaching her 2016 Assembly term limit. She is now Senate president pro tem.

“When it became clear to me that Mr. Rendon had the support of his colleagues to be the speaker-designee, it seemed logical to me that we move forward, that we not hesitate, because we need to be focused on the work we have to get done,” Atkins said at the time, according to a previous Sacramento Bee story.

By contrast, Rivas did not emerge victorious after a six-hour caucus in May. Rendon, who will reach his Assembly term limit in 2024, released a statement acknowledging Rivas had enough support to become the next speaker. But Rivas also agreed to allow Rendon to remain leader for the remainder of the legislative session.

This produced an odd rivalry that fractured Assembly Democrats during the run-up to the November election. Rivas supporters, concerned Rendon would use the party’s campaign dollars to support candidates loyal to the speaker, opted to create their own political action committee.

A few days after the November election, Assembly Democrats again caucused for more than six hours. This time, an emotional Rivas announced an agreement making him speaker on June 30, following a six-month transition period.

The full Assembly approved the deal on Dec. 5, officially giving Rendon an end date for his speakership of 2,671 days. He will overtake former Democratic Speaker Jess Unruh’s term by a few days and become the second-longest speaker in state history. Term limits ensure Willie Brown’s speaker record will likely never be repeated.

Rivas declined the Bee’s interview request, but he said in a statement he is “humbled by the support of my colleagues to lead the Assembly.”

“Working with Speaker Rendon in the coming months, I am focused on ensuring a smooth transition and establishing a strong, unified vision for the Golden State,” he said.


Speakership transition

So what will Rendon’s agenda look like in his final months?

He told The Sacramento Bee he is very worried about a looming deficit projected to be about $25 billion that could “(jeopardize) the forward progress made in the last few years.”

Rendon is also invested in doing more to combat climate change following the late-session bills the Legislature passed in August at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s behest.

“I was pretty clear last year when I said that we haven’t done enough, and I think California for a long time, in terms of climate policy, is kind of resting on its laurels and living off of its reputation more than anything,” Rendon said. “We did do some things last year, and it was some good progress, but we need to do a heck of a lot more on climate change.”

Housing and homelessness, which voters consistently cite as top issues, will be additional priorities for Rendon.

“You have a huge chunk of Californians who, if they missed a couple of paychecks, would be homeless,” Rendon said. “So we need to make sure we have more housing stock, and I think we just need to think about housing affordability and homelessness as linked.”

Paul Hefner, who served as press secretary for former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, from 2000 to 2002, thinks that despite the midyear transition, this legislative session will largely belong to Rendon, rather than Rivas.

Rendon will provide the Assembly response to Newsom’s State of the State address and oversee the budget and the deadline for bills to advance from one house to another. This will leave Rivas only the last month of the session following the summer recess to make his mark this session, Hefner said.

“It’s a pretty tricky time to try to come in and really sort of fully take the reins,” he said. “By that time, from a policy perspective, the train is pretty far down the tracks. Yeah, you can kind of nudge things this way or that way, probably, and have a great deal of influence from that perspective. But in terms of what actually happens during the year, obviously all the groundwork is laid during that first six months.”


Why the change?

Assemblymembers choose their words carefully when they hear this question. Their grievances are generally about Rendon’s leadership style, which they describe as more hands-off than they would like.

Speakers typically tend to be more aggressive on legislation, said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic strategist and Rivas consultant. They can “speakerize” a bill, making it a priority and essentially guaranteeing passage. Rendon was averse to this approach and preferred to distribute power equally among members. Some desire a more traditional, decisive leader.

“There were often times internal clashes about that power ... no referee to make sure the final result was a good one for the caucus as a whole. So there was a lot of family feud going on,” Maviglio said.

Aguiar-Curry acknowledges there was some “frustration in the building.” When asked for specifics, she cited a lack of an “open-door policy” and limited access to the speaker’s office.

“There’s quite few things, but you know it’s part of the job,” Aguiar-Curry said.

The speaker’s office pushed back against critique that Rendon is not available to members.

“The Speaker has never once turned down a Member who wanted to meet with him,” said Katie Talbot, Rendon’s spokeswoman, in an email. “Connecting with members is a very important part of his job. The Speaker is always available — whether it be an in person meeting, by Zoom, by phone call or text message.”

Bryan cited the recent election and the Assembly turnover it produced as one reason for Rendon’s departure. He hopes the speaker, who is term-limited in 2024, will use his final months productively and not to settle scores.

“I think there’s a collective hope in the body that Speaker Rendon and Speaker-elect Rivas will begin kind of transition planning together, and that major substantive decision-making will include at least the input of the future leader, as well,” Bryan said.

“The idea that the tools of the Speaker’s office would be leveraged to continue to fracture the body is, I think, something that nobody wants to see. And I believe that’s true for Speaker Rendon, as well.”

Rendon, for his part, does not see a lot of opportunity for mentoring the incoming speaker.

He said he had lunch with Willie Brown during his first week and got a similar response from the longtime speaker when he asked for advice.

“He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Different era, different situations, different members,’ and that was it,” Rendon said. “I think he was right. I don’t really think that you could provide mentorship in that way.”

Lindsey Holden: 916-321-1207, @lindseymholden

Mathew Miranda: 916-321-1289, @mathewjmiranda