If the Assembly speakership were awarded to the most principled and hardworking of the 80 elected members, Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) would be an inspired choice. In her two terms, she forced the state to confront its responsibility as de facto parent to thousands of children in foster care. She demanded that scarce state resources be fairly allocated to L.A. schools and other local agencies.
If, instead, the Assembly speakership were awarded -- as in fact it is -- to the Democrat best equipped to negotiate with the governor, the Republican minority and the state Senate, and to the fundraiser who can most effectively use the power of office to reward and punish, then -- well, perhaps Bass remains an inspired choice. Her smile is almost constant, but, as majority leader, Bass has shown that she's no pushover on the floor.
In one of a democracy's most undemocratic exercises, members of the chamber's majority party pick their speaker out of ambition, angling to win a spot on the best committees or backing for a bill, and out of fear, hoping not to get stuck with the most inconvenient Capitol parking space. Part of the calculation is longevity; in 2004, members assured stability when they selected newcomer Fabian Nunez. That staying power, as much as Nunez's personality, helped Democrats broker deals with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. They went a different way with Bass, who has only two years left in the Assembly; her more junior colleagues may already be jockeying to succeed her.
It's impossible to predict just how well anyone will perform as speaker, but we wish Bass the best. In doing so, we're wishing the best for Los Angeles -- by unwritten tradition all recent Assembly speakers have represented districts here and helped the city get its fair share -- and for all the people of California, whose lives during her tenure will be directly affected by the state's financial crisis and by the budget agreements she reaches with Schwarzenegger.