Clock is ticking for new speaker

Among the jillion words written about Karen Bass’ election as the next Assembly speaker, one quote is the most striking. It tells a lot about why the Legislature tends toward dysfunction.

Asked why Bass was chosen over other candidates, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) told a Sacramento Bee reporter: “It seemed like the natural transition to move to a sophomore who’s been around, especially when we’re facing these terrible budget issues.”

Been around? All of three years, two months?

Under term limits, the Los Angeles Democrat qualifies as an Assembly veteran. She’s in her second term. And she’ll be allowed to hold arguably the second most powerful job in state government for roughly two years. Then she’ll be sent packing -- not by her colleagues or her constituents, but by draconian term limits.


“The limitation on tenure permits you to be a good speaker. It doesn’t permit anyone to be a great speaker,” says Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), truly a veteran. He served in the Assembly four decades ago under the legendary Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh.

By any definition, Unruh was a great speaker -- because of talent and tenacity, but also because of longevity that allowed him to solidify power, acquire policy expertise and hone skills. The Inglewood Democrat had been an assemblyman for seven years before being elected speaker, and held the post for seven years until Republicans briefly recaptured the house.

During the 20-year period from 1961 until 1981 -- a span in which the Legislature was a model of productivity (except on property tax relief) -- there were only four Assembly speakers. Then came Willie Brown, who was speaker for 14 1/2 years and became the self-acknowledged poster boy for term limits.

In the 13 years since Brown’s departure, there have been eight speakers. Bass will be the ninth. And during that period, the Legislature increasingly has sputtered.

Blame many things: political polarization, special interests buying influence with campaign donations, weak gubernatorial leadership and ballot box budgeting. But atop the list of culprits is term limits.

None of this is an aspersion on Bass, 54, who has been a respected Assembly majority floor leader. By all indications, she is an excellent choice to toss into the snake pit. If anyone can tame the serpents, it seems to be her.

“We’re going to be a great team,” enthuses Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who recently was selected to be the next Senate leader. “She’s focused, intelligent, unflappable.”

Bass also is something else: nice, a trait she shares with Steinberg.

“People really do like her,” says Assemblywoman Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), who did not support Bass initially. “They think she will be fair. She doesn’t stir up animosity.”

“Incredibly graceful,” says lame-duck Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who helped Bass corral the votes for her victory. “She’s not an in-your-face type of person. She makes you feel good about things even when she can’t help you.”

Assemblywoman Patty Berg (D-Eureka), Bass’ campaign manager, adds: “She’s a person you can trust with the secrets of your soul. And you can’t say that about many of the people around here.

“She’s going to change the culture of this place.”

If Bass does, it could be because of another characteristic she shares with Steinberg. Both are policy wonks, although Bass isn’t real comfortable with that tag.

“ ‘Policy wonk’ I think of more academically,” Bass says. “I imagine a policy wonk reading a book. People asked me after I got elected [to the Assembly in 2004] whether I was going to be interested in policy or politics. I thought that was the strangest notion.

“To me, the point of politics is to move policy. Power for the sake of power doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in power for the sake of making sound public policy.”

That would be an eye-roller coming from the lips of most politicians, especially alpha males. But when Bass says it, the words have credibility because of her history. As a grass-roots organizer and coalition builder for community causes, she’s the real deal.

A former physician’s assistant, Bass became inspired by L.A.'s inner city crack epidemic to create the nonprofit Community Coalition, which worked to replace liquor stores with more wholesome enterprises and to attract additional money for low-performing schools.

After being elected to the Assembly, Bass says, she studied various legislators’ records to gauge what was possible in Sacramento.

She was heartened by Steinberg’s ability to enact reforms in the foster care program and adopted that as her cause. “She took it to the next level, big time,” Steinberg says.

As speaker, Bass says, “I can’t see any priority beyond the budget. I plan to get very steeped in the budget process and be very much involved.”

After voters on Feb. 5 rejected Proposition 93, a term-limits loosening that would have extended Nunez’s tenure, he announced that Democrats wanted him to remain as speaker until the legislative session ends around Labor Day. Now, he’s rethinking that timetable.

He might step down earlier for Bass, who will be the nation’s first African American woman to lead a legislative house. After all, Nunez already has served four years as speaker, a term-limits anomaly.

“If my replacement had been somebody I really wasn’t fond of, I would have wanted to keep the job until the end of the session,” he says. “But I’m very fond of Karen Bass. I want her in this office sooner rather than later.”

Sooner would be better for Bass. She’s already a short-timer.