California Politics: Rendon gives up the speaker’s gavel

Outgoing California Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon sits at a table with his arms crossed, smiling.
Anthony Rendon earned a spot in state history books as the second-longest serving speaker of the California Assembly.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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Tomorrow, Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) will finally pry the gavel from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) and take his turn at the helm of the lower house.

It’s a moment Sacramento has long been waiting for.

The heated dispute over who would lead the Assembly has dragged on for more than a year, at times fracturing the Democratic caucus and sending the chamber into chaos.

The anarchy could end tomorrow morning, when Rendon steps down and Rivas is sworn in as the 71st speaker of the California Assembly.


Then again, it’s the Assembly. Pandemonium runs in its blood.

I’m Hannah Wiley, a politics reporter in the Sacramento bureau filling in for Laurel Rosenhall while she is on special assignment, and Rendon is the only speaker I’ve ever covered in my five years reporting from the statehouse.

Here’s a look at his legacy:

Changing term limits

Rendon’s tenure began in March 2016, when he ascended to power under the promise of a “decentralized” speakership and leaving much of the decision-making up to his members and the chairs he hand-selected to lead policy committees.

His unusually long run — prompted, in part by a voter-approved change to term limits allowing lawmakers to serve in one house for 12 years — earned him a spot in the state’s history books as the second-longest serving Assembly speaker, second only to Willie Brown, who led the chamber in the 1980s and ‘90s. (I did some math, with help from Alex Vassar at the California State Library, and Rendon narrowly beats out former Speaker Jesse Unruh for the silver medal.)

Rendon made the decision early on that he’d abandon the more militant and autocratic style that speakers before him preferred as a way to keep members in check. Instead, he kept a bird’s-eye view of the chamber over the last seven years, where he could push for more sweeping policy changes behind the scenes without getting bogged down with the daily slog of politicking.

“He had a different vision for (the speakership),” said Bill Wong, a longtime Rendon ally who served as political director for the Assembly Democratic caucus. “He wanted it to be a more collaborative process, a process that involved all the members.”

Win after legislative win

Without authoring legislation himself, Rendon helped Democrats earn major policy wins such as increasing the minimum wage; strengthening labor protections for gig and farmworkers; launching universal preschool; and broadening a program to combat climate change. His members modified California’s police use-of-force law under his leadership, expanded renter protections and cracked down on predatory lending practices.

Rendon led the chamber through the COVID-19 emergency and Trump era, a time when public health measures, abortion and gun control became heavily politicized issues in state legislatures. Despite the political turmoil, or maybe because of it, Rendon helped grow the Democratic caucus to an ironclad supermajority, and added enough women and LGBTQ+ members to help the Legislature break diversity records.


“What diversity does is it brings new people to those desks, and new perspectives to those desks,” Rendon said during a Wednesday event hosted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “People pushing those buttons have been through very different experiences.”

But his hands-off leadership came at a cost.

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A checkered legacy

Rendon’s legacy will include the final night of the 2020 legislative session, when he was publicly lambasted and eventually forced to apologize for making Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) come to the Capitol during the COVID-19 pandemic despite recently giving birth.

Wicks’ support was needed to help pass a contentious housing measure. So the new mom — in the middle of nursing — hauled her fussy baby to the floor when the proposal came up so she could cast her vote in person after Rendon rejected her request to vote remotely.

The backlash piled on after the housing bill died that same night. Rendon was accused of letting the measure languish for hours in his chamber before bringing it up for a vote, at which point it was too late for the Senate to finalize the measure before a midnight deadline.

Rendon’s leadership approach also meant that bills he supported could die on the whim of one or two lawmakers.


Last year, a bill to limit who can obtain a concealed-carry license in California died on the final night of session amid Democratic infighting, despite it being one of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s top priorities for the year. That same evening, a proposal Rendon backed to allow legislative staffers to unionize was dramatically killed by the Assembly Public Employment and Retirement Committee chair, who disliked the proposal despite its broad support among staffers and many Democrats.

But Rendon’s biggest problem bubbled up in May of 2022, when Rivas made his swing for the speakership.

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Rivas takes his shot

Rendon had previously survived many attempts at his job, which usually ended in embarrassment for his challengers.

So he initially shrugged off Rivas when he said he had the votes to take him out as speaker. The standoff led to days of division in the Assembly between Rendon supporters and those rallying behind Rivas.

In the end, Rivas and Rendon made a tentative deal on a speakership change, with heated negotiations continuing for months until Assembly Democrats finalized the plan in a November caucus vote.


That deal allowed Rendon to maintain his speakership through June 30, 2023, at which point Rivas would become the chamber’s next leader. The agreement was codified with a December vote that kicked off the start of the 2023-2024 legislative session.

Rendon doesn’t wax poetic or drone on and on about himself, though he tends toward philosophical monologues. But his advice for Rivas on Wednesday was simple: “Wake up every day, have a game plan. It’ll change,” he said. “But at the end of the day, go back to that list and go back to that game plan, and tackle it tomorrow.”

Rendon moves on

Despite his successes, Rendon also leaves office with some unfinished business. Homelessness is out of control. While some progress was made on gun control, California still endures astonishingly frequent mass shootings. Climate change threatens California’s — and the world’s — future.

Rendon has some regrets, but not necessarily on those macro-level issues.

He put up with a lot of stuff as speaker, he said Wednesday, using another word that starts with an “S.” And maybe he shouldn’t have been so “overly forgiving” to the members who dished it out.

“I removed some chairs from people, and those types of things,” he said. “I think to a large extent, I really wanted to be forgiving and provide people with opportunities for redemption. I don’t always know that I was as quick to punish as I should have.”

What’s next for Rendon is unclear. Besides opening an account to run for state treasurer, he hasn’t alluded to his future ambitions.


“Career questions are so dull,” he said.

Right now, he’s more concerned with the greater moral, ethical and political dilemmas that threaten humanity’s existence. Like how much time the world has left with climate change, or whether democracy will die in the United States and other Western countries.

“I think we really have to focus on existential questions,” he said.

A $310.8-billion spending plan

After Newsom threatened to veto the Legislature’s budget priorities over the last week unless lawmakers approved his infrastructure plan, he and Democratic legislative leaders on Monday agreed to a $310.8-billion spending plan.

The fiscal blueprint will reduce investments in fighting climate change and reflects a compromise on the governor’s last-minute proposal to speed up infrastructure projects across California, my colleague Taryn Luna reports.

The 2023-24 budget deal, which lawmakers have voted on in a series of bills this week, ends weeks of infighting among Democrats that began after the governor introduced a package of infrastructure bills at the tail end of the budget process, including making it easier to approve his highly controversial plan to build a $16-billion tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to transport water south.

The financial plan also includes more money for healthcare providers, funds to revamp San Quentin State Prison and a boost in state funding for child care.

Keeping up with California politics

California tried and failed to ban for-profit ICE detention centers. What does that mean for other states? In a win for private prison contractors, a final judgment last month declared a landmark California law unconstitutional as applied to private detention contracts for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal agencies, though the ban remains in place for private prisons in the state.


Democrats walk off California Senate floor after Republicans honor Richard Grenell for Pride Month. Grenell, a Republican advisor to former President Trump who has criticized the Equality Act and railed against transgender youth rights, was honored on the California Senate floor on Monday in the name of Pride Month. Some Democrats walked off the floor in protest, much like their Republican colleagues did earlier this month in opposition to a drag icon being honored.

Burglars who stole guns from L.A. Mayor Bass’ home sentenced to prison. The two men who broke into Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ home in Baldwin Vista last year and stole two guns were sentenced to prison Tuesday. The break-in quickly became an issue in the Los Angeles mayor’s race last year.

One last note. The California Politics Newsletter will be taking a hiatus next week because of the Fourth of July festivities.