Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) will remain California Senate president pro tem for another month and a half, but for all practical purposes the end of the legislative session at midnight Sunday brings a conclusion to his six-year leadership of state government’s upper house. In the Assembly, Speaker Emeritus John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) handed over his gavel weeks ago to Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), but the Sunday deadline marks for him, as well, the virtual end of the run. The two men are leaving the Legislature with California in better shape and on a better trajectory than it was when they came in, and both deserve credit for the improvement.
Steinberg assumed his leadership post in late 2008, as the Great Recession was exacerbating California’s already dysfunctional budget process. A few accounting tricks had hidden the extent of the problem, but in fact, the state was laboring under a wildly unbalanced spending plan that pushed a $42-billion shortfall into the following year and onto Steinberg’s watch. The new pro tem defended the poorest and most vulnerable Californians from deep cutbacks in social programs but ultimately had to sell many of those cuts to his caucus, just as Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senate and Assembly GOP leaders lobbied theirs for tax increases. Voters rejected the resulting budget deal, leaving Steinberg in epic battles with Schwarzenegger over cuts to education and furloughs of state workers.
He undertook that task with characteristic skill and patience, working first with Schwarzenegger and Speaker Karen Bass, then with Pérez, then with Gov. Jerry Brown. Steinberg leaves with the shortfall replaced by a surplus, and even if Brown deserves the lion’s share of credit — for his political skill in persuading voters who rejected the 2009 taxes to embrace them in 2012 — Steinberg’s role in piloting the state to better times is undeniable. His leadership bridged the state’s meltdown years and its current recovery. He managed, somehow, to cut when he had to cut while protecting safety-net programs from permanent extinction.
He is similarly the one constant among California leaders on a host of substantive issues, cobbling together consensus on a 2009 water bond. That measure made its way to the ballot twice, only to be pulled back. Under Steinberg’s careful guidance, a version of it will at last come before voters this fall.
Some of Steinberg’s most remarkable accomplishments remain virtually unknown outside government. Many Californians, for example, have heard of AB 32, the state’s landmark bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions and put the state back in the forefront of environmental leadership. Steinberg’s contribution was the lesser-known but also vitally important SB 375, implementing legislation focusing on auto exhaust, the single biggest source of carbon emissions. The bill has overhauled local decision-making on transportation funding and is redrawing the map of California by discouraging wasteful sprawl and guiding policymakers toward better land-use decisions.
This page has not always supported Steinberg’s big ideas, opposing, for example, the ballot-box budgeting of Proposition 63, his measure to fund mental health services through an additional tax on the state’s highest earners. Despite our differences over tax policy, however, Steinberg’s motives were unquestionably correct, and the results of his measure significant. California had been badly failing to meet the mental health needs of its people, funding was needed, and the tax approved by voters has made a positive difference — as have his many other efforts to improve the state’s mental health care.
Pérez became Assembly speaker in 2010, in time for one monumental budget clash with Schwarzenegger over job cuts. The new speaker prevailed and immediately took a leading role in shaping Proposition 25, the ballot measure that ended a major cause of California’s budgetary paralysis: the requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a budget. That change ended the stranglehold that a minority of Republican lawmakers had over the spending process.
Pérez then helped guide Democrats to an unexpected Assembly supermajority large enough to raise taxes without Republican input, but he responded with the restraint and wisdom of a much older and more experienced leader. Democrats eager to flex their new power and spend new money confronted a sternly frugal Pérez, winning back for the Legislature some of the public confidence that had been lost in previous years.
His leadership was a study in the shrewd use of power, a style Brown laughingly praised last week as the “mushroom theory” of government because Pérez effectively kept so many observers in the dark. It was more than that, though. Pérez knew when to be demanding and when to be conciliatory. After winning the power to eliminate Republicans from policy discussions, for instance, he made certain that several were given leadership posts anyway. He was and is a Democrat, but he led the Assembly, not just his party.
His approach to governing fit well with Brown’s, and he supported the governor — and in fact sometimes took the lead — on establishing a healthy budget reserve. Although a stern disciplinarian, he nevertheless retained the respect and support of his caucus by employing candor and pragmatism. He fought against tuition increases, protected important social programs and was a champion for veterans.
He was the state’s first openly gay speaker and never shrank from the responsibilities of that groundbreaking role. Yes, his self-confidence sometimes got the better of him; he campaigned for state controller as though it was an entitlement — and lost a spot in the runoff by just a few hundred votes. That job may not have been the right fit for Pérez, but there is little doubt that he will find his way back to the corridors of power.
Pérez’s and Steinberg’s role in extricating the state from its budget mess and its political gridlock may never be fully appreciated by most Californians, who are far more likely to define this era in terms of its unlikely governors: the Austrian body builder, followed by a return of the man who served a generation ago. Nevertheless, the state has been well served by these leaders of the Assembly and the Senate, and it owes them a nod of gratitude as they exit the Capitol.
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