A new, hopeful era is beginning in California’s Capitol as a debilitating period ends.
Enter a new Assembly speaker, Paramount Democrat Anthony Rendon, the first in two decades who will be allowed to occupy the office long enough to completely unpack and explore its potential.
Starting when he assumes the leadership Monday, Rendon will be the only speaker since legendary San Francisco Democrat Willie Brown who won’t have to worry about being bounced by term limits anytime soon.
That’s because California voters agreed to soften legislative term limits in 2012. Lawmakers elected starting that year can serve 12 years in one house, rather than being constricted to just six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
Term limits, as initially enacted in 1990, were a foolish, failed experiment, born of the voters’ disgust with politicians in general and the flamboyant Brown in particular. Brown frequently acknowledged being “the poster boy of term limits.”
But Brown is long gone from Sacramento and was popular enough in his hometown to be elected mayor twice.
In the 21 years since Brown was speaker — bounced by a brief Republican takeover, a virtual impossibility today — there have been 12 successors. Do the math: That’s fewer than two years per reign.
There were only five speakers in the 34 years prior to Brown’s departure.
Rendon won’t be termed out until 2024. It’s possible he could be speaker longer than anyone except Brown, who served 14 1/2 years. Inglewood Democrat Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, arguably the most powerful, forceful speaker in state history, held the post more than seven years.
What’s longevity mean? It means having the time to learn legislating skills, acquire policy expertise and accumulate the political power needed to get things done in Sacramento.
It also provides more time to plan for the state’s future and a reason for doing it: The speaker just might be around long enough to help implement the solutions and see the results.
Under the old term limits, legislators started plotting for their next job immediately upon taking the oath. Lawmakers suffered from inexperience and naivete. They were short-timers, especially the leaders. Power flowed to lobbyists, moneyed interests and the bureaucracy.
Rendon will be allowed to outlast Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who both will be termed out in 2018.
But also — as in the old days — he’ll need to watch over his shoulder for a possible rebel coup. Willie Brown almost got knocked off by a Democratic “gang of five.” And Brown himself ousted a fellow San Francisco Democrat, Leo McCarthy, as speaker.
It’s a good bet that some ambitious Assembly Democrat won’t want to patiently wait for Rendon to be booted by term limits.
But Rendon, who turns 48 on Friday, is no political dummy. He proved that by being elected speaker.
He’ll try to share the glory, especially with committee chairmen. Unlike some recent short-timer house leaders, Rendon doesn’t intend to fatten his resume by authoring a bunch of major bills. That tends to tick off legislators who resent being bigfooted.
“I’ll let the members themselves get the credit,” he told me.
Rendon made his mark in the Capitol as chairman of the Assembly water committee. He brokered the $7.5-billion water bond that ultimately passed the Legislature and the electorate overwhelmingly in 2014.
Negotiations were heated between dam advocates and environmentalists. The final compromise was a $2.7-billion allotment for water storage. The liberal future speaker won the praise of Democratic moderates.
Rendon, who once headed the California League of Conservation Voters, says he isn’t sold on Gov. Brown’s ambitious $15.5-billion plan to dig two monstrous water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
“I’m concerned about the size, the science, and whether it will work,” he says. “I’m concerned about the money and whether we’ll lose sight of local projects such as groundwater cleanup, storm water capture and recycling that can secure water supply.”
And after having supported the governor’s bullet train, he now is questioning Brown’s decision to run it first from Bakersfield to San Jose rather than from Fresno to Burbank.
“I’ve got a lot of concerns,” he says. “Public support for the project has been decreasing almost on a daily basis. The [reroute] timing couldn’t have been worse.”
As speaker, Rendon says, his main focus will be on “issues we haven’t talked about for a long time. Like poverty.” He’s the former director of a nonprofit child-services organization, Plaza de la Raza, and ran for the Legislature after its funding was slashed.
He’d like to see a higher minimum wage and more affordable housing. “In California, rents have risen over 25% in the last decade,” he says. “But renters’ income has risen only 4%.”
“It helps if more folks belong to a union,” he adds. “They have a voice.”
He believes that Democrats — and especially Hillary Clinton, who has an enthusiasm deficit — should focus more on core party values.
“Poverty, unions, the environment. A lot of Democrats are trying to focus on voters they’re never going to get — moderates, independents. It’s a mistake,” Rendon says. “We need to get core Democrats to vote. They’re staying home.”
Yes, Rendon’s pretty liberal. But moderates trusted the guy enough to support him for speaker.
He’s very likable. We’ll find out whether he’s also a leader. Fortunately, he’ll have time to show us.