Newsletter: Essential Politics: Choosing a new leader


I’m Christina Bellantoni, and I didn’t win the PowerBall Saturday, so I’m here with today’s Essential Politics. (Although please note we’re planning to take a break next Monday for Martin Luther King Day.)

The week begins with the expected election of Anthony Rendon to become speaker of the California Assembly. This is a man who sees deep meaning in both punk rock and Plato. He arrived in Sacramento just three years ago and has quickly earned the respect of his colleagues, even when they disagree.

Consider this anecdote from Melanie Mason’s Sunday front-page profile of the incoming speaker from Lakewood.

But early in his first term, he charged into a high-profile and politically thorny issue: water. He took the lead in crafting the $7.5-billion water bond approved by voters in 2014. But his deliberate approach — which involved scores of hearings across the state and an aversion to earmarks for local water projects that in the past were used to win legislators' votes — bothered some Democrats, who sought to marginalize him from the process.

Negotiations turned tense. Former Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno) recalled one phone conversation just weeks before the deadline to craft the bond. Perea wanted more money for dams and reservoirs to satisfy the agricultural interests in his district. Environmentalists like Rendon despised such storage projects. The call devolved into a shouting match.

But the compromise that was ultimately forged — $2.75 billion for water storage projects — was crucial to the final bond. Rendon remained lead author of the legislation, and Perea became one of his biggest boosters for speaker.

"After our dust-ups, we were able to sit down, have a beer, talk it through and not let the emotional side of this job get in front of legislating," Perea said. "He's good at being able to cut through the noise and sit down and figure out what interests people really have."

What’s more, Rendon will have the potential to serve longer than any speaker in the last 20 years, thanks to recently expanded term limits, Mason writes.

Follow the action in Sacramento and statewide via our Essential Politics page.


As legislators start taking a closer look this week at Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, the most important part of the plan may be its prediction of tax revenues. And as Sacramento bureau chief John Myers writes, Brown has been enormously successful at controlling the debate over where to set the bar for official revenue estimates — so much so that legislative Democrats abandon their own estimates, ones that have been more accurate than those from the governor.

George Skelton made the budget the topic of his Monday column, which closes with a reminder that Brown rules the roost.

We’ll hear more from Brown when he delivers his state-of-the-state address on Jan. 21.


Javier Panzar reports from the inside of a makeshift film studio in Los Angeles’ Chinatown where Tommy Chong and a volunteer crew shot a web short supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. The Canadian funny man is 77 but hasn’t slowed down a step.

At one point between takes he pointed to the colostomy bag he wears after surgery last month to remove a tumor in his rectum. "I call it 'The Donald'", he said. "It is full of hot air and ... ."

Watch our behind-the-scenes take:


It’s been more than a month since the attacks in San Bernardino, but they will see renewed focus during President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Touched by the kindness of Muslim neighbors after his boyfriend was killed in the San Bernardino terrorist attack last month, Ryan Reyes became an unplanned spokesman against religious intolerance, Christi Parsons reports. He’ll take his message to Washington this week as an Obama guest in the gallery above the House floor.

There will be an empty chair in the box near First Lady Michelle Obama, representing victims of gun violence the president will highlight during his speech.

Sarah Wire reports that more than a dozen of the 55 members of California’s delegation have a shooting statistic back home: Either having a mass shooting in their district, representing a constituent killed in a mass shooting or having been personally affected by a shooting.

She writes:

When news broke of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Sen. Chris Murphy knew he’d call Rep. Pete Aguilar, stepping into an uncomfortably familiar role of counseling a member of Congress whose district just went through a tragedy.

Murphy, who represented the Newtown, Conn. area in the House before becoming a senator, has done it before. He and other members of the worst club in Washington band together to embrace members and their communities after a shooting. The Democrat describes those calls as a "private, consoling conversation." He promises his or her community will be supported.

"I feel a very personal obligation," he said. "There’s an awful network of us that have been through these shootings." Aguilar said after the attacks he heard from other lawmakers who had gone through similar experiences. They advised him who to talk to. They told him what briefings he should request. They told him how he could help San Bernardino heal.

"There isn’t a rulebook on this," Aguilar said. "We lost a little bit of our innocence as a region. You think that this happens in other areas and you can’t ever say that [it happens elsewhere] any more."

Closer to home, Patrick McGreevy detailed the San Bernardino tributes during the opening week of the California Legislature.


Cathleen Decker observed Senate candidate Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris in action Sunday in Los Angeles and found both the upsides and downside of her political ambitions on display.

Decker writes that Harris charms an audience like few candidates do, speaks knowledgeably about criminal justice-related issues and stays relentlessly on message. But there also is a concern that despite her desire for higher office she hasn’t broadened her portfolio beyond familiar legal territory, somewhat squandering her frontrunner advantages.

Decker sets the scene:

Within seconds of hitting the stage, she had her audience nodding and applauding, even when she unspooled standard Democratic positions on issues such as the environment, education and equal rights.

But repeatedly, in her remarks and in answers to supporters’ questions, she fell back on comfortable ground that represents her past and present and not her desired future, delivering some of the same remarks she has repeatedly made during criminal justice speeches.

The absence of a new, Senate-focused approach came up almost inadvertently when a supporter asked what she’d advise President Obama on the Islamic State — essentially the role of many senators.

"I don’t think I’m in any position to advise President Obama.… He knows more than any of us in this room," she said. The crowd laughed, but the comment underscored her lack of federal experience.


Phil Willon reports freshman state Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Murrieta) will challenge Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert). Stone’s seat in the state Senate isn’t up until 2018, which makes this a free shot for the GOP legislator.

A major labor union is joining the growing list of defectors switching support from Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) to his challenger, fellow Democrat Ro Khanna. The Laborers’ International Union of North America, Pacific Southwest Region announced its support for Khanna. The union, which has about 70,000 members, supported the embattled Honda in his 2014 race against Khana.

Javier Panzar reports that Democratic attorney Bryan Caforio's campaign in the 25th congressional district is picking up steam. Caforio, who is challenging Rep. Steve Knight (R-Lancaster), will announce an endorsement from Rep. Brad Sherman from the neighboring 30th district on Monday.

Caforio’s campaign launched in early December and officials claim he raised $138,835 in the last weeks of 2015.

The 25th includes part of the Porter Ranch area, where a gas leak has sickened and displaced thousands. Sherman makes note of it in his statement saying that Caforio "advocates for stronger national standards for safe storage and transmission of natural gas."


In this week’s California Politics Podcast, Sacramento bureau chief John Myers leads a roundtable discussion on the policy and political implications of Brown’s new budget plan. And here's a key question: Will Democratic legislators be more, or less, likely to challenge Brown’s priorities in an election year?


The free podcast is now on iTunes — subscribe today!


-- What do California’s governor and Hillary Clinton have in common? Cathy Decker explains in her Sunday column.

-- Ohio Gov. John Kasich is in San Francisco on Monday afternoon to raise money for his campaign, and then later in the tony Silicon Valley enclave of Woodside.

-- The president will hit the road and send Cabinet officials across the country following his final address. On Friday, Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler Radelet will attend a roundtable at the University of Southern California. A White House official says he’ll talk about about "the importance of service, intercultural understanding, and Americans engaging communities abroad." The White House calls the series of events "an extension of President Obama’s ongoing conversation with the American people about the remarkable progress we have made, and efforts the Administration continues to make to move the country forward."

-- Will Hollywood open its checkbooks for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s gun control ballot measure? One power couple already did.

-- Michael Finnegan and Seema Mehta look at Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz as they employ opposite strategies in their Iowa quest for the top spot in the GOP field.

-- If he's elected president this fall, Cruz would become the nation's first chief executive born outside the United States. Is that legal? David Savage breaks it down. But not everyone agrees.

-- We’re building our bingo cards for State of the Union. What should we include? Send us an email with your suggestions.


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