Los Angeles Times
Democrats lock horns over next Assembly speaker
Joaquin Arambula’s emergence as a candidate is a sign the party is still divided.
SACRAMENTO — A vote on the California Assembly floor last month to transition from one leader to another this summer appeared, at the time, to end a power struggle that divided Democrats and bred chaos at the state Capitol.
But things are not always as they seem in Sacramento.
Weeks after warring factions of Democrats reached an agreement on a timeline to replace Speaker Anthony Rendon with Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), a new candidate for speaker emerged and launched another round of infighting that threatens to consume California lawmakers for the second year in a row.
“I’ve been approached about the speakership and I am considering it and I look forward to more discussions,” said Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (DFresno), a Rendon ally. “I believe we need to find a consensus candidate who can unify our caucus.”
Though Arambula’s first effort to dislodge Rivas as the next speaker failed last week, his emergence as a potential candidate is a sign that Democrats in the lower
house are not done jockeying for power. The renewed acrimony could hinder the Assembly’s ability to reach agreements on how to balance the budget as California faces an expected $22.5billion deficit.
“The more infighting we have, the less energy we have to get to the best solution on policy,” said former Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), who supported Rivas in the battle last year. “People have real needs and they need us to be 100% focused on those real needs.”
Rendon’s spokesperson said the speaker had nothing to do with Arambula’s power play. Rivas spokesman Steve Maviglio downplayed the tussle, saying the December vote for Rivas will stick: “This is done,” he said. “Game over.”
The animosity between Rendon and Rivas, and the lawmakers who supported their respective sides last year, led to an unusually public feud that split Democrats and spilled out into the 2022 election with each side trying to win over candidates. Rendon ultimately agreed in November to step aside in June and allow Rivas to take charge, though both sides remained bitter and frustrated over what’s become the most tumultuous transition in more than a quarter-century.
Though not all speakers are remembered as political powerhouses, the roster of Rendon’s predecessors features high-profile California politicians such as former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city’s new leader, Karen Bass.
Historically considered the second-most powerful position in state government after the governor, speaker is a coveted post filled through an election among the 80 members of the Assembly. The speaker controls budgets for each Assembly member’s office, appoints lawmakers to inf luential committee posts and guides the Assembly in negotiations with the governor, state Senate and often outside interest groups. The speaker also raises money for the California Democratic Party, which supports candidates who receive the party’s endorsement.
Last year, fissures among Democrats in the Assembly made it harder for the house to reach a consensus on its priorities. The division creates a vulnerability for the Assembly again this year if lawmakers can’t unite behind a leader.
“If those that are negotiating with you know that there’s angles and ways to split and fracture your voice, more than likely they’re going to exploit it,” said Greg Campbell, a lobbyist and former aide to the five Assembly speakers before Rendon.
Campbell represents an era in the Assembly that gave rise to Rendon, who promised his colleagues he wouldn’t wield his power as aggressively as others before him.
Rendon was first elected to the Assembly in 2012, representing a swath of southeast Los Angeles County. He was among the first class of legislators elected under new term limits that allowed lawmakers to serve up to 12 years total in the Legislature, ending rules that restricted the time to a maximum of six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
When shorter term limits were in place, speakers took on stronger roles pushing their own agenda through the Assembly given their short time at the helm and the quick churn of lawmakers.
Rendon ascended to speaker in 2016 on the promise that he would decentralize his control. He campaigned on giving committee chairs free will to decide the fate of legislation that came before them, providing lawmakers an opportunity to exude influence over Sacramento’s most powerful interest groups. He said the ability to serve 12 years in the Assembly allowed chairs to remain in their positions longer and acquire the expertise needed on the complex policy matters before the Legislature.
“It’s democracy itself,” Rendon said of his approach in December. “But I also knew to a large extent that we’ve got members who are going to be here for 12 years. Who wants to be under the thumb of a speaker who is just kicking the s— out of them all the time and making them implement his or her decision? It just didn’t seem like a sustainable operation.”
If Rendon holds on to his position through June, he will make history as the second-longest serving speaker after Willie Brown Jr., the San Francisco Democrat who led the Assembly for more than 14 years.
Bill Wong, Rendon’s longtime strategist who retired last year, said Rendon took a political risk with his leadership approach and “a lot of people under their breath criticized him for it” among the Sacramento political class. He called the speaker “an oddity in our world,” who didn’t fit into the “fetishized role” of a power-hungry leader.
“He messed up the story for everybody and they’re having a hard time trying to digest it,” Wong said.
Over the course of nearly seven years, Rendon led the Assembly through a series of progressive policy wins: Granting overtime pay to farmworkers, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, banning plastic straws, restricting the sale of guns, protecting abortion rights and reforming bail.
But Rendon’s critics say his laissez-faire leadership style led to a chaotic caucus.
The desire for stronger leadership, in part, motivated some of his colleagues last year to begin rallying around Rivas. An exodus of lawmakers during the pandemic also left Rendon with only a handful of lawmakers who supported his initial rise to power still serving in the Legislature and a large slate of younger politicians looking to move into more important roles.
Rivas was elected to the Assembly in 2018 after serving eight years on the San Benito County Board of Supervisors. He was raised by his single mother and grandparents in Paicines, where his grandfather was a farmworker. He said his experience at the local level helped him realize that the “decisions you make have real impacts and consequences on people’s daily lives.”
Careful with this words, Rivas has said he wants to be more hands-on and act as more of a guiding force.
“I understand the importance of really being able to listen to and work very closely with our caucus, to solve these monumental crises that face our state, whether it’s housing affordability, environmental threats, climate change, quality education, infrastructure, you name it,” Rivas said.
A change in speakers at the state Capitol could reshuffle power in the third house of lobbying firms that are paid to influence the Legislature’s policy decisions.
Companies often hire firms with close ties to a speaker, believing those relationships may increase their access and ability to sway legislative leadership. Similarly, a speaker’s personal connections with unions and other outside interests can help or hurt the group’s ability to influence laws and budget decisions that affect the members they represent.
Rivas’ brother Rick Rivas leads government and public affairs for the American Beverage Assn. in California, working to benefit the interests of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Robert Rivas said his foes have sought to “weaponize” his close relationship with his brother, whom he called “best friend” and his “closest advisor since we were children.”
Both Rivas brothers served as aides to Assemblywoman Anna Caballero before Rick Rivas went on to work with Govern for California, a group of wealthy donors led by activist David Crane that seeks to counter the influence of unions on the Legislature.
Rivas said his brother helps him with political matters but insists that they draw a line when it comes to governing. Govern for California was the main opponent of an effort to unionize legislative staff, which Robert Rivas voted in support of last year.
“My grandfather always said that we would struggle if we didn’t work together. So that’s why I love my brother and I lean on him,” Rivas said. “But like many in politics, we understand that there are divisions and there are boundaries. Rick and I have always had this blanket policy that ... we don’t discuss legislative decisions.”
But the causes his brother worked for ultimately helped Robert Rivas.
Political action committees funded by Govern for California and its affiliated chapters and the American Beverage Assn. spent millions of dollars in the 2022 election on Assembly candidates, many of whom supported Rivas. In a highly unusual move, Assembly members backing Rivas put more than $900,000 into an independent expenditure committee to support their favored candidates.
Speaker Rendon ‘messed up the story for everybody and they’re having a hard time trying to digest it.’
— BILL WONG, Rendon’s former political strategist