Assembly on eggshells after 93’s defeat

That didn’t take long.

 Less than 24 hours after Proposition 93 failed at the polls, the  palace intrigue began. At the Capitol Wednesday was a day filled with rumors, conspiracies, frantic phone calls and private meetings as the race for speaker officially began.

It all started Wednesday afternoon when the Speaker announced a pre-session caucus for Thursday morning to discuss the plan for the transition of power. There is no shortage of members clamoring for Núñez’s job, but as of now, there is no clear choice to succeed the speaker.  But the announcement set off a mini-frenzy among ambitious Democrats.

Núñez had apparently told some potential speaker candidates that he was planning to schedule a caucus vote on the new speaker in April, and that he would leave office in early summer.

But then, the rumors started to fly.

Whether or not any of the rumors that ricocheted around the Capitol last night are true is almost beside the point. More significant may be the fact that that they galvanized a group of wanna-be speakers for the first time, and effectively started the race for speaker in earnest.

Núñez met with Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines Wednesday afternoon, primarily to discuss budget issues, according to his staff. Other members have said that Núñez told them he was also checking in with Villines to make sure his caucus was staying out of any possible play to overthrow the Speaker.

But that meeting got tongues wagging. By late afternoon, word had spread that the speaker had met with Republicans to hatch a deal that would install Karen Bass as Speaker. Republicans would make a motion on the floor to vacate the chair, the tale went, which would effectively put the Assembly into lockdown. Once that motion is made, the house cannot adjourn, and there can be no legislative caucuses until the motion is settled.

Nine Núñez loyalists would vote with Republicans to remove Núñez as speaker, and Karen Bass would immediately be nominated to replace him. Democrats would then be asked to put up votes for Bass, and Republicans would put up votes if, for some reason, she was short of the 41 votes needed.

The rumor seems far-fectched and incredibly risky for many of the principals involved. It is a sure sign of weakness if a speaker has to reach out to members of the other party to maintain some control over who succeeds him. And for Bass, who is probably the front-runner for the job anyway, it unnecessarily associates her with a plot that involves backroom deals and power plays with the Republican Party.

It also reflects much of the pent-up hostility some members have toward the speaker, who has proven masterful at maintaining discipline in a notoriously undisciplined house.

Whether thet were true or not, these rumors forced a group of ambitious legislators into action. Led by Ed Hernandez, Hector de la Torre and Anthony Portantino, frantic calls went out to lawmakers in an effort to block what they thought was the speaker’s play. Others involved in the talks included Fiona Ma, Mike Feuer, and Charles Calderon. Calderon, no stranger to palace intrigue, once participated in a failed coup attempt against former Speaker Willie Brown as a member of the dissidents known as the "Gang of Five."  

A headquarters of sorts was established in de la Torre’s Capitol office, as a small parade of members came and went, presumably being briefed on the speaker’s alleged plan.

Meanwhile, across the hall, Alberto Torrico was meeting with Republican Floor Leader Sam Blakeslee to try to figure out what was going on.

As a war room of sorts developed in De La Torre’s Capitol office, the Speaker was bowling. He was among the dozens of members and staff gathered at a Sacramento bowling alley for the annual Legislative bowling tournament.

The rumors had reached such a fever pitch by 8 p.m. that the speaker left the bowling alley, and reportedly called members insisting there was no conspiracy. Bass would not be named speaker Thursday. Thursday morning’s caucus was simply scheduled to establish an orderly timeline and transition to hand off the speaker’s gavel to whoever may succeed him.

It’s no secret that Núñez would like to play a role in determining his successor. His childhood friend, De Leon, is a top choice, but many feel Bass, Núñez’s top political lieutenant, is a more viable candidate. But longevity is an issue for Bass, who is rumored to be a candidate for the state Senate or Los Angeles city council next year.

One side claimed victory for putting down a rebellion. The other denied it ever happened.

A Bass speakership would be short-lived, and could help De Leon bide some time and reach out to a new class of Assembly freshmen. But as today’s little political fire drill demonstrates, things are rarely organized or orderly when it comes to political power.

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