Bitterness over speakership fray permeates the Assembly

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. (Photo: Rendon's Twitter feed.)

The clock is ticking: Timing is crucial in politics, and the battle over the Assembly speakership is no exception.

A stormy, six-hour closed-door meeting ended with an ostensible peace accord — Assemblyman Robert Rivas, the challenger, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon acknowledged in a joint statement that Rivas had a majority of the votes of the current Democratic caucus. And they both acknowledged that Rendon would retain the speakership.

This is where timing comes in. The operative words are “current”  and “at least.”

Surprisingly, no definitive speakership vote was actually taken during the meeting, according to a number of participants.

Their joint statement said Rendon would continue as speaker “for at least the rest of this legislative session,” which wraps up Aug. 31.

This is where timing comes in. The operative words are “current”  and “at least.”

If Rendon continues as Assembly speaker through the end of the current two-year session, then any change in the speakership will be decided in the next session, following the November elections, when all 80 Assembly seats are up for election.

That means many new members — at least 16 new Democrats by one estimate — will be among those voting on the speakership, which could be formally decided in December when lawmakers meet briefly to organize the house and choose officers. Full-bore legislative sessions will get underway in January.

Currently, the house has 58 Democrats, 19 Republicans, two vacancies and an independent.

“He (Rivas) wants a vote before those new members come in,” one lawmaker said before the caucus meeting.

For Rivas, the essential question is whether he can retain a majority of the Democratic caucus after the new and returning members are seated.

Rendon, then, was victorious: His first tactical goal was to thwart any vote that included the Rivas allies, either on the floor or in the caucus. He succeeded.

Rendon will serve as speaker “at least” through the end of August, but is likely to seek the speakership again. He, like Rivas, hopes that when new and returning lawmakers are seated, he can capture support from a majority of the caucus.

Rivas called for an orderly transition, but the longer the transition the greater the apparent benefit to Rendon, who remains as speaker despite opposition from a majority of his caucus.

Some questioned the strategy of postponing the vote on the speakership.

“When you delay going to a vote, it usually means you don’t have the votes and you’re trying to round them up,” said a lobbyist, a veteran of decades of the Capitol’s political wars.

As speaker, Rendon can decide committee assignments and staffing, helps direct funds to Assembly candidates and can use a carrot and stick to build support. He can punish those who oppose him, and if he retains the speakership, he may do so.

Rendon, then, was victorious: His first tactical goal this past week was to thwart any vote that included the Rivas allies, either on the floor or in the caucus. He succeeded.

But his victory was at the expense of bitterly divided Democratic lawmakers. One question is how this will play out over the next three months as the legislative session heads toward adjournment.

Rivas had a majority of the caucus with him, but those votes were never brought to bear. Rendon and his allies, through a series of parliamentary maneuvers, raised “substitute motions” and declared that a vote on the speakership in the caucus was unconstitutional and had to be conducted on the Assembly floor.

“For the first time in history, as far as I know, a speaker has refused to recognize the majority of his own caucus.” — Assembly member

“I think the timing (of Rivas) was really kind of weird. So you say in advance what you’re going to do in the future? It gives the speaker time to peel off your support,” said one observer, who has followed many of the Capitol’s political wars. “I don’t think he (Rivas) had an end game.”

Rivas said he wanted a smooth transition similar to that of Toni Atkins, now the Senate leader.

Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, was persuaded to peacefully relinquish the speakership after many caucus members sought a potential successor. That transition then took several months.

A number of lawmakers said the Democratic caucus meeting this week was unique — the first time that a speaker refused to acknowledge the will of the majority of caucus members.

“For the first time in history, as far as I know, a speaker has refused to recognize the majority of his own caucus,” said one angry Rivas supporter. Another noted that votes and discussions on leadership are common in caucuses, and that the maneuvering was simply aimed at blocking a vote for Rivas.

The Assembly candidates will be wooed and helped during their campaigns, and sources say both Rendon and Rivas are doing just that in hopes of building support for December. It is a subtext of this year’s Assembly races.

New lawmakers typically aren’t as anxious as veteran colleagues to challenge an existing power structure. Will the members of the caucus, then, side with Rendon or Rivas — or someone else? Two Assembly seats, now vacant, are likely to be captured by Democrats, bringing the caucus to 60 members.

Rivas, D-Salinas, initially had 34 Assembly Democrats in signed pledges supporting him as speaker to replace Rendon, D-Lakewood, who has held the job for six years. Capturing the speakership requires 41 floor votes.

A speakership fight may bring others into the fray, too.

Last November, Rendon stripped Assemblymember Evan Low of his chairmanship of the influential Assembly Business and Professions Committee, then removed him from the committee altogether. Low has also been seeking the speakership.

Ultimately, the fight may play out on the Assembly floor, with the Rendon and Rivas forces clashing over key bills. Clearly, the closed-door maneuverings in the caucus rankle the most.

“This isn’t over,” one Rivas supporter said.

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