Cameron Smyth holds an unusual position in the California Legislature: He’s both a Republican and the chair of a major committee – an uncommon role for a member of the minority party in a Legislature dominated by Democrats.
Being a GOP chair in a Democratic world is not unique. Others, including Republican Paul Cook at Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee, is a current chair and during the past two decades a handful of Republicans have held similar positions.
But it’s unusual in the hyperpartisan Capitol and it places Smyth at Ground Zero for such hot-button issues as realignment, redevelopment, infrastructure financing, land use, the Brown Act, local special taxes, and more. His party is outnumbered on the committee 7-3 and he is only one vote among 10.
And sometimes he’s surprised he’s chair at all.
“I appreciate that the speaker is willing to appoint me to chair the committee when there are members of his own caucus who are not committee chairs,” Smyth said. “I know that was not an easy decision for him to make.”
Smyth, 39, has a long history of involvement in politics, starting after he graduated from UC Davis with a degree in rhetoric and communications.
He was inspired to get involved in politics through his father. After he came back home from college, he helped his dad with his campaign for a seat on the Santa Clarita City Council. “From that point on I was pretty well hooked,” Smyth recalled.
After this, Smyth worked as a field representative for the California Republican Party and as a staff member for former Assemblymember Pete Knight, a Lancaster Republican, a legendary test pilot and a major opponent of gay marriage, a key issue in the arch-conservative high desert northeast of Los Angeles.
“I really learned a lot on the staff level and it was during that time when I decided I wanted to make the jump from staff to member (of the Assembly). That was the point when I decided I would run at the local level and see how I liked that,” Smyth said.
Smyth was later elected to the Santa Clarita city council and served two terms as mayor for the city. In 2006, he was elected to the assembly and became the Republican caucus chair after his re-election in 2008.
In 2010, Assembly Speaker John Perez appointed Smyth chair of the Assembly Local Government Committee, a significant policy committee in the Legislature.
According to Smyth’s chief of staff Kevin O’Neill, Smyth’s committee has recently dealt with issues of local government scandals, such as with the city of Bell and, more recently, the city of Vernon.
“The committee has been quite busy with transparency and local government’s issues we’ve been seeing. The workload has increased this year,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said Smyth has also been involved with legislation concerning L.A. education, animal welfare issues, funding for domestic violence prevention shelters and environmental issues.
In addition, Smyth serves as co-chair of a Republican group within the Assembly caucus called E3, which stands for energy, economy and environment. Smyth says this group was created to find a balance with legislation between environmental protections and business regulations in California.
“We believe that you can have good, sound energy policy while still supporting the economy,” Smyth said. “They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You’ve got to find that sweet spot between good energy and economic policy.”
Smyth says he’s always been interested in maintaining strong relations between parties and that he’s sought to reach that goal through all of his past legislative involvement.
“That’s kind of a common theme of all the bills. They’re all bipartisan issues involving myself and a member of the Democratic Party,” Smyth said. “That’s what I came to Sacramento to do. I totally knew I would be in a minority party. If it’s a good bill, if it’s good for the state, then I would work with anybody. I think that’s why the speaker gave me the appointment.”
John Vigna, an aide to Pérez, said Smyth received the chairmanship because Pérez saw an opportunity to promote bipartisan efforts within the Legislature in order to bring about “more cooperation and more productivity with respect to how the parties work together.”
Vigna said Pérez also sought to better represent all of California by appointing members of the opposing party to these positions.
“He feels it’s important that even though they’re in the minority, it’s important that the views of their constituents are represented,” Vigna said.
“Mr. Smyth is a very thoughtful and considerate member of the Legislature and very effectively advocates for his constituents,” Vigna said. “He comes from local government and he understands the challenges of local government.”
In addition to the Local Government Committee, Smyth also serves as a member of the committees for business, professions and consumer protection, environmental safety and toxic materials and health.
In terms of his future political involvement, Smyth said that, like everyone else in Sacramento, he is currently looking at the redistricting commission. But he said he would be okay with just living a life outside of politics if he’s not able to continue his involvement with the government.
“If you’re going to call yourself a conservative you can’t be afraid of life outside of government. I’m not going to move into a new district or challenge an incumbent who I think is doing their job well,” Smyth said.
In addition to politics, Smyth says he also stays involved with his children, such as by coaching their sports teams. He said he’s also going to be the division coordinator for his AYSO region.
“My dad kind of instilled that,” Smyth said. “As busy as he was he always had time to coach. That’s what I remember about my dad, not so much all the things he did in his career.”