With the constant churn of legislative term limits, handicapping the next speakership battle is a never-ending legislative parlor game. And while there is no immediate threat to Karen Bass’s leadership, her main enemy, the calendar, will not be denied.
Bass has served for an entire year in office, which in legislative parlance that she likely has more yesterdays than tomorrows in the Speaker’s chair. Her time in office has been colored by seemingly endless budget battles, financial turmoil and a large, new crop of legislators who become the charge, and the challenge, of any Assembly speaker.
Bass’s political team grew her caucus to 51 members (before Juan Arambula’s defection this week), a high water mark for Assembly Democrats in recent years. But challenges lie ahead for the new speaker, whomever he or she may be. There will be legislative seats to defend, and an uncertain political and fiscal climate that will present significant challenges to whomever sits in the big office.
Expect the speakership talk to get hot sometime this fall, after this budget is passed, and once the political plans of some of the Assembly’s up-and-comers come into focus. But without further ado, here’s an early snapshot of the speakership race, as we see it.
1. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles
Since his election to the Assembly in 2004, Kevin De Leon has been on the watch list. Part of that stems from his close personal friendship with former speaker Fabian Nuñez. But in his time in the Legislature, De Leon has stepped out of Nuñez’s shadow, becoming a lieutenant in Bass’s leadership team as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
DeLeon, more than perhaps any other member, has worked at becoming speaker, going out of his way to develop personal relationships with members, courting them in one-on-one sessions, and not being shy about asking for their support.
But will it be enough? De Leon still has some hurdles to overcome to become speaker, but hey, who doesn’t? If we were forced to put our money down now, he’d still be the odds-on favorite.
2. Anthony Portantino, D- La Canada Flintridge
If speakership politics is truly reactive, then Anthony Portantino might have an advantage in the Assembly’s next leadership race. For four years, Portantino has essentially been on the outside looking in, first under Nuñez, and now under Bass. The reasons for this are manifold – not the least of which is a long-standing rivalry between Portantino’s chief of staff and Nuñez’s top staffer.
That has extended somewhat under Bass who kept Portantino in the relatively obscure post of Higher Education chairman.
If Bass was the anti-Nuñez, taking a more open approach with members instead of the efficient, iron-fist leadership style of Nuñez, could Portantino leverage his lack of connection to Bass as a selling point in the upcoming race?
Portantino, like De Leon, has worked hard at building personal relationships with members. And his jolly “life is good” persona belies a hard-edged politician that lies just beneath the surface. And Portantino has the staff for the job as well – his chief of staff, Trent Hager has run the Speakers’ Office of Member Services, and worked for Sen. Don Perata’s leadership team. But Portantino is still persona non grata in some Assembly Democratic circles.
3. Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco
If political tutelage counted for anything, Fiona Ma would likely be the next speaker of the Assembly. As the political protégé of John Burton, Ma came to town with an operational understanding of how Sacramento works. She was also a constant presence on the Sacramento social circuit, and developed solid working relationships, and personal friendships, with many Republicans.
Ma has also emerged as a lawmaker who is serious about policy, and her energy and tenacity could be an asset in the Speaker’s office. And now that women have gotten a taste of political power in the Assembly, it will be interesting to watch how gender politics and allegiances play into a political game that is so often marked by regional, ideological and ethnic political concerns.
4. John Perez, D-Los Angeles
If we all thought John Perez was going to be around for a while, he’d be the prototypical speakership candidate. He comes from organized labor, is from Los Angeles, is Latino and is a freshman. On paper, he looks a lot like Nunez, a seasoned freshman who went on to become arguably the most effective Assembly Speaker in the term-limits era. Perez also comes from a political family – his cousin is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
But with Nuñez officially bowing out of the race for Gil Cedillo’s Senate seat, it will either fall to Perez or De Leon. And the early scuttlebutt has Perez moving on to the red carpet. That speculation, accurate or otherwise, is an obstacle for Perez’s speakership ambitions, if they exist. Perez also has a reputation for being somewhat abrasive, and that could hurt him in the popularity contest portion of the speakership competition.
4. Felipe Fuentes, D-Los Angeles
Anyone looking for value in these sweepstakes should put their marker down on Fuentes. Of all the candidates on this list, we expect him to rise the quickest, particularly as the Perez/De Leon dynamic sorts itself out. Fuentes comes from a bloc of Los Angeles Latino politicians who made their reputation as political moderates on the city level.
He served as chief of staff to then-council president Alex Padilla, and that close relationship continues in the Legislature. Fuentes, like Padilla, is the chair of his house’s energy and utilities committee, a base for serious policy and serious political fundraising. And if Perez runs for Senate and De Leon fails to assemble a speakership coalition, Fuentes could become the default compromise candidate of both the Latino and Los Angeles delegations, which would make him difficult to stop.
6. Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles
He’s certainly interested in the job, and but his hat in the speakership ring last time around. It’s just hard to see who Feuer’s natural political constitutency would be. It’s been seven years since a white male from Los Angeles held the speakership gavel. Maybe they’re due.
7. Isadore Hall, D-Compton
Hall is undeniably one of his party’s rising starts. The question is, is this his time? We’ve seen him preside over the house, we know he can dress, we hear he can sing. But can he put together the votes for speaker?
Unlike most of the other top tier contenders, Hall can make the freshman class argument. The constant churn of Assembly leadership, because of term limits, tends to dilute the power of the house, simply because it is in a state of constant flux. Hall could bring some stability to an Assembly caucus that will face some very serious and daunting political challenges, both inside the Capitol and at the ballot box, in the coming years.
8. Charles Calderon, D-Whittier
In some ways, Chuck Calderon would be the perfect Speaker for the Jerry Brown era, if that indeed is where we are headed. Calderon first ran for the job 20 years ago, as a member of the so-called Gang of Five that tried to topple Speaker Willie Brown.
With 18 years of Legislative experience, Calderon has a compelling case to make in a house that has been paralyzed at times due to a lack of political seasoning.
Feuer has some m
embers of his class on board with his candidacy. It remains to be seen how much momentum he can build.
9. Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys
If smart and capable are prerequisites for the speakership, Bob Blumenfield qualifies. That would explain why Bass tapped Blumenfield to serve on the budget conference committee. But it’s hard to know just what he wants. As a former aide to Rep. Howard Berman, there is a suspicion that Blumenfield’s political future may be on the other coast. Or perhaps he could wind up with the job that his mentor could never capture. Berman was involved in the epic inter-party battles in 1980 that ultimately resulted in Willie Brown’s election as speaker, with an assist from Assembly Republicans. Though he may be a candidate for the job in the future, odds are now is not his time.
10. Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach
So, if you want to keep the speakership in southern California, and you want a first-termer, and you want to keep the gavel in the hands of a woman, who you gonna call? Why not Bonnie Lowenthal? Again, it may be early for Lowenthal, but she merits mention on this list as one of the lawmakers we’ll be watching the next time this list is assembled.