Of Orcas, Atkins and the new Assembly

A killer whale performs at SeaWorld. Photo: Ed Schipul

Politics in California’s Capitol is rarely black and white – even when dealing with orcas.

Earlier this week, a bill that would ban animal parks from keeping killer whales in captivity met an unceremonious death in the Assembly Parks and Wildlife Committee. The bill was reduced to a “study bill,” which is how lawmakers often handle issues they want to disappear.

The bill’s author, Democratic freshman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, failed to garner support from many of his fellow Democrats on the committee — including a group of moderates like Assemblymembers Raul Bocanegra (D-Los Angeles) and Adam Gray (D-Merced). But there was another force at work — the invisible hand of Speaker-elect Toni Atkins.

She didn’t actively work against the bill. But she didn’t have to. She made her position clear, and her caucus followed suit.

Atkins, a Democrat who will take over the reins of the Assembly on May 12, represents San Diego, home of SeaWorld, the only place in California that keeps orcas in captivity. She doesn’t sit on the committee that essentially killed the orca bill this week, but her presence was felt in the room as lawmakers cast their votes.

SeaWorld is a major tourist attraction and economic driver in Atkins’ district, and the park’s owners were aggressively working against the bill. They hired powerful labor lobbyist Scott Wetch to assist their effort, while the orca advocates responded by bringing on lobbyists from the Mercury Public Affairs superfirm.

Allowing a bill targeting a major employer in the district of an incoming speaker would have been a symbolic blow to a new Assembly leader who has had her share of legislative setbacks. At the end of last session, Atkins failed to garner the 41 votes needed to pass her bill to expand the powers of the California Coastal Commission.

When that bill, SB 976, went down to defeat in the final week of the 2013 legislative year, it raised eyebrows among Assembly observers and set off a round of rumbling about Atkins’ potential vulnerability.

Politics often attaches macro-meanings to such events, and the defeat of the Coastal Commission bill became a sign of possible weakness for Atkins, who then was one of a handful of candidates in the speakership mix. If she couldn’t get a majority of votes for the bill, how would she be able to control a Democratic caucus that was increasingly diverse and unwieldy.

But much has changed in the seven months since that vote. Atkins is now speaker-elect, and while she does not have the reputation for being a bare-knuckled enforcer like the current speaker, John Perez,
Monday’s vote was part deference to and demonstration of her increasing power as she prepares to take the Assembly gavel.

She didn’t actively work against the bill. But she didn’t have to. She made her position clear, and her caucus followed suit.

Atkins will take control of the Assembly just before this May’s budget revision – the unofficial start to budget negotiations in the Capitol. It will be Atkins in the room negotiating budget deals with Gov. Jerry
Brown and the Senate leader, whomever that may be at the time.

The fight for more social program spending, transitional kindergarten and other items on the Democratic wish list will be brokered in part by Atkins. It will be her job to fight for the priorities of her members,
even when those conflict with the wants of the governor and Senate Democrats.

This week’s vote showed Atkins has consolidated her power. The coming months will be the first test of how well she is able to wield it.

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