Pérez, Steinberg: A tense relationship — but productive

State Capitol, Sacramento. (Photo: David Monniaux)

ANALYSIS: Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez of Los Angeles are both Democrats, but the two are hardly friends.

The events of the last week captured the uneasy, though often productive, working relationship between the two leaders.

Pérez rushed to gavel down a special session to pass a budget reserve plan backed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The governor’s proposal is similar to one first put forward by the Speaker. The Assembly quickly scheduled a hearing on the plan, where both the speaker and the governor testified. Pérez called for the measure to be passed as soon as possible.

But Steinberg was in no hurry. He waited a few extra days to call the special session in his house, and said he was committed to passing a rainy-day fund, but not before the rest of the budget was passed in June.

Both Pérez and Steinberg will give up their leadership posts later this year. In mid-May, Pérez, now a candidate for state Controller, hands over the Assembly gavel after four-plus years at the helm of the Assembly. Steinberg, who has led the Senate since 2008, will stay on as leader through the upcoming budget negotiations, but will be forced from office by term limits this year.

Passing a budget reserve plan would be a political feather in the cap for Pérez, and give him a strong issue as he asks state voters to trust him with the state’s checkbook. Pérez is locked in a tough race with Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, also a Democrat, in the June primary election. The top two vote-getters in the race will advance to a November runoff, but it is widely assumed that only one of the top Democrats in the race will advance to the fall election.

The Senate has long viewed itself as the upper house, and in the post term-limits era, it was. Since 1990, most members were elected first to the Assembly. Some later graduated to the Senate.

With absentee ballots set to go out next week, Pérez would like to see a reserve plan passed sooner rather than later.

But Steinberg, who has endorsed Yee in the controller’s race, effectively said on Monday he is not willing to work on an accelerated timeline that would be politically advantageous to Pérez. It was the latest in a series of squabbles between the two leaders over the last several years.

Some of the tensions are institutional. The long-running cold war between the state Senate and Assembly – both of which are dominated by Democrats – at times resembles a catty, high-school rivalry, one that permeates the staffs and memberships of the two houses and predates the current leadership.

The Senate has long viewed itself as the upper house, and in the post term-limits era, it was. Since 1990, most members were elected first to the Assembly. Some later graduated to the Senate. Lawmakers in the Senate were more seasoned than Assembly members, and strong leaders like Bill Lockyer and John Burton often ran circles around their Assembly counterparts.

A visibly annoyed Perez was unable to muster the votes for the measure, but dismissed the bill as a Senate priority

That is changing with the tweak to the term limits law passed by voters in 2012. Now, lawmakers can serve 12 years in the Legislature in either house, instead of six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. Many of these ‘Prop. 28 babies’ in the Assembly are passing on open Senate seats this year, saying they’d like to serve all 12 years in the Assembly. If the trend holds, the experience gap between the Assembly and Senate will disappear, and may even tilt toward the Assembly by the end of the decade.

Some of the disagreements between Steinberg and Pérez have been more personal. There are significant stylistic differences between the two, which create tensions between the leaders and sometimes bubble into public view. Steinberg is comfortable talking to reporters – sometimes to his own detriment – while Pérez has had an uneasy relationship with the media throughout his time in office. Pérez can be cerebral, discreet and quirky, while Steinberg is more outgoing, and seems to enjoy the glad-handing and other public chores of political life.

A tense moment came at the end of the last year’s legislative session. After a last-minute bill was passed to make it easier for the Sacramento Kings to build a new downtown arena, labor unions raised concerns the bill was too permissive. A piece of “clean-up” legislation was quickly introduced in the Senate and sent over to the Assembly, where it died in the final hours of session.

A visibly annoyed Perez was unable to muster the votes for the measure, but dismissed the bill as a Senate priority.

There have been other public tensions between the two leaders on issues like prison policy and workers compensation, and lots of whispers from staffers on both sides about the perceived bad behavior and poor tactical decisions of the other house.

It’s unclear how much of that will change later this month, when San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins takes the Speaker’s gavel and the senate picks its new leader later this year.

But as the Steinberg-Pérez era comes to an end, the two leaders together can point to a long record of legislative accomplishments – implementing health-care reform, helping to erase a massive budget deficit, creating middle-class scholarships for university students, restoring dental care for adult Medi-Cal recipients – the list goes on. But many of those victories were forged despite, and not because of, the personal relationship between the two Democratic leaders.

Eds’ Note: Anthony York is a contributing editor of Capitol Weekly and writes regularly on political  issues. He also works on a part-time, contract basis for a public relations firm.

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