Who’s next in line?

The good news for Speaker Fabian Núñez is that there is an initiative on the February ballot that could extend his term as speaker for up to six more years. The bad news? If that initiative, Proposition 93, fails, it immediately makes both Núñez and his Senate counterpart, Don Perata, political lame ducks.

In the era of term limits, leadership changes in the Senate tend to follow a more structured path, with a bit more decorum than in the Assembly. It’s impossible to tell how long Núñez will be able to hold on to his job as speaker if Proposition 93 goes down.

Then again, who would want it? Would somebody really want to be speaker heading into a budget cycle that promises all sorts of pain for Californians? Would Núñez himself want to preside over such a budget, with a possible political eye cast toward the future?
There is never any shortage of candidates who want to be the speaker, regardless of the political or economic climate. But with so many candidates, and with other political blogs already ranking Democratic candidates for governor in 2010, we have compiled our list of potential contenders for Assembly speaker.

1. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles
As Speaker Fabian Núñez’s No. 2 in the Assembly, Bass is the presumptive favorite to move downstairs into the speaker’s office. The majority leader has been a slot for speakers-in-waiting in the past, and the well-liked, well-respected Bass would be no exception. In fact, the only thing that seems to be standing in the way of a Bass speakership is Bass herself. With Sen. Mark Ridley Thomas running for LA County supervisor against LA Councilman Bernard Parks, it will create a political opening of some kind for Bass. Will Bass run for the Senate or return home to the City Council? And would that hurt or wipe out her shot at becoming speaker?

2. Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate
Rules Committee Chairman Hector De La Torre has been involved in his share of legislative skirmishes. He has famously, and repeatedly, tangled with Mervyn Dymally over a host of issues ranging from health care to badges. He’s from Southern California, and he’s Latino — and at least one of those traits can be found in every Assembly Democratic leader since Willie Brown. De La Torre can come off as a mild-mannered policy wonk, but his background both in the Clinton White House and the South Gate City Council indicates that he knows how to navigate perilous political waters.

3. Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont
There are lots of reasons to assume that Alberto Torrico will not be the next speaker of the Assembly. For starters, he’s from north of the Tehachapis. He’s also chair of the Assembly Governmental Organization committee, and even though G.O. is one heck of a fundraising perch, which Torrico has demonstrated, it is also a good place to make enemies. How much bearing that has on a speaker’s race is unclear, but Torrico is still a top-tier contender, if not for speaker, then for another high-profile leadership position.

4. Charles Calderon, D-Whittier

Charles Calderon has run for speaker before. Calderon was the leader of the so-called Gang of Five, a group of five centrist Democrats who tried to overthrow the speakership of Willie Brown in the 1980s with the help of Assembly Republicans. Remember, it takes 41 votes to become speaker, not a majority of the Democratic Caucus. Calderon is more moderate than most of his caucus, but he is seasoned, smart and ambitious. And with history as a guide, it would be folly to dismiss the possibility that Calderon will once again make a run.

5. Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles
Hey, just because a bazillionaire comes out against your initiative doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doomed, right? If Proposition 93 passes in February, this discussion is moot. Núñez has brought order to a disorderly house, using his impressive political skills and the enforcement powers of Chief of Staff Dan Eaton to keep the Assembly moving. There are the usual grumblings and hurt feelings that mark any speakership, but Núñez’s leadership of his caucus remains unquestioned. How that changes if Proposition 93 fails on Feb. 5 remains to be seen.

6. Joe Coto, D-San Jose

Among the sophomore class, Coto is something of a dark horse candidate. But unlike others on this list, he is not a core Núñez loyalist. That hurts in some ways, but could be liberating in others. Coto has shown a penchant for being politically aggressive. He led a Latino Caucus effort in three Assembly races in 2006 that raised charges of racism from Assemblymen Paul Krekorian and Mike Eng. So, Coto might not get votes from those two, but he is a good fundraiser with an attack dog streak.

7. Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco
As a San Francisco Assemblywoman, Fiona Ma plays an important fund-raising role in her caucus. And as a member of Speaker Núñez’s leadership team, she has quickly been elevated to her caucus’s top tier. Ma pulled off one of the year’s legislative coups, shepherding a bill through the Legislature that would ban phalates in children’s toys, and getting the bill signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger. And it should also be noted, per our earlier discussion about Assemblyman Calderon, that Ma has strong personal relationships with many Republican Assembly members. With her mentor, John Burton, whispering in her ear, Ma gets a spot on our watch list.  

8. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles
There’s a good side to being the speaker’s close friend, and there’s a bad side. Speakership battles have ruined friendships before (Antonio Villaraigosa and Robert Hertzberg saw their friendship deteriorate over timing of the leadership change between the two).

But close ties with Núñez have simultaneously raised expectations for De Leon and harbored some quiet resentment. Armed with connections and a Capitol staff that is among the Assembly’s best, De Leon may still have some proving to do before he moves his way up the list. But if Karen Bass decides to opt out of the Speaker’s race, Núñez’s support would not be insignificant.

9. Ed Hernandez, D-Baldwin Park; Anthony Portantino,
D-Pasadena; Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles

It’s a little unclear who the leader of this year’s large freshman class is. But there is an unmistakable camaraderie among many first-year members. The freshman gripes in the Assembly often resemble those heard from freshmen in high school — the big kids get more resources, freshmen get bullied by the upper classmen, you get the idea. There is a learning curve to Sacramento, and there are liable to be some hurt feelings and growing pains along the way. That said, this year’s class offers some solid candidates for leadership. Remember, Núñez was a freshman when he was elected speaker, and among his selling points was that he would have enough time in office to learn the job. It’s hard to argue with that rationale. Hernandez, Portantino and Feuer are among the stars of the freshman class. Of course, there are other freshmen on this list, but all three of these first-termers deserve a spot on the watch list, especially if the freshman class unifies and decides that someone from its year should be the one to succeed Núñez.

So, who’d we miss? What did we get wrong? Send us your comments, your candidates and your corrections to

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