As California lawmakers move to elevate new leaders in both houses of the state Legislature, those monitoring the vote are questioning whether geography really is destiny.
Custom and tradition matter in Sacramento, as does apportionment of power. Lawmakers have for years accommodated the state’s vast landmass and far-flung population by having the leader of one house from the north, the other from the south.
The current leadership tandem illustrates that balance. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez of Los Angeles represents Southern California and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento the north state, a rare departure from a line of northern leaders elected by denizens of the populous Bay Area.
According to the oft-repeated conventional wisdom, having leaders from both of the state’s two halves reassures constituents that disparate priorities get a hearing as the Legislature wades through divisive issues like transportation funding or water.
“It’s certainly not a law,” said Peter Detwiler, a longtime committee staffer now retired from the Legislature, “but very often political conventions are more powerful than laws.”
But a looming leadership transition, with both Pérez and Steinberg forced from office this year by term limits, is stirring debate about whether the north-south leadership counterbalance is an immutable rule or a flexible guideline. Current and former lawmakers who have lived through successions call the divide more of an historical coincidence than anything else.
“It’s not a custom, it’s not a practice,” said state Treasurer and former Senate leader Bill Lockyer. “When it happens, it’s an accident.”
Steinberg recently anointed Sen. Kevin de León of Los Angeles the heir-apparent in the Senate. It is unclear whether that will upend the race for the Assembly speakership by disqualifying lawmakers from Southern California.
Take Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, a top Pérez lieutenant who has long been considered a leading contender to take over as speaker. She hails from San Diego. Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, is a Los Angeles County freshman often mentioned as a potential successor.
“I just have to think that the north/south is not the only consideration,” Atkins said. “There’s coastal and inland, rural and urban; there’s too many considerations for any one to be the main factor.”
“I voted for Governor Brown, I voted for (Attorney General) Kamala Harris, we have two U.S. senators I continue to support,” all of them from Northern California, “and I have never felt that my needs in Southern California have not been addressed by those folks,” Atkins added.
Still, a prominent Bay Area business group is actively seeking to preserve the north-south balance. Shortly after reports of de León’s securing the Senate leadership emerged, the Bay Area Council began promoting Assemblyman Rich Gordon of Menlo Park as the next speaker.
“We think the state is better governed when there’s a balance between north and south,” said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, “and having a two-house Legislature avails us of the opportunity to have that balance and the public to perceive it that way.”
In a statement responding to the overture, Gordon pronounced himself “flattered” but declined to weigh in on the leadership race.
“The Assembly has a speaker, and I am proud to support the leadership of John Pérez and his tireless dedication to California,” Gordon said.
While the north-south convention has endured for most of the last few decades, gaining the appearance of an ironclad rule, the Legislature violated it as recently as the mid-1990s. For a short period, Lockyer, of Oakland, led the Senate while legendarily long-tenured Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, of San Francisco, headed the other house.
Like Lockyer, other former legislative leaders discounted the importance of legislative leaders encompassing different regions of California.
The north-south pairing “was never a rule,” insisted former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, of San Francisco. He blamed the perception that it is a rule on “people who don’t understand how the process works.”
“It never once, in my opinion, entered into the discussion in the caucus,” Burton said. “It’s whoever could get the votes.”
The process of picking leaders hinges on qualifications, not geographical considerations, according to former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. He argued that the division between southern and northern lawmakers has not come by design but has reflected other dynamics, like Los Angeles-area Assembly leaders endorsing fellow Angelenos – himself among them – as their successors.
“I think it matters very little, this north-south thing,” Núñez said. “Legislators will vote for the person they believe is most helpful to them, they respect the most and they can rely upon,” he added.
As a Northern California lawmaker who has just placed the leadership mantle on a Los Angeles colleague, Steinberg said that “geography may or may not be relevant” but is rarely a determining factor.
In this case, it was a shifting electoral landscape that appeared to play a decisive role. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, was said to be vying with de León to become leader, but DeSaulnier abandoned his bid after deciding to pursue the seat of longtime Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who just announced his retirement.
“I know that has been the tradition,” Steinberg said of the north-south precedent. “But one thing I’ve learned about this leadership stuff is that there is a lot of talk and chatter and speculation about who’s who and what’s what and who’s ahead and who’s behind, and what it really comes down to, always, are relationships between the members.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Laurel Rosenhall contributed reporting.