Opening his tenure with a forceful defense of government assistance programs, Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, officially became Assembly speaker on Monday.
He could become a fixture in that role. New term limits enable Rendon to remain in charge of the lower house through 2024, assuming he wins re-election and retains the support of his colleagues.
Rendon was sworn in during a lengthy ceremony on the Assembly floor that drew four past speakers and a roster of statewide officials that included Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris.
In recounting his rise from middling student to one of California’s most powerful politicians, and his wife’s background as the child of working-class immigrants, Rendon lauded public programs that he said aided their success.
“Neither of us was really supposed to be here,” Rendon said, but “we benefited from (California’s) public housing projects and its low-income home-loan programs. We benefited from its food stamps and free meal programs. We benefited from this state’s English-as-a-second-language and its diversity programs. We benefited from its unemployment assistance programs and, yes, we benefited from this state’s commitment to affirmative action programs.”
In light of that rise, Rendon cast as even more urgent the need to tackle California’s high child poverty rate, which he called “the single biggest shadow on the Golden State.” Speaking to reporters later, he praised a state earned income tax credit the Legislature passed last year, noted his desire to boost spending on early childhood legislation and backed a minimum-wage bump.
While an initiative to boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour will go before voters in 2016, Rendon called the minimum wage “something we intend to work on.”
In his remarks, Rendon specifically mentioned the need to better regulate the embattled Public Utilities Commission. Rendon carried legislation to reform the PUC, though Brown vetoed the bills, and clashed with the regulator over access to records pertaining to the controversial closure of a Southern California nuclear plant.
“I demanded that the PUC be held accountable to taxpayers,” Rendon said, “so my own experience has shown me that we must continue to demand that this state’s departments and units be held accountable.”
Rendon’s ascension also marks a historic moment that illuminates California’s changing demographics: Both he and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, trace their heritage to Mexico.
“For the first time in the history of our state, both houses in the California Legislature – in the eighth-largest economy in the world – will be led by two Latino Americans,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, in opening remarks.
Rendon emerged last fall from a scrum of Assembly members jockeying to replace Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, as speaker.
Elected to the Assembly in 2012, Rendon came from a background that included leadership roles with environmental and early childhood services organizations, which informed his desire to make early childhood education a focus. His central role in negotiating a water bond deal in 2014 raised his profile.
In his speech, Rendon reiterated his plans to not carry legislation as part of an effort to ensure that everyone “can advocate forcefully for their ideas and their constituents.” He has talked about using his potentially long tenure to decentralize authority by allowing committee chairs more leeway.
“Voters extending term limits has great potential to change how we do business,” Rendon said. “Voters put their faith in us to do more and do better.”