There’s nothing like a family feud to expose jealousies and rivalries that have been percolating for years.
The Capitol’s Democrats are on the verge of erupting into one of their periodic internal wars, akin to the nasty power struggles that dislodged leaders of both legislative houses in 1980, or the infamous “Gang of 5” revolt against Assembly Speaker Willie Brown seven years later.
Legislative term limits, passed by voters in 1990, were a safety valve that prevented such blowups by compelling regular turnover. But with the modification of term limits four years ago, there’s much less turnover, so advancing personal or ideological agendas now requires changing the status quo.
A classic example is occurring in San Diego, as outgoing Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins challenges Sen. Marty Block’s bid for a second term, accusing Block of reneging on a promise to quit after one term.
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More significant, however, is a looming effort by environmental activists to take out at least two Democrats identified with the Assembly’s moderate bloc that stalled a major proposal to curb gasoline consumption.
It’s a new front in the decades-long conflict that pits business groups against environmentalists, labor unions, personal injury attorneys and consumer groups.
Each year, the four liberal groups push bills opposed by the business groups. Led by the California Chamber of Commerce and aided by the “top two” primary system, the business coalition has adroitly intervened to elect enough moderate Democrats to the Assembly to thwart many, if not most, business-opposed bills.
Under modified term limits, no one would be forced out of the Assembly until 2024, so if liberal groups want to change its dynamics now, they’ll have to take out some “mods,” as they are known.
The fact that two mods identified as targets so far, Cheryl Brown of San Bernardino and Mike Gipson of Los Angeles, are black and could face well-financed Latino challengers adds an element of ethnic conflict.
Democratic politicians have obeyed an unwritten understanding that despite their burgeoning numbers, Latinos will not try to diminish the number of blacks in the Legislature or the congressional delegation – even in districts with Latino majorities.
Serious Latino challenges to Brown and Gipson would violate that understanding in a big way. They also would put the Capitol’s two top Latinos, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Speaker-elect Anthony Rendon, on the spot.
Ordinarily, legislative leaders are duty-bound to protect their incumbents with money and other resources, but it was de León’s high-profile climate bill that had to be watered down due to mod opposition, and he’s closely aligned with environmentalists, including billionaire Tom Steyer.
Campaigns against Brown and Gipson would be a big challenge for Rendon’s new speakership. Meanwhile, however, Atkins’ challenge may force de León to intervene on Block’s behalf.
This could be very interesting.