The California Assembly has had 11 speakers since Willie Brown reluctantly stepped down in 1995 after a record 14-plus years as the Capitol’s self-proclaimed “ayatollah.”
On average, that works out to under two years for each post-Brown speakership – and one speaker, Democrat Brown’s hand-picked Republican successor, the late Doris Allen, lasted scarcely three months.
The Capitol’s string of short-term speakerships may be about to change. Lakewood’s Anthony Rendon got the nod from his fellow Democrats months ago and was inaugurated Monday for what could be eight-plus years in the speakership, second in tenure only to Brown’s reign.
That’s because Rendon was elected in 2012, after the state’s voters approved a change in the 1990 legislative term-limit law that had been largely responsible for the rapid turnover in speakers. Previously, he would have been limited to just six years in the Assembly, plus as many as eight in the Senate. The revision caps legislative service at 12 years but allows members to spend them all in one house.
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In that sense, therefore, Rendon’s elevation is historic, or it could be. It also means that both legislative houses will be headed by Latinos for the first time.
Those two footnotes notwithstanding, the larger question is whether a long-term speakership, coupled with longer tenures of his Assembly colleagues, will mean a more relevant and effective Legislature.
The Legislature is now a relatively minor player in California’s policy arena vis-à-vis the initiative process and the courts, to which the big action has gravitated during decades of declining legislative relevance – a decline that began, it should be noted, long before term limits were imposed.
Moreover, as the Legislature’s role diminished, that of the Assembly declined even more vis-à-vis its inter-Capitol cousin, the Senate.
The Senate is very liberal ideologically and pushes an agenda that reflects its orientation, while the Assembly’s majority Democrats are divided between liberals and moderates. It has become a graveyard for liberal measures, particularly those opposed by business groups as “job killers.”
Rendon is personally as liberal as any senator, but he must deal with the moderate bloc that is also likely to be in place for years to come, and with Jerry Brown, a governor whose own attitudes are not very liberal, especially on spending money. Rendon also is the polar opposite of the flamboyant Willie Brown, who loved wielding one-man power.
Holder of a doctorate in political theory and a self-described introvert who prefers solitary contemplation to glad-handing and preaches the politics of collaboration, Rendon is a question mark when it comes to the Capitol’s often rough, even unsavory, politics.
While Rendon talks of clawing back power from the governor – and inferentially the Senate – it’s uncertain whether he has the stomach for confrontation. Can a genuinely nice, quiet guy make it as Assembly speaker? We’ll see.