One of California’s most important elections was held behind closed doors last week with just 63 voters. They chose the next Speaker of the State Assembly.
It will be Rep. Robert Rivas, 42, a San Benito County Democrat who grew up in farmhands’ quarters on a winery on John Steinbeck’s land.
The legislator was raised by a single mother and Mexican immigrant grandparents in an apartment so small he didn’t have his own bed — another American Dream story, the kind that’s becoming more popular in California.
Aside from the governor, there is no more powerful state office than the Speaker of Parliament.
Speaker and Senate President pro tem — Toni Atkins, D-San Diego — has tremendous influence over how much money the state spends and on what. They have pretty much control over our government tax bills, business regulations, illegal actions, and penalties for breaking the law.
The Speaker appoints the chairs and members of all Assembly committees and can decide the fate of any legislation. In addition, the Speaker holds numerous seats on state bodies and is Regent of the University of California.
So this is a job worth fighting for. And every few years, a nasty brawl ensues between rivals reaching for the post. Sometimes a coup attempt occurs when a speaker refuses to voluntarily give up the prestigious position.
Assembly Democrats have just fought a bitter battle over who would replace Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood and — the thorny issue — when exactly.
Rendon, who has been Speaker for 6½ years, will not be released from the legislature until the end of 2024. And he flexed every muscle he had to hold on to the lead for as long as possible.
After a heated six-hour Democrat meeting, a compromise was reached: Rendon can remain speaker until June 30, immediately after the state budget is passed. Then Rivas takes over. The final vote was unanimous.
One day Rivas could be in the same position Rendon is in now – forced to start packing by an ambitious upstart.
Inevitably, would-be speakers start fighting for the job well before it becomes vacant. And once chosen, they never last as long as they would like.
Last spring, when Rivas attacked colleagues for speaking engagements, he was threatened by a rival: North Hollywood MP Luz Rivas (no relation), who was helping Rendon. So Robert Rivas intensified his pursuit of the job.
He walked into Rendon’s office before Memorial Day and showed him 34 pledge cards from Democrats, a majority of the faction. He asked the speaker to agree on a timetable for the transfer of power. Rendon told him to run away.
Rivas had enough votes to replace Rendon when the post became vacant. But the challenger didn’t seem to have enough to boot the speaker and create a vacancy.
This escalated a Democratic civil war that spread through the assembly’s election campaigns.
Rendon and Rivas financially backed Democratic candidates who pledged to vote for them when the new legislative session convenes on December 5. Rivas raised funds from supporting peers and channeled about $900,000 into at least a dozen races.
After the election, Rivas’ side believed they had gained a lead of two or three votes over Rendon. A caucus meeting was held at the Sacramento Convention Center. All incoming members of the Democratic Assembly were invited, along with some whose races were undecided.
“Things got ugly,” says an insider who asked not to be identified.
They argued violently about rules. Two parliamentarians were summoned.
Rendon apparently wanted to hold out until he could beat Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh’s record of being the second-longest-serving public speaker, behind only Democrat Willie Brown of San Francisco. That would require him to hold the job through June.
A proponent moved that Rendon be allowed to remain speaker until June 30 and then be replaced by another one-time contender: Campbell’s MP Evan Low. Apparently everyone except Rivas. That idea fell flat.
Nobody wanted to continue the chaotic power struggle into the next legislative period. So they made compromises.
Rivas served as a supervisor in San Benito County before being elected to the assembly in 2018, where he served as chairman of the Agriculture Committee. Hollister lawmakers have focused on improving housing for farm workers.
His elevation to legislative leadership will mean a geographic shift in power. Seven of the last eight speakers were from Los Angeles County. He will be the first speaker in Northern California in 25 years and the first from a rural district in 53 years.
But his promotion will continue the rise of Latinos in California politics. He will be the sixth Latino among the final 10 speakers.
His performance will impact the lives of nearly 40 million Californians. It was a big choice.
George Skelton is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.