California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon is stepping down. He's not happy about how it happened

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon is preparing to step down

Adam Beam
Thursday 29 June 2023 07:05 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Until Monday, only two politicians had lasted at least seven years as speaker of the California Assembly: A U.S. Navy veteran who was so powerful that people called him “Big daddy;” and a lawyer who was so confident he nicknamed himself the “Ayatollah.”

Now, joining Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown is Anthony Rendon, a man with no nickname who online search engines often confuse with the third baseman for the Los Angeles Angels. This week, Rendon quietly surpassed Unruh's record and became the second-longest serving speaker in state history — just in time for him to step down on Friday.

He's not happy about how it happened.

For much of last year, with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom coasting to re-election, Rendon's status was the source of much of the political drama in California. Over the summer, Robert Rivas — at the time a mostly unknown chair of the Assembly's agriculture committee — told Rendon he had enough votes to replace him as speaker.

What followed were months of a layered power struggle that played out across elections in 80 Assembly districts. When all the new members were seated, Rivas still had the votes, and Rendon agreed to give up the speaker's gavel at the end of June.

Rendon said he was “very, very angry about it" — emotions he would process by running every day. He said Rivas hasn't asked him for help, and he hasn't thought about offering it.

“I have hurt feelings with the way things were carried out, for sure,” Rendon said in an interview earlier this month. “I think it was really embarrassing for the institution, the way they acted.”

Democrats control 62 of the Assembly's 80 seats, leaving Republicans with no say in leadership decisions. Rivas' transition has been smooth so far as he has hired staff to fill out his office. Asked to respond to Rendon's comments, Nick Miller, Rivas' communications director, simply noted Rivas twice convinced the Democratic caucus to unanimously choose him to be the next speaker.

“We thank Anthony Rendon for his leadership,” Miller said.

Rendon lives in Los Angeles with his daughter and wife, who owns a consulting firm that has received money from lobbyist groups. Rendon wasn't supposed to be in office this long. When he first ran for the state Assembly, term limits only allowed politicians to stay in the Assembly a maximum of six years. On the night that Rendon won his primary, voters agreed to double that limit to 12 years.

Even before term limits, people usually didn't survive as speaker for more than a few years. The job relies on the changing whims of politicians who are constantly searching for ways to increase their own power and influence.

“They’re all unusual human beings,” said former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who worked with Unruh, Brown and Rendon over his five-decade career in California politics. “These were not ordinary people.”

Unruh and Brown lasted as long as they did by holding their power in a tight grip. Rendon's power came from a lighter touch. He empowered committee chairs to make their own decisions on bills — a tactic that more than once derailed some priority legislation for Democrats.

But Rendon occasionally flexed his political muscles publicly, as in 2018 when he famously blocked a bill that would have created a single-payer health care system in California. Supporters of the bill were furious, circulating an image on social media depicting a bear with a knife in its back with “Rendon” written on the blade. But Rendon said the bill was largely symbolic because there was no money to pay for it.

“I hope that set the tone,” Rendon said. “Symbolic stuff is cool. That's nice. But it's not what I'm interested in."

It wasn't the only controversy Rendon would oversee. In 2017, the #MeToo movement swept through the Capitol, resulting in the resignation of two assemblymen and claims of widespread harassment and inappropriate conduct. Rendon and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins created a new office to investigate workplace misconduct.

Unlike his predecessors, Rendon did not author bills as speaker, making it tricky to get credit for legislative milestones. But he led the chamber through impactful and complex negotiations, including extending the state's cap-and-trade program, paying for all 4-year-olds to go to kindergarten for free, and making all low-income Californians eligible for government-funded health insurance regardless of their immigration status.

Much of that work happened during Donald Trump's presidency, when California political leaders including Rendon cast the state as the chief resister to the Republican's polices.

His leadership style led to some “rough patches” with other Democratic leaders, including Atkins, she said. But in recent years, Atkins said she and Rendon — who are both termed out of the Legislature at the end of next year — found ways “to support our causes and each other.”

“There's always a different rhythm and dynamic in the Assembly. He had the rhythm. He understood it," Atkins said. "His knowledge of how the chamber worked is a “tribute to his style and that it meshed with the members in that House.”

One of those empowered committee chairs was Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland whom Rendon elevated to lead the influential Assembly Housing Committee. Wicks ran with that power last year, pushing through a bill aimed at opening up much of the state's commercial land for residential development.

But when Rivas challenged Rendon for speaker last year, Wicks sided with Rivas. It wasn't personal, she said. Wicks knew that there would have to be a new speaker in 2024, when Rendon terms out.

“You can either choose to sit on the sidelines and have other people decide who that should be ... or you decide to jump in and pick a candidate,” she said, adding: “For me, it wasn't an indictment on Rendon or his leadership. It was about who’s going to be the next speaker.”

Rendon says he plans to stay in office after he steps down as speaker. He'll author legislation and attend committee hearings, but he won't attend caucus meetings, he said, because he wants to give Rivas space to lead.

“That kind of minimizes and makes it less weird,” he said.

He's eyeing a run for state treasurer in 2026, saying his experience crafting budgets in the state Legislature “would be really helpful there.”

“I've spent a decade figuring out state politics, state government,” he said. “I think I have a bead on it now.”

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