One might think that when Democrats captured overwhelming control of the California Legislature — roughly three-fourths of its 120 seats — harmony would prevail. Nope.
As the Legislature’s just-concluded, pandemic-truncated 2020 session demonstrated, one-party dominance is no panacea.
While Republican legislators may be largely irrelevant these days — although they did display some sly gamesmanship on the session’s final night — fault lines within dominant Democrats produced plenty of bickering and one of the Capitol’s most enduring traits, rivalry between the two houses, was particularly obvious.
Egocentric speakers of the Assembly — notably Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown — made their house dominant for decades, until legislative term limits, enacted by voters in 1990, undermined the speakership’s inherent powers.
Strong-willed Senate leaders such as John Burton and Darrell Steinberg stepped into the leadership vacuum and the “upper house” called the shots for two decades until term limits were relaxed. However, in recent years, the Assembly under Speaker Anthony Rendon has reclaimed at least parity and perhaps an edge vis-à-vis the Senate.
Although both are liberal Democrats from Southern California, Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins — a former Assembly speaker — also developed a personal rivalry, one that doomed major housing legislation.
Just before midnight, the Assembly finally took up and passed Atkins’ Senate Bill 1120, which would have essentially erased single-family zoning and allowed property owners to build denser housing.
The far-reaching but highly controversial bill had languished in the Assembly for two months, but with just minutes remaining, the Assembly sent it back to the Senate for final approval — too late for action.
“To send over SB 1120 at 11:57, that was impossible and those (Assembly) votes were there days ago,” Atkins told reporters later.
“If Sen. Atkins wanted the bill, she could have asked for it,” Rendon insisted. “They didn’t ask for that bill. They didn’t prioritize it.”
Atkins had a problem of her own — an effective effort by Republicans to stall action on bills by stretching out debate and voting, which was enhanced by having most GOP senators in personal quarantine and participating electronically, due to one having tested positively for COVID-19.
Six hours before adjournment, Atkins attempted to speed up the Senate’s snail’s pace by limiting debate, but Republicans objected and the conflict essentially shut down operations for more than two hours.
Atkins was fighting a two-front war, one with Rendon and another with Republicans. She later acknowledged that the debate limit attempt was a managerial misstep, saying “Clearly, it backfired.”
Rendon had problems of his own. His office had refused to allow Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat who had just given birth, permission to participate electronically, even though the Assembly had set up such a system due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wicks came to the Assembly floor with her daughter, Elly, in her arms to back Atkins’ housing bill. The dramatic gesture became an instant social media sensation and on Tuesday, Rendon issued a public apology, saying, “My intention was never to be inconsiderate toward (Wicks), her role as a legislator, or her role as a mother.”
Remote participation had been one point of Atkins-Rendon friction and it backfired on both. While Atkins embraced it, only to have Republicans use it as a weapon, Rendon had publicly expressed concern that it was legally shaky — which is why, apparently, he refused to let Wicks use it.
The Capitol’s dominant party has clearly fragmented into an assemblage of quasi-parties defined by ideology, geography, ethnicity, economic class and, as the Atkins-Rendon feud shows, by personality. The old saying about herding cats comes to mind.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary