With Fabian Núñez termed out, 10 Democrats are politicking for the Assembly’s biggest prize
The prize is a $17,500 pay increase, a massive office, giant staff,
instant renown, control over millions in campaign contributions and a
coveted seat at the table of power beside celebrity Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger in the nation’s largest state.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez’s pending departure has sparked a mad scramble among 10 would-be successors that has included:
– Assemblyman Charles Calderon sweetening his campaign with bouquets of Valentine’s Day roses.
– Assemblywoman Fiona Ma pitching colleagues with a letter
claiming the "time has finally come" for a female Democrat to be
– A major public employees union targeting candidates with a
questionnaire asking how they’d address key union issues — including
California Common Cause President Kathay Feng jokingly calls it
a "cat brawl," the massive behind-the-scenes jockeying, wooing,
cajoling, persuading, politicking and arm-twisting that is scheduled to
end with a Democratic caucus vote March 11.
"I don’t consider it nerve-racking — I consider it
fascinating," said Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, who has
been spending two or three hours per day pressing her case with
For Democrats, who control the Assembly, the fiercely contested
battle is a geographic and ideological battle royal, packed with
candidates of all stripes — northern, southern, man, woman, pro-labor,
business-friendly, Caucasian, Latino, Asian American and African
Less than 24 hours after the defeat of Proposition 93 made
Núñez’s departure a certainty, the race to succeed him began with
would-be successors whipped into a frenzy by a rumor that raced through
Núñez was alleged to be cutting a deal with Republicans to immediately name his top lieutenant, Bass, to replace him.
"I found it completely bizarre, the idea that I would even want
to be speaker by coup," Bass said. "It was completely ridiculous."
The rumor, squashed the following day when Núñez denied it and
his caucus announced the March 11 vote, illustrates the sensitive,
high-stakes nature of the leadership fight and the whispers, suspicions
and power plays that swirl through the Capitol.
Besides Bass, the field consists of Democrats Hector De La
Torre of South Gate, Alberto Torrico of Newark, Anthony Portantino of
La Cañada Flintridge, Mike Feuer of Los Angeles, Ma of San Francisco,
Joe Coto of San Jose, Calderon of Whittier, Kevin de León of Los
Angeles and Ed Hernandez of West Covina.
The leader of the lower house can boost or bust careers by
picking committee chairmen, assigning offices, setting staff budgets,
punishing recalcitrant colleagues and determining which bills reach the
Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said that choosing a
favorite among Democratic colleagues can be awkward but rewarding,
particularly if you commit early to the eventual winner.
"It’s like buying stock," he quipped. "If you buy low, the returns are greater."
Breaks in Assembly floor sessions are becoming mix-and-mingle
opportunities for candidates to exchange hugs and back pats with
Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, D-Compton, joked that "everybody wants to see me."
"I had a reception last week — and I think six (candidates) showed up," Dymally said.
Calderon tried a different tack, dropping off a bouquet of
yellow roses to female Democratic colleagues on the eve of Valentine’s
"If I can’t have your heart, I’ll settle for your vote," said a note accompanying the flowers. "Please be mine, Chuck Calderon."
Some candidates are tight-lipped while others freely discuss the jockeying.
"I don’t sense that anybody has enough critical mass to really muster the votes yet," Hernandez said.
Ma, a protégé of former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton,
sent colleagues what amounts to a two-page résumé, with a political
"Since California was founded, the Assembly has never had a
Democratic woman as its speaker, and I believe that time has finally
come," she wrote.
Portantino issued a formal press release to announce his
candidacy and vow — in Schwarzenegger-like fashion — to "move
Torrico is padding his prospects with promises of reform,
including proposals to alter term limits in a way that would not
benefit himself and strip the Legislature of authority to draw its own
Núñez has declined thus far to name a favorite, but "he’s made
it very clear to the caucus that he reserves the right to weigh in,"
spokesman Steve Maviglio said.
Assembly members decline to handicap the race publicly, but
Bass, Torrico, De La Torre, Portantino and Feuer often are mentioned
privately as front-runners.
By Saturday, some of the candidates are expected to fold their
cards and endorse a rival — perhaps in exchange for brighter prospects
for a plum committee assignment.
Hernandez, a serious candidate, said he has an alternative plan if his bid falls short.
"If for whatever reason the votes aren’t there, I need to look
at (someone else) and ask the tough question: How are you going to make
me relevant, so I can accomplish things for my district and make change
in this state?"
Odds are tilted toward selection of a Southern Californian,
partly to balance regional interests since Sacramentan Darrell
Steinberg, soon to be Senate leader, is a northerner.
A key issue, still unresolved, is whether the speaker should be
a veteran who will be termed out in two years — Bass, Torrico, Coto or
De La Torre — or one of the five rookies, who lack experience but
offer longevity. Another option is Calderon, a returnee after 10 years
away from the Legislature.
Special-interest groups that helped lawmakers get elected to the
Capitol have a keen interest in who wields the gavel.
A public employees union that spent nearly $1 million on
Proposition 93, which would have kept Núñez in office, is asking
potential successors to fill out a questionnaire addressing key salary
and policy issues.
Willie Pelote, a spokesman for the group, the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the
questionnaire was intended to provide information for union members.
The union does not intend to push a candidate for speaker. "We would never cross the line," Pelote said.
Núñez has asked colleagues not to be influenced by outsiders.
"There’s no space in the room for anyone else," Maviglio said.
Special-interest groups have not played a key role thus far in pushing candidates, perhaps waiting for finalists to emerge.
Backgrounds of various candidates, however, inevitably link them
to key groups — Torrico, for example, is a former labor lawyer, de
León worked for the California Teachers Association and Portantino has
ties to the state’s entertainment industry.
Jamie Court, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer
Rights, contends that it’s naive to think that political ties don’t
"I think, unfortunately, that it’s like a poker table — and the biggest special interests are laying down bets," he said.
Contact the author at: [email protected]