If Assembly Democrats want to present a united front when Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger takes office and summons them into emergency session next month, they better hurry up. Even the October 7 ouster of Gray Davis has not shocked the 48-member caucus into closing ranks and finally agreeing on one of three Los Angeles–area Latinos as their next speaker: Jenny Oropeza, Fabian Nunez or Dario Frommer.
Current Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson of Culver City is expected to stay on until primary elections in March, and no vote on the powerful post will likely come before January 6, when the Legislature reconvenes in regular session. But the Democrats’ failure to come together on Wesson’s successor by now hints at discord and disarray.
The selection is crucial. With term limits, the Assembly will never again be ruled by a virtual monarch like Jesse Unruh or Willie Brown, but the speaker still wields enormous clout, with power to set the legislative agenda, appoint committee chairs and select staff. The job also brings appointing authority for the Coastal Commission and other key panels, and the speaker has enormous unfettered discretion over some Assembly contracting funds.
But the speaker’s primary partisan task is to defend, or expand, the Assembly’s Democratic majority with a combination of fund-raising prowess and political skill. Wesson handled that part of the job without too much trouble, but the new speaker will have to convince voters that they completed their Sacramento housecleaning when they recalled Davis and made a movie action hero their new governor. Schwarzenegger will be trying to convince them that the job has just started, and he will be raising big money for Republican challengers.
The next speaker also faces an unprecedented assault on the legislative gains Democrats made over the last five years. Petitions are circulating for ballot measures to repeal the recent bill authorizing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, the new law requiring large companies to provide employee health care, and a host of other hallmarks of the Davis era. Schwarzenegger has targeted the unpopular car tax, and lawsuits are challenging the issuance of bonds that form the basis of the fragile budget package that legislators finally sent to Davis last month.
Assemblyman Joe Nation of Marin and Sonoma had his eye on the speaker’s post until Friday, when he threw his support to Frommer. “I saw a race with four candidates, none of whom was willing to step aside,” Nation explained, “and I saw this dragging on for weeks and months.”
Nation said Frommer, a moderate, was the right man to help grow the party’s majority and the right man to answer the two-part mantra that Democrats have been chanting for three weeks: Listen to voters who want politicians to change the way they do business in Sacramento without “abandoning our Democratic principles.”
Frommer would bring an understanding of bipartisanship that the other candidates, in solidly Democratic districts, lack. His 43rd Assembly District in Glendale, Burbank, North Hollywood and Los Feliz was unquestionably Republican until the mid-1990s.
He is a lawyer who practiced with a Los Angeles firm between stints as a political aide, including the top staff post with state Senator Art Torres, now the chairman of the California Democratic Party. But the rest of Frommer’s political pedigree looks like something of a mixed blessing at this particular time in state history. He was one of the closest aides to Gray Davis, advising Davis when he was controller and lieutenant governor. He served as political director of Davis’ 1998 gubernatorial campaign, and became the soon-to-be ex-governor’s first appointments secretary. Insiders say Frommer’s firsthand knowledge of the Governor’s Office could prove valuable — if he can overcome the lingering taint of his mentor’s recall.
Oropeza, who has climbed the political ladder from Long Beach school-board member to City Council to Sacramento, raised a ruckus in the Capitol several months ago when she circulated a letter soliciting support for her speakership bid. Several of her colleagues accused her of trying for an early ouster of Wesson, who appointed her chair of the powerful Budget Committee. It didn’t help that Wesson for a while was promoting a bill that would have added a couple of years to the current term limit and, the thought was, another year or two to his own speakership. But the term-limit bill went nowhere, and Oropeza explained that she was just doing what all would-be speakers had done in the past.
Insiders give Oropeza the edge in gathering her colleagues’ votes — but she hasn’t been able to snag the extra three or four that would give her the unquestioned lead.
She said her style, which she described as team building, makes her the best person to lead the caucus — and to negotiate with Schwarzenegger. The biggest impediment to progress, she said, won’t be her, but the Republicans to the new governor’s right. “If he’s able to handle them, I think there’s a lot that we can get done,” she said. “Because it should be about governing to the middle, and I know that I’m ready to go there. Certainly not abandoning Democratic core values.”
Nunez is the surprise candidate, the freshman progressive who hasn’t yet finished his first year in the Assembly. Still, he said, many of his colleagues have called on him to make a play for speaker.
“I don’t think [the recall] is a call to the Legislature to move to the right,” Nunez said. But he added that as speaker his job would be “protecting what we’ve been able to achieve until now — but being very conciliatory going forward. We have got to improve the business climate in California.”
Nunez was political director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District before being elected last year to represent the downtown district formerly held by Gil Cedillo.
Some in the Assembly refuse to back Nunez, saying this is no time to pick a leader with so little experience in elected office. Nunez countered that the Assembly would benefit from his “progressive view of the world but also my very practical approach.” But he added:
“It will be somebody who can fight for our caucus. The Assembly will be in good hands.”