The 2012 elections brought major changes to the California Legislature as two reforms combined to produce a wave of competition in districts where incumbency and Sacramento power had dictated the outcome in previous elections.
The redrawing of legislative district lines (as well as U.S. House of Representative district lines) by an independent commission, rather than by the Legislature itself, produced incumbent collision. Sitting legislators suddenly found themselves in the same district with another incumbent legislator, which caused several to pack up and move to a neighboring district with no incumbent. Such a move, however, can anger voters who resent having the power brokers in Sacramento decide who their legislator will be. This occurred with two Democratic Assembly members who were the focus of an agriculture industry-supported campaign seeking their defeat.
The other major reform, the top-two primary system, added intrigue to this mix by allowing voters in the June primary election to send two candidates from the same party to face off in the general election. In districts where one party has the overwhelming advantage, minority party voters suddenly found themselves being courted and realized their votes could help determine the outcome.
With a high number of open seats due to term limits, the result was the election of 39 new lawmakers, representing nearly a third of the entire Legislature. Under the reformed term limits law, these members can now serve 12 years in the Legislature in one house or in any combination of the two houses. Gone are the days when a new Assembly member, limited to just six years in that house, began angling for a state Senate seat on day one, at the expense of thoughtful lawmaking.
These new legislators — especially the 28 rookie Democrats in the 55-member Assembly Democratic caucus — have an opportunity to transform the California Legislature by using their longer terms to develop policy expertise and personal relationships that have been lacking since the original term limits law was enacted.
A major early test of their transformative power is just over the horizon.
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez is serving his final term. As a term-limited Speaker, he will soon engage in the process of influencing the selection of his successor. Undoubtedly, several among the 55 member caucus have designs on the powerful position. Whether any of the rookies are plotting campaigns for Speaker is guesswork at this stage, but their sheer numbers suggest that as a group, they can have enormous — and possibly controlling — influence on the outcome.
What is most interesting about the jockeying for Speaker this time is the fact that some of these new members were elected in spite of strong opposition from the Sacramento interests that are the biggest players in Democratic campaigns. At least 14 Assembly Democrats were either elected because of business community support or come from competitive districts that could as easily elect a Republican next time.
They might have more political freedom than their colleagues. What kind of person do they want as their leader?
Privately, several of these new legislators speak emphatically about their desire to change the culture of Sacramento, to place policy-making ahead of political posturing. They appreciate the opportunity under the changed term limits law to focus on the state’s toughest issues and forge personal bonds with each other to create real solutions, rather than maneuvering against each other for a state Senate seat. They talk about not wanting to spend 12 years blindly following party dogma on every issue.
With a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature, Democrats have the power to pass any bill or tax, and to override any veto by the Governor, without worrying about the Republicans. The Speaker of Assembly (as well as his counterpart, the Senate President pro tempore), has immense influence over how that power is used. Twenty-eight Democratic rookies in the Assembly are just getting their bearings in the state Capitol. They will need to settle in quickly and start focusing soon on what kind of Assembly they want to serve in and maybe even whether they want one of their own to lead the lower house.
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