There is probably no more popular law in California today than term limits, the result of a 1990 ballot proposition limiting state legislators to six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate.
Yet, at a time when California desperately needs accomplished political leaders with demonstrated abilities to achieve solutions to complicated problems, what do we get?
Speakers of the Assembly who are virtual rookies in office, young men (no women, so far) who have achieved nothing in Sacramento other than to win the votes of the majority of their party caucus: Ideologues leading the Republican minorities in both legislative houses who are dumped willy-nilly the moment they begin to deviate even slightly from the party line.
Before term limits, California had a series of legislative leaders who actually had long records of getting things done. The legendary Assembly speaker (later state treasurer) Jesse Unruh represented a district in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood that was quickly becoming predominantly minority. He helped his new constituents by pushing through the Unruh Civil Right Act of 1959, still the lynchpin of California’s anti-discrimination arsenal.
After him came Leo McCarthy and Willie Brown of San Francisco. Brown had won passage of an abortion rights law and was a leader in both the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War causes long before becoming Speaker.
All three of them knew how to count votes. When they pushed hard for passage of legislation or a budget, they knew exactly who would vote how and didn’t waste much effort on hopeless causes.
And they knew how to handle lobbyists, Unruh famously saying that “If you can’t take their money, (mess with) their women, eat their food and then vote against them the next morning, you don’t belong in Sacramento.”
There has been no such toughness since term limits ended Brown’s tenure in state government and sent him home to become an effective mayor of his beloved city.
But what have we had since? As many comedians might say, “Take the last two Assembly speakers. Please.”
Legislative Democrats have not had a veteran leader in the last decade, largely because they choose speakers early in their Sacramento careers, in order to ensure at least a modicum of stability in the speakership. The problem with that is you get utter greenhorns making key government decisions.
Today’s speaker is John Perez of Los Angeles, who has been unable to forge even the slightest compromise with the Assembly’s Republican minority. Part of that problem is the GOP’s ideological rigidity and willingness to dispense with even the most essential, life-saving government services in the interest of the “no new taxes” pledge virtually all have signed.
But part of it also is Perez’ inability to count votes and see what’s ahead. So it was last summer, when Perez made a highly-publicized attempt to dissolve the tiny city of Vernon, within his own district. Vernon, beset by decades of well-documented corruption, has just over 100 residents and was designed purely for the convenience of industry, which employs about 55,000 persons there.
Perez managed to muscle his bill through the Assembly, all right, but it never had a chance in the state Senate, where it got just 13 votes out of a possible 40. That’s an ignominious defeat if ever there was one, reflecting Perez’ unwillingness or inability to compromise or to count votes, two of the most important skills of a political leader. For sure, once his speakership ends, there is no apparently promising future for Perez, now known as a ham-handed incompetent.
Before him came Fabian Nunez, another Los Angeles denizen elected speaker before he’d served even one full Assembly term.
Nunez authored few bills of his own, becoming best known for glomming onto AB32, the landmark anti-greenhouse gas bill authored by then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, whose district at the time spanned much of western Los Angeles County. Nunez became familiar for hanging around then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican movie muscleman who often seemed to use him as a kind of living watch charm.
Later, Nunez became far better known for the favor he received when in his last hours as governor, Schwarzenegger vastly reduced the voluntary manslaughter sentence being served by Nunez’ son, Esteban. That may have helped the Nunez family, as Schwarzenegger later bragged, but it demonstrated Nunez’ longtime lack of political independence.
All this argues strongly for passage of an as-yet-unnumbered proposition that will be on the November ballot. This one would reduce the amount of time any person can spend in the Legislature from 14 to 12 years, but would let the whole time be served in one house.
There are no guarantees, but passing that measure just might allow for somewhat more stable, competent, proven veteran leadership in both legislative houses; something that’s desperately needed, but has been lacking for more than 10 years.