Legislature leader scramble renews north vs. south debate

Call it the unwritten axiom that has taken on almost commandment-like power in the hallways of California's state Capitol: the two houses of the Legislature must be led by legislators from different parts of the state.

And yet, the early odds are that 2014 will see only the second time in four decades that a speaker of the state Assembly and a president pro Tempore of the state Senate will hail from the same region -- even as some are ramping up their efforts to keep the Capitol's system of geographic counterweights in place.

"This is an important time to have the appearance of balance," says Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council, a nonpartisan organization comprised of some of northern California's biggest businesses.

On Tuesday, Wunderman penned an op-ed urging the Assembly to select a northerner, Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-San Mateo, when choosing a new leader later this year.

"We respectfully request," he wrote, "that our legislators make sure that our half of California, with its unique characteristics, issues and contributions to the state, maintains its rightful role."

Wunderman admits his public push was sparked, in part, by what happened on Monday: the announcement by state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, that he will seek the congressional seat that Rep. George Miller, D-Richmond, said earlier that same day he intends to vacate at year's end after almost 40 years in office.

DeSaulnier had been actively courting his fellow Democrats in a bid to replace Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and regional balance was part of the discussion. His change of plans all but leaves the job to Sen. Kevinde León, D-Los Angeles. By Tuesday afternoon, Steinberg had publicly endorsed de Leónas his successor.

But the elevation ofde León would seem to run afoul of the unwritten north-south leadership rule given that Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is widely believed to have all but sewn up the votes to succeed Assembly Speaker JohnPérez, D-Los Angeles, this summer.

Whether the void felt by northerners in an Atkins-de León leadership era would be real or only perception remains unclear. Wunderman, the business group's leader, says solutions to issues ranging from transportation to water need input from leaders who represent more than just one region of California.

"By having a balance between the north and the south," he says, "I think it has the benefit of alleviating the potential for conflict."

Exactly how the California Legislature ended up with its cartographer's compact is unclear.

Veteran Capitol watchers point out that before 1974 the north-south balancing act was, at best, an occasional alignment. Legislative records show that leadership positions in Sacramento in the early 20th century were almost always held by the more economically powerful northerners -- with most leaders hailing from in or near San Francisco.

The north/south code also fails to explain how to count leaders who represented the Central Valley in the Legislature -- from the late Hugh Burns of Fresno, who led the Senate from 1957-1969, to Cruz Bustamante, the former lieutenant governor from tiny Dinuba who became Assembly speaker in 1996.

Other thande León, none of those involved in the private leadership jockeying is commenting. Assemblyman Gordon, reached by phone on Wednesday, said he's flattered by the endorsement of the Bay Area business group but remains focused on his support for the work of SpeakerPérez.

Pérez is running for state controller; Steinberg says he intends to step away from public office once his legislative term ends. Both men must leave the Legislature this fall because of term limits.

They, like their predecessors over four decades, hail from opposite ends of the state.

"I think it is relevant," said Senate leader Steinberg in an interview on Wednesday. "And I think that can be a factor in leadership elections."

But should it be the dominant factor?

"Playing geographic politics is something I'm much less interested in," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, a freshman legislator who, under the state's new term limits law, could serve up to 12 years in the Assembly. "A lot's changed in Sacramento."

Senate leader Steinberg, who now looks to be the last in a consecutive 20-year string of northern Californians to hold the post, argues regional representation didn't help him do the job effectively.

"None of that mattered nearly as much as the relationship between members," he said.

John Myers is News10's political editor. Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.


To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment