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Will Robert Rivas of Salinas Force Out Anthony Rendon as Assembly Speaker?

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Assemblyman Robert Rivas, left, and Speaker Anthony Rendon. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli, CalMatters/Miguel Gutierrez Jr.)
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Et tu, Rivas?

Late Friday, just as legislators — and everyone else in the state — were preparing to check out for the long holiday weekend, an earthquake rocked the California political world: Assemblymember Robert Rivas, a Salinas Democrat, announced that he had “secured enough votes” to become the next speaker of the California Assembly.

Ben Christopher

Cal Matters

That immediately raised questions: Is that actually really true? When would this hypothetical leadership change occur? How does the current speaker, Anthony Rendon, feel about all of this?

Rivas made the declaration via a press release which, unhelpfully, neglected to answer any of these questions. And though reporters have been peppering Rivas, Rendon, and their respective offices with requests for elucidation, all parties involved have kept emphatically mum.

In a series of tweets on Monday, Rivas restated that he had the necessary support, that it was “time to unite the caucus and determine a thoughtful, reasonable transition period” and that he wanted to ensure the “transition is a respectful one.”

The audience for that thread could be the entire Democratic caucus. But then again, it could also have been a message meant specifically for Rendon: It’s over.

But then again, maybe not. Within minutes, Rivas deleted the tweets. Meanwhile, Rendon seemed to be enjoying his weekend.

What Is Known

Here’s what we do know:

  • Rendon is termed out of the Legislature in 2024, creating a definitive expiration date on his position at the top.
  • This probably isn’t the first time a member has taken a crack at unseating the leader. Last year, Rendon unceremoniously stripped Cupertino Democrat Evan Low of a coveted committee leadership role in what was rumored to be retaliation for an attempt at Rendon’s job.
  • Low is a Rivas ally and could be well-positioned with his friend in the top spot.
  • There was trouble within the Democratic ranks last week when a handful of moderate Democrats attempted to force a vote on a bipartisan gas tax suspension proposal — a direct challenge to Rendon’s control of the chamber.
  • If there is to be a change of leadership, first there has to be a majority vote from the Assembly’s 58 Democrats, followed by a vote of all 78 Assembly members (two seats are vacant). Such a vote could happen as soon as today. Sources who asked not to be named said that 34 Democrats had signed cards pledging their support to Rivas, who would need 41 votes to become speaker.

The Great Unknown

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • Rivas stated in his news release that he had “begun discussions on a transition” with Rendon, but is this a hostile takeover?
  • If Rivas really does have the support of 34 Democrats, is that backing firm enough to last until the caucus votes — especially if Rendon is lobbying against it?
  • And when would that potential vote take place? What about the actual change of leadership? What would it mean to have a changing of the guard just two weeks out from the constitutional deadline to pass a budget?
  • Palace intrigue aside, would a Rivas-led Assembly make a difference from a policy perspective? Rivas, first elected in 2018, noted that he would be the first speaker of the “modern era to represent a rural district.”
  • Rivas does have more agricultural connections than South Gate’s Rendon. But ideologically, he votes with the bulk of other Democrats and he touts support from the Assembly’s progressive caucus. Key interest groups give the two similar ratings.
  • For Rivas, it’s a high-risk gamble, as Low can attest.

Or, as Omar Little once put it in “The Wire”: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

About the Author

Ben Christopher covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state’s economy and budget. Ben also has a past life as an aspiring beancounter: He has worked as a summer associate at the Congressional Budget Office and has a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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