By Laurel Rosenhall | CalMatters
Anthony Rendon arrived feeling a little punchy. At 51, the speaker of the California Assembly is adjusting to life as a new dad, and his 3-month-old baby hadn’t slept well the night before.
“She was up at 1:30, 3, 4:30. And then once she woke up at 4:30, she didn’t fall asleep until 6,” Rendon said. “So that’s my life.”
The Los Angeles politician — sporting a black hoodie and Converse high tops as he sat for an interview in his district office — assumed one of California’s most powerful roles in the spring of 2016. As the Assembly’s Democratic leader, he’s negotiated $200 billion state budgets with two Senate leaders and two governors. He’s overseen a political operation that resulted in Democrats winning a historically huge majority of more than 75%.
And yet around the Capitol, he’s probably best known for his low profile, rarely calling press conferences and opting not to author any bills so his members can share the spotlight. His style — at turns cerebral and self-deprecating — is unusual in a statehouse that attracts its share of showboats.
So it was with a certain understatement, as well as exhaustion, that Rendon, clutching a cup of coffee, shared his expectations for 2020 — in the Capitol, at the ballot and for his family. Here are condensed highlights from our December interview.
Q: So who gives a better baby present, Gavin Newsom or Jerry Brown?
A: I like Jerry Brown very much. And I’m not asking that he send a present, but he didn’t. Gavin Newsom and his wife sent a very nice gift… It was a onesie… It says “One California” or something. Get it? It’s a play on words. It’s a onesie. It’s very cute. And I meant to take a picture of her in it and send it to him. But I haven’t done that. I’m glad you reminded me.
Q: You’re the first speaker in a while to have a young family. Recent legislative leaders either didn’t have children or had much older children. Do you think having a baby is going to impact your ability to do such a demanding job?
A: It impacts all aspects of my life. I think I’ll have to make adjustments, for sure… Being speaker is a demanding job. And I’m sure being a parent is a demanding job as well. So something will have to give.
Q: March of 2020 will mark four years that you’ve been assembly speaker. And if you remain speaker until the end of the legislative session —
A: That’s ominous.
Q: … You’ll become the longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown. So, any fears of restless colleagues who might mount a challenge?
A: It’s not something that’s on my mind right now. I haven’t heard any rumblings.
Q: Your caucus grew a lot in 2018 because of the seats you successfully flipped. Then it got even bigger when GOP Assemblyman Brian Maienschein switched parties. What was that like to have a Republican in your caucus? Is it as easy as just switching jerseys and joining your team, or is there any awkwardness in having a former opponent as a colleague?
A: It probably sounds ludicrous… but I was amazed how seamless it was. When Brian announced that he was switching I had a meeting with the caucus and said, “Hey, this is what he wants to do, and how do you guys feel about it?” And I almost felt like I was overpreparing them because they were all like, “Cool.” (Even as a Republican) Brian voted with us so often.
Q: More recently, Assemblyman Chad Mayes left the Republican Party as well. He’s now registered with no party preference. But if he wanted to caucus with the Democrats, would you allow it?
A: I don’t know. I’d probably have to ask the caucus how they felt about it. He doesn’t seem to want to. I saw him (a few days ago). He feels pretty liberated to not be a member of a party… I don’t think he wants to become a Democrat and I don’t think he wants to caucus with us. I don’t think he wants to caucus with Republicans (either).
Q: How are you feeling about your Assembly races in 2020? Do you think you can hold your 61-seat mega-majority?
A: I have mixed feelings about it. The weather forecast is complicated. On the one hand, there’s a lot of very anti-Republican sentiment… With Donald Trump on the ballot, you have to think that we’re going to do very well. That being said, we also know that there is very much an anti-incumbent tendency out there, and we just have more incumbents than they do. People are very angry around the issue of housing affordability and homelessness. We see that polling everywhere, in every district throughout the state. So I don’t think we can say, Democrat X is running against Donald Trump or running against a Republican. We have to tell a story about what we’ve done…. Just railing against Donald Trump, I don’t think that’s fair to Californians to do that.
A: Because… I’m really impressed with the work that we’ve done… And also because… we have candidates who have incredible qualifications and have had incredible life experiences. You take someone like Thu-Ha Nguyen (challenging GOP Assemblyman Tyler Diep) in Orange County, who’s a cancer researcher, and a mom, and a council member. And I think to reduce all of that to just, “She’s battling Donald Trump,” I think is overly simplistic. And it’s also very — it’s a short horizon. I mean, Donald Trump will be gone someday and the party needs to stand for something. And we will.
Q: So how do you feel about Gavin Newsom’s approach? He’s been very much framing himself as the leader of the resistance and fighting Trump all the time. How do you feel about that?
A: That works for him. A lot of what he does is about the resources from the federal government, and that’s a different dynamic. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I’m interested in. But I get why he does it… Whether it’s high speed rail funds or water — that’s that’s very real for (him).
Q: How do you feel about the landscape for the Democratic presidential nomination?
A: I haven’t been following it all that closely… I want to be supportive of a Democrat who could beat Donald Trump.
Q: You were a Kamala Harris supporter early on. So with her out of the race, have you picked a candidate you’re going to endorse?
A: No… I don’t know if I will. I might. I’ve had Mr. Steyer call me, and the South Bend mayor called me. (Rendon turned to his staff member and asked to be reminded of his name.)
Q: A lot of the policies the Democratic candidates are proposing are things that California is already doing to some degree — like $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, carbon pricing, paid family leave. Do you think that the nation wants to be more like California?
A: The California label is probably not a good thing in a lot of parts of the country for whatever reason. But I think in terms of policy, the state certainly has a story to tell. So I’m not surprised that some of our ideas are being put up there as models to follow… We’re proud of our economy and we’re proud of the $15 minimum wage, and all the stuff we’ve done on the environment. And at the same time, how many tens of thousands of people go to sleep every night in this state without a home? And we have long lasting water problems, quality and supply. We have too many people in prison. So I think it’s important for us as Democrats to be honest. And it is very difficult to do that in election years.
Q: On criminal justice issues, California has been on a long course of reversing tough-on-crime policies of the past. Do you think the state has gone too far in any way? Or if you think we haven’t gone far enough, what’s left to do?
A: In our house we passed the (parolee right to) vote bill. (ACA 6 would allow parolees to vote after they complete their prison sentences, if voters approve.) I’d like to see that get on the ballot and have Californians take a look at that. What we ask for in our society is for people who’ve done bad things to do their time and then become engaged citizens. And as long as you’re not allowing that, then you’re not living up to your principles.
Q: A few months ago my colleague Dan Morain wrote about the murder your brother in law John Lam was an accomplice to 16 years ago. Jerry Brown reduced his sentence and Gavin Newsom made a final call allowing his release. Have you had any insights on criminal justice issues from this experience in your family?
A: I have. He was released on October 10th. He’s in transitional housing. And you know, my wife and I are very fortunate. We have resources at our disposal. I’ve been on paternity leave. My wife is self-employed. So we have a lot of time that we can spend with him, and we take him out a lot… When I pick him up, I sometimes look at the other guys at the home and wonder to what extent they don’t have those things, and what that means for them moving forward. So in the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the things that we do or don’t do after (someone is released from prison) and the hurdles that people have. That is something that I’ve taken away from the experience.
Q: Looking ahead, what are your priorities for 2020?
A: No surprise to you or anybody, wildfires and housing affordability-slash-homelessness issues are on everyone’s mind. This sort of unresolved, you know, enigma, that is PG&E and where that goes moving forward.
Q: So on wildfire, what can you do?
A: It’s a very good question. People (in Northern California) are constantly talking about insurance issues.
Q: What about on homelessness?
A: A lot of what we want to do is relating to oversight of the money and the opportunities that we’ve given to local governments… It’s incumbent upon cities to do something and it’s incumbent upon us to provide oversight.
Q: Do you anticipate the Legislature responding to pressure from initiatives that are in the process of qualifying for the ballot? Like the challenge from Uber and Lyft on AB 5, the new California law that treats more contract workers as employees — would you pass a law to keep that off the ballot?
A: I don’t believe we would. I felt as though we were doing a tremendous favor to a lot of people by even addressing that. We could have easily just let it go and let the court ruling stand. I have no interest in getting involved in that. I think we’ve been quite good to those people.
Q: A few years ago, there was a push to do a constitutional amendment asking voters to repeal the Prop. 209 ban on affirmative action. Given the 2020 electorate, do you want that to be something the Legislature does, give that to the voters this year?
A: I’m glad you brought that up… I would like to see (Prop.) 209 repealed. That being said, if we are going to get something on the ballot, get it passed in November, from a political standpoint, it almost seems too late. You have to raise a lot of money. You have to have your ducks lined up. And I haven’t seen that from any of the activist groups that have been talking about that. It’s disappointing that people sometimes seem to want to jam things on the ballot. Good intentions, but (they) don’t go through the very simple political steps of raising money and having a proper coalition to get something passed by voters.
Q: What about a repeal of the death penalty? Would you want to see the Legislature put that on the ballot for the people?
A: I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for a long time… But as long as it’s not being carried out (because Newsom halted executions by executive order), there doesn’t seem to be a rush.
Q: Anything you hope will go differently this year in working with Governor Newsom?
A: There were some bumps in the road with Gavin early on. At the time, it was hard to contextualize. It was just irritating. But when you think about it, yeah, it makes sense. It’s a whole new team, whole new relationships. So I think things will get better. And I don’t know that we necessarily need to tweak any individual thing. I think it’s just learning people’s tendencies and learning how people like to communicate
Q: One last question. How do you feel about having another Anthony Rendon in L.A.? (A Major League Baseball player by the same name recently left the Washington Nationals for the Los Angeles Angels.)
A: It’s a lot. After my wife and I had a baby, our first date with a babysitter was the night he hit a big homerun in Game 6 of the World Series. And I got 69 texts… That includes people who sent texts saying, “Oh, aren’t you glad I’m not sending you another Anthony Rendon text?” That’s included in that total. Just for the record.
Q: What were most of the texts saying?
A: “Oh, you hit a home run tonight! Ha ha ha.” Oh, so clever. I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve literally been following this guy since he was Freshman of the Year at Rice University. I know he exists. I don’t need another freakin’ person to tell me that he exists.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
Header Photo: Rendon, left, adjusts the tie of Assemblyman Brian Maienschein as Assembly members are sworn in, December 3, 2018, at the Capitol in Sacramento. Photo by Max Whittaker for CalMatters