California Assembly gets a new speaker: Robert Rivas
Scheduling note: WhatMatters will be celebrating the Fourth of July weekend and will return to your inboxes on Wednesday, July 5.
This morning, Assemblymember Robert Rivas was sworn in as speaker. He takes the place of Lakewood Democrat Anthony Rendon — who has been on a farewell media tour of sorts — and assumes one of California’s highest legislative positions.
As CalMatters’ political reporter Alexei Koseff explains, the handoff wasn’t without its drama: When the Salinas Democrat challenged Rendon for the speakership in May 2022, Rendon initially refused to step down. It took months of jockeying for Rivas to gather enough support among his Democratic colleagues, particularly those newly elected in November, to finally force Rendon to step down, though not for seven months.
After a six-hour closed-door meeting in November, Assembly Democrats agreed that Rendon would serve as speaker until today. The swearing-in will conclude the bitter divisions last year, or not. Rivas has the enthusiastic support of one VIP, who attended this morning’s ceremony:
- Gov. Gavin Newsom, to reporters on Thursday: “I have a bias for him. He was there for me early, when I first ran for governor, when others didn’t want to jump in the primary. I’m a big fan of the incoming speaker.”
But for the average Californian, it’s unclear how Rivas will impact their day-to-day lives. He and Rendon align quite similarly ideologically, but the Rivas camp says his Central Coast upbringing in farmworker housing may make him more attentive to issues impacting agricultural communities and others who live outside the Los Angeles or Bay Area metropolises. Read more about what his supporters say in Alexei’s story.
In his speech today, Rivas said legislators need to do more to help working-class and middle-class Californians.
From CalMatters data journalist Jeremia Kimelman:
Money follows power: It turns out the Assembly speaker doesn’t just get a gavel; they also benefit from an influx of campaign cash.
Rendon has always been better at raising money than Rivas. In 2018, as speaker, he reported raising twice as much as his successor. But that changed after the two announced the transfer of power that takes effect today.
This year, Rivas has raised an average of more than $3,500 every day, his fastest rate ever, for a total of more than $640,000, compared to $385,200 for Rendon in 2023.
Still, Rivas has yet to raise the kind of money Rendon did. In 2016, his first year as speaker, he pulled in an average of $4,400 each day, nearly 25% more, not accounting for inflation.
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Other Stories You Should Know
1 Can a caste bill work without ‘caste?’
Proponents of a California ban on caste discrimination say a key state Assemblymember is pushing a change that would make the bill obsolete.
Alicia Lawrence, spokesperson for bill author Sen. Aisha Wahab, said this week that the chairperson of the Assembly Judiciary Committee is proposing to remove the word "caste" from the bill and instead replace it with "inherited social status." The committee is scheduled to debate the bill on Wednesday.
"Removing the word caste is a non-starter," Lawrence said. "If we take out caste we wouldn’t have a bill that addresses caste discrimination."
Wahab’s office said the proposal for amendments came from the committee "with the approval of the chair."
A spokesperson for the committee chairperson, Assemblymember Brian Maienschein, a San Diego Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did staff for the committee.
The move comes after a June 20 letter sent to Maeinschein by Assemblymembers Alex Lee and Evan Low, who proposed language changes or pausing the bill for further study. Both represent parts of Silicon Valley, where many tech workers are South Asian and allegations of caste bias have roiled top companies including Cisco and Google. While Low chairs the California Asian American and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, the group itself has declined to take a position on the matter.
The bill — which would create a first-in-the-nation law to add caste as a protected class to the state’s equal housing, employment and civil rights statutes — passed easily 34-1 in the Senate in May, but has sharply divided the South Asian community.
Activists of Dalit descent, who belong to the so-called lowest caste in some South Asian cultures, say it’s necessary to allow those claiming discrimination to make a clear case. But other South Asian advocacy groups have said explicitly including the term "caste" in state law singles out South Asians specifically and could invite other forms of discrimination.
On June 15, Wahab, a Fremont Democrat, amended the bill to strip out language that references any South Asian origins of caste in a concession to critics, but told CalMatters last week that did not change the intent of the legislation. The Hindu America Foundation, a lead opponent of the bill, has called for the word "caste" to be removed entirely.
More Capitol news: In a historic moment, the California Reparations Task Force turned in its official recommendations to the Legislature on Thursday. As Wendy Fry from CalMatters’ California Divide team and others report, among the recommendations in the 1,200-page document are methods for calculating reparations to descendants of enslaved people, a formal apology and dozens of policy changes for repairing centuries of systemic racism against African Americans.
The panel did not recommend specific reparations amounts, though its report suggested that Black residents may be owed a total of more than $800 billion for decades of discrimination related to housing, law enforcement and criminal justice. With this report finally submitted, the Legislature will decide on the task force’s recommendations, though it may not be until next year.
For more about reparations in California, read CalMatters’ new comprehensive explainer.
2 Turning back the clock
Overturning decades of precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that university admissions policies that take race into account are unconstitutional. Similar to how the court’s Dobbs decision last year overturned the nearly 50-year precedent set in Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed federal protections for abortion, the ruling undoes a 2003 decision that allowed race to be considered as one factor in deciding admissions.
The impact on California will be somewhat limited, mostly reconfiguring diversity efforts at private colleges. (Voters already decided to ban public universities from considering race or ethnicity during the admissions process in 1996 and upheld the choice in 2020.)
And a proposed state constitutional amendment, which would allow the use of state money to fund programs for specific marginalized groups, will be severely hamstrung by this decision. The author of the amendment, Democratic Assemblymember Corey Jackson from Perris, remains undeterred, however: The amendment "will not be impacted by today’s ruling," he told CalMatters’ higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn.
Though the ruling was widely expected, given the conservative-majority high court, university leaders and Democratic officials fell over themselves to lambaste the decision: Gov. Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Attorney General Rob Bonta, and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, among others, quickly issued tweets or statements.
- Carol Folt, president of the University of Southern California, in a statement: "USC has long understood that excellence and diversity are inextricably intertwined…. We will not go backward."
The decision reverberated around the state Capitol in part because it was handed down just before the state’s Reparations Task Force convened to submit its final recommendations
- Amos Brown, vice chairperson of the task force: "If this country persists in doing what the Supreme Court has done, we will be indeed, giving credence to the evil notion…that the black man…is inferior because of the color of our skin…That's a lie. But that lie appears to be alive in this nation."
Republicans, meanwhile, celebrated the ruling:
- Assembly GOP leader James Gallagher from Chico, on Twitter: "Treating people differently based on the color of their skin is wrong no matter what. Hiring and college admissions decisions should be based on qualifications, not race. Today’s decision is a victory for our values of equality and opportunity."
3 A scary warning on wildfires
From CalMatters environment reporter Julie Cart:
The governor and state fire officials warned Californians on Thursday that the arrival of significant heat around California — and the combustible Fourth of July holiday — signals the start of wildfire season, which could outstrip last year’s mild conditions.
Speaking to reporters at a Cal Fire airbase in Nevada County’s Grass Valley, Cal Fire Chief Joe Tyler cautioned residents not to be fooled into thinking that the winter rains — which produced hillsides lush with plants — means the fire season is likely to be less severe. Those green landscapes are fire fuels waiting to light, he said.
State fire crews responded to some 300 fires last week, Tyler said.
"Abundant rain has produced tall grass and vegetation that has dried out already and is ready to burn," Tyler said. He compared the current conditions to the 2017 fire season, which at the time was the most destructive in California history.
After a rainy start, the weather that year became dry and winds rose, creating nasty fires and sobering statistics: More than 9,200 fires burned more than 1.5 million acres, killed 47 people and destroyed nearly 11,000 structures.
With the backdrop of the state’s extensive fire aviation fleet behind him, Newsom highlighted the state’s investment and reliance on technology to predict and combat fires, including collaborations with the Department of Defense and the Environmental Defense Fund to share satellite data to better track fires.
Sophisticated 3D mapping tools have been used to show views of 30 million acres so far, with the goal of mapping the entire state, he said.
- Newsom: "We are modernizing our approach. We need to do things differently."
Speaking of fires: Cal Fire firefighters may get wage hikes, over and over again, as legislators advance a bill that would require the state to automatically raise their salaries, in perpetuity to match the pay of other local and municipal departments.
Cal Fire workers argue that they are underpaid and overworked. They report working an average of 72 hours a week, compared to 54 hours for local firefighters. Critics of the bill say that Cal Fire workers are among the best-paid government workers and that, if the measure were to pass, future state lawmakers may be put in a bind as they wrestle with budget deficits.
4 Nursing homes get licenses before new law
The state is moving forward with licensing two dozen nursing homes whose primary owner’s companies have a lengthy track record of problems — as uncovered by a CalMatters investigation — despite a new law that was supposed to provide better oversight of the facilities.
One of his main companies, Brius Healthcare, faced increasing scrutiny for poor quality care and inadequate staffing levels, according to federal and state inspection reports, plaintiffs’ attorneys and press accounts. Rechnitz scooped up 18 Country Villa-branded nursing homes in bankruptcy court in 2014. Per state law, he then filed change-of-ownership applications seeking licenses to run those homes. The state didn’t approve or deny them, instead leaving them pending. In the meantime, Rechnitz continued to run the nursing homes for years without a formal license in his name — which isn’t technically illegal.
A new law was designed to close that loophole. But that new law, co-authored by Democratic Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi of Los Angeles and Jim Wood of Santa Rosa, doesn’t go into effect until July 1 — and it focuses on new license applications, rather than those that have been operating in a legal gray area for years.
The California Department of Public Health, which oversees the state’s nursing homes, defended the licensing settlement with Rechnitz, which includes tools for the state to monitor the nursing homes’ performance. The department pointed out the settlement allows the nursing homes to continue operating, instead of closing and forcing hundreds of residents from their homes. Under the settlement announced this week, the state health department agreed to approve license applications for 24 skilled nursing facilities owned by Rechnitz — once the department receives all necessary documents to complete the process.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action could have a big impact on Stanford and other private universities, writes Daniel Farber, a law professor at UC Berkeley.
Anthony Rendon made the state Assembly more democratic as speaker, writes Kevin Liao, a Los Angeles political consultant who was Rendon’s press secretary from 2015 to 2019.
Other things worth your time
Ward Connerly takes his CA fight against affirmative action national // Politico
Why an unknown Silicon Valley exec is running for US Senate // San Francisco Chronicle
Majority of Cal State schools haven’t returned Native remains // The Sacramento Bee
As low-nicotine cigarettes hit CA market, anti-smoking groups seek rules // California Healthline
CA police watchdog to receive misconduct records from Antioch // The Mercury News
As hotel workers' strike looms, Anime Expo attendees sound off // Los Angeles Times
DoorDash will offer drivers hourly pay, mirroring CA measure // The New York Times
Food can be medicine for low-income Californians under health care plans // Capital & Main
Newsom doubles state police in SF fentanyl crackdown // San Francisco Chronicle