California Assembly: Who’s in and who’s out for the most powerful posts

SACRAMENTO —  California Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) announced new legislative leadership on Tuesday, a key decision in his first year as leader of the lower house that could shape what becomes law in the nation’s most populous state.

Among the most significant changes is the announcement of a new majority leader: Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Davis). She replaces Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) who was a top lieutenant to Rivas in his contentious yearlong battle to become speaker that ended when he was sworn in this summer. Bryan now takes over as chair of the Natural Resources committee, a key panel on environmental policy.

Committee chairs have significant power to determine which bills live or die at the Capitol. New influential committee leaders announced Tuesday include Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who will chair the powerful appropriations committee, and Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino), who will oversee the budget committee. Both Wicks and Gabriel hold power over the state’s purse strings in their new roles, and are allies of Rivas, helping him secure the speakership during chaotic jockeying in the Capitol.

The tweaks to leadership could mean changes to come in Sacramento policymaking, with a renewed focus on affordability, safety and “strong public services,” said Rivas, who was sworn into the leadership role this summer after a contentious battle with former Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who reluctantly gave up the position after seven years at the helm.

“The Assembly is unified and ready to deliver,” Rivas said in a statement. “That’s what Californians expect from their Legislature and that’s what this team will achieve.”

Although the new committee chairs reflect a diversity of backgrounds, the speaker’s core leadership team no longer includes any Black Assembly members with the removal of Bryan as majority leader.

“For all of the Black Californians who now see no representation in the entire formal Democratic leadership of the state Assembly, know that does not mean you are without representatives and certainly not absent leaders,” Bryan said.

Not every recipient of a new leadership role supported Rivas, signaling that he and state lawmakers are willing to forgive and forget after this year’s political drama.

Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat and longtime Rendon ally who is running for mayor of Sacramento, was named chair of the high-profile public safety committee as California grapples with its crime response and leads the nation on issues including gun regulation. Tensions over how to respond to fentanyl and child sex trafficking split Democrats at the Capitol earlier this year.

Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego) also supported Rendon over Rivas and was named leader of the housing committee on Tuesday, now overseeing policy decisions on one of the state’s top issues.

“We have transitioned and we are about looking forward,” Ward said in an interview Tuesday, adding that Rivas told him he was chosen for the role because of his background working on housing and homelessness issues as a member of the San Diego City Council.

Ward said in his new role, he will focus on removing barriers to housing production and making options more affordable for prospective homeowners and renters.

“There’s tension between state and local roles on housing. We do need to have stronger partnerships with local governments,” Ward said.

Freshman lawmaker Liz Ortega (D-San Leandro) will helm the labor and employment committee on the heels of a remarkable year for union-backed policy. She was elected last year after working for years as a labor union leader.

Some of Rivas’ picks are newly elected lawmakers with the potential to stay in office for another decade.

“I think it speaks to Speaker Rivas’ leadership to say we respect the people who have come before us, and now it’s time to build on that work and to think long-term about people who can be here in these positions for quite a number of years,” said Assemblymember Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City), who was elected last year and was named chair of the transportation committee Tuesday.

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