Labor’s top ally resigns from Legislature
Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, a key union backer in the California Legislature, will step down to take over the California Labor Federation.
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Well, it didn’t take long for a political earthquake to strike Sacramento.
Moments after state lawmakers rung in the 2022 legislative session Monday, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez — who for years has been one of the state Capitol’s most powerful players — announced she will step down Wednesday to prepare to assume leadership in July of the California Labor Federation, an influential alliance of unions representing about 2.1 million workers.
“It wasn’t a tough decision after everything I’ve been through in the last few months,” Gonzalez told Alexei Koseff, who started Monday as CalMatters’ new Capitol reporter and contributed to this dispatch.
Gonzalez was diagnosed last year with breast cancer and recently underwent a mastectomy and a series of other surgeries, tweeting updates from her hospital bed.
- Gonzalez told Alexei: “You do a lot of introspection, and my life’s work is with the labor movement and with workers.”
Gonzalez has been the labor movement’s most prominent and vocal champion at the Capitol since her election in 2013. Unafraid of Twitter confrontations — as exemplified by her now-infamous tweet “F*ck Elon Musk” — and taking on Silicon Valley gig-economy titans, Gonzalez has steered significant union victories through the Legislature, including a bill that made it harder for companies like Uber and Lyft to define their workers as independent contractors and a bill that targets warehouse speed quotas used by companies like Amazon.
As leader of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, through which nearly all major bills must pass for fiscal review, Gonzalez also exerted outsized influence on the legislative agenda. (On Monday, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced that Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, will take over the committee.)
But Gonzalez, who would have termed out of the Legislature in 2024, faced narrowing options for her next act. She had planned to run this year for secretary of state — until Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Shirley Weber to fill the position in late 2020. And under newly-redrawn legislative maps, Gonzalez would have had to move districts or run against another sitting assemblymember, Weber’s daughter Akilah Weber, for her final two-year term.
While plenty of other Democratic lawmakers will likely assume the mantle of organized labor — including state Sens. Connie Leyva of Chino and Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, both former union leaders — Gonzalez’s departure could have significant implications for legislative business.
And it could affect one of her closest allies, Rendon, whose leadership is facing its most direct challenge since his colleagues elected him to the position in 2016.
Rendon in November stripped a potential rival, Democratic Assemblymember Evan Low of Campbell, of his committee leadership post amid rumors that Low was working behind the scenes to replace Rendon.
- Gonzalez told Alexei: “I don’t think (Rendon is) vulnerable at all. … I think a lot of people have lofty goals of seeing themselves in a position of power but haven’t done the work to necessarily hold that position. … When you have the votes to take out the Speaker, you don’t run around telling rumors that you have the votes to take out the Speaker. You actually do it.”
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Other stories you should know
1. Other Capitol updates
COVID has also made an appearance just one day into the legislative session. Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita said Monday that he tested positive for the virus on Sunday and would stay home in accordance with state public health guidelines. Wilk, who said he is fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, added that he had planned to receive his booster shot this week and urged unvaccinated Californians to get the shot. Also in quarantine: Democratic Assemblymember Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles, whose two children tested positive for COVID.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers started to introduce a flurry of new bills on Monday. Some key examples:
- State Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat, unveiled a proposal to fund school districts based on annual enrollment, rather than average daily attendance. Proponents say such a move would help schools — many of which are facing dire budget situations partly due to declining attendance — achieve financial stability. But opponents say it could make it harder to hold schools accountable for chronic absenteeism rates, which soared amid the pandemic as kids stopped showing up for class.
- State Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat, proposed a constitutional amendment that would reform California’s recall process for statewide elected officials. Instead of a two-part ballot that includes replacement candidates, Californians would simply be asked if they want to recall the official in question. A recalled governor would then be replaced by the lieutenant governor, a recalled constitutional officer by a gubernatorial appointee and a recalled state lawmaker by the winner of a separate special election.
- State Sen. Dave Cortese, a Campbell Democrat, announced a bill — inspired by the fatal shooting on the set of the movie “Rust” — to regulate the entertainment industry’s use of firearms and live ammunition.
- Meanwhile, a controversial bill that would eliminate loitering laws for sex workers, traffickers and potential buyers — which state lawmakers passed last year but haven’t yet sent to Newsom — could soon head to the governor’s desk.
2. Violent offenders denied early parole
The California Supreme Court waded into the state’s ongoing crime debate on Monday, when it shot down an attempt to grant early parole consideration to inmates convicted of violent crimes. The court ruled unanimously that a 2016 ballot measure that made prisoners eligible for parole consideration after serving their longest current sentence for a nonviolent crime did not apply to inmates also convicted of violent felonies.
- Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye: Although the ballot language was ambiguous, “underlying the debate … was the implication that an inmate serving a prison term for a violent felony would be excluded from parole consideration.”
However, the ruling doesn’t entirely eliminate the possibility of early parole for violent offenders. Heather MacKay, who represented inmate Mohammad Mohammad in the case before the court, noted that it “left open the possibility that Mr. Mohammad and other folks with mixed offenses might become eligible for early parole after they serve the violent felony portions of their terms.”
The ruling from the state’s highest court comes about a week after a superior court judge temporarily blocked the Newsom administration from moving forward with plans to accelerate the pace at which nonviolent second-strike inmates can accumulate good conduct credits and become eligible for parole consideration.
3. Omicron spreads like wildfire
Although California seems determined to avoid more COVID lockdowns, the ultra-contagious — though apparently less deadly — omicron variant is sparking closures and concerns as it sets new case records. Sacramento County on Monday saw positive COVID cases reach an all-time high as people waited in hours-long lines to get tested. Los Angeles County is also seeing its highest COVID transmission rate since the pandemic began, and Los Angeles Unified School District announced Monday that it will push its reopening date from Jan. 10 to Jan. 11 and require all staff and students to show proof of a negative COVID test before returning to campus. Rising infections also seem to have resulted in lower attendance numbers in some Bay Area school districts that reopened Monday after a two-week winter break. And as of Monday, only half of the 6 million at-home tests that Newsom pledged last month to school districts had been delivered, though another 1 million were scheduled for distribution within 24 hours, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Virus outbreaks have also forced the San Diego Fire Department to idle some of its crews, 500 Sacramento City Unified School District students to enter quarantine, Newport Beach to close many public buildings and hundreds of flights into and from California airports to be cancelled. Napa County doesn’t have any available intensive-care beds, and COVID outbreaks among Los Angeles County hospital employees coupled with a patient surge have resulted in delayed ambulance response times to 911 calls.
- Leigh Davis, 21, who waited in line for hours on Monday to get a COVID test in Sacramento: “Two years in, it just feels like we should have something more organized set up.”
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CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Amid new waves of COVID and crime, the state Legislature must decide how to spend a multibillion-dollar budget surplus.
Improving internet access: Only 24% of eligible California households have enrolled in a federal program that subsidizes broadband service, write Joseph Hayes, Darriya Starr and Niu Gao of the Public Policy Institute of California.
Another way to protect the environment: State leaders must fully fund a new program to conserve California’s deserts, which are critical to fighting climate change, argues Pamela Flick of Defenders of Wildlife.
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