Politics & Government

Dan Walters: California Democrats are facing civil wars in Legislature

Toni Atkins probably would prefer to remain the Democratic speaker of the state Assembly indefinitely, but she can’t.

Although the state’s term-limit law has been amended to provide more flexibility, she’s bound by the earlier version that limits someone to three terms in the Assembly.

Atkins still has eight years of state Senate eligibility. But the first-term Democratic senator from San Diego, Marty Block, still has four years and intends to seek re-election in 2016.

Atkins could bide her time, waiting for the seat to open up in 2020, but, instead, she’s challenging Block next year, claiming he had promised her that he’d serve just one term.

“I thought I would be running against someone now,” Atkins told The Sacramento Bee. “I just didn’t think it would be Marty Block.”

Block denies making such a promise, saying, “There was never any guarantee.”

So there it is, an unusual – but not unprecedented – intraparty challenge to an incumbent officeholder.

The Atkins-Block duel echoes the 1966 battle between another Assembly speaker, Jesse Unruh, and then-Gov. Pat Brown. Unruh, like Atkins, claimed that Brown had reneged on a promise not to seek a third term and while Brown prevailed, he lost the governorship to Republican Ronald Reagan.

It’s also reminiscent of a 1982 battle in Los Angeles between two Democrats, Assemblyman Art Torres and Sen. Alex Garcia, that unseated the latter.

Garcia was clearly impaired, to put it charitably, often disappearing from the Capitol for days. But Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti felt duty-bound to defend him in what became one of the nastiest legislative battles in the state’s political history.

The current Senate president pro tem, Kevin de León, is also duty-bound to defend Block, saying, “He deserves to be re-elected and Senate Democrats are resolutely united behind him.”

It’s likely to be a high-dollar race with overtones of gender conflict that will divert millions of dollars from Democratic interest groups, such as unions, that otherwise would be spent on battling Republicans.

Regardless of who prevails, these kinds of political civil wars create personal rifts that can last for decades – as demonstrated by the Democrat-vs.-Democrat clashes during a struggle over the Assembly speakership in 1980.

Moreover, the Atkins-Block clash may not be the only one next year.

Patty Lopez won her Southern California Assembly seat by unseating a seemingly entrenched incumbent, Raul Bocanegra, last year, and he yearns for a rematch. If Bocanegra runs, Anthony Rendon, Atkins’ successor as speaker, would have to commit money and other resources to Lopez’s re-election.

With business support, Democrat Steve Glazer won a Contra Costa County Senate seat in a special election last spring, defeating union-backed Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla.

Unions would love to oust Glazer when he seeks a full term next year, and if they try, de León could have to spend heavily on him as well.