Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Democrats are seeing more schisms

Thirty-six years after it erupted, Capitol old-timers still marvel at the ferocity of a historic Democrat vs. Democrat battle for the Assembly speakership.

In December 1979, Assemblyman Howard Berman, citing support from a majority of Democratic members and with tacit help from a young Gov. Jerry Brown, demanded that Speaker Leo McCarthy step down.

McCarthy refused and for nearly a year the two factions tried to unseat each other’s supporters in battles marked by dirty political tricks, personal invective, immense spending – and at least one death threat.

Although Berman claimed more than half of Assembly Democrats after the November 1980 election, the McCarthyites forged a deal with Republicans to elect Willie Brown as speaker – a post he was to hold for a record 14 years.

The fight demonstrated that when one political party dominates, as Democrats did then and do now, it often fragments into sub-factions or quasi-parties rooted in fine shadings of ideology, conflicting ambitions and/or personal loyalties.

At the local level, one sees the same fragmentation in heavily Democratic San Francisco and Los Angeles, or in strongly Republican Orange and Placer counties. Nature abhors a vacuum and the void of two-party competition is filled with factional feuds.

We saw such a division in the state Assembly this year, when a band of moderate Democrats balked at the Legislature’s liberal leadership and forced it to abandon or severely alter major legislation, such as Gov. Jerry Brown’s ambitious carbon emissions bill.

We saw it, too, in the high-dollar battle between union-backed Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla and Steve Glazer, who had business support, in a duel for a Senate seat that Glazer won.

The top-two primary system is a vehicle for such intraparty clashes, but even without it, they may be inevitable, as two pending battles illustrate.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, faulted by some for not controlling her moderate faction, is being forced out of her seat by term limits but doesn’t want to retire, so she is challenging Sen. Marty Block’s bid for a second term in San Diego.

Atkins says Block had promised to retire after one term and cede the Senate seat to her, but he denies it. The stage is thus set for what is likely to be an expensive and nasty duel between two conventionally liberal Democrats.

In Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, meanwhile, Raul Bocanegra, who lost his Assembly seat last year to an unexpected, ill-financed challenger, Patty Lopez, is eager to reclaim it, and apparently has the Democratic establishment’s support.

Both – and any union-backed challenge to Glazer – are tests for the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and incoming Speaker Anthony Rendon.

One of the Capitol’s unwritten rules is that legislative leaders must do everything in their power to protect their incumbents. And as Democratic clashes become more common, that rule will be repeatedly tested.