Fiona Ma Makes Case for Why She Should be Speaker of the California Assembly

by Frank Russo, California Progress Report

I don’t know who will be elected-or agreed upon by the California
Democratic Assembly Caucus–to be the next Speaker and to take that
position when the legislature gavels down in August at the end of
session. But if the interview I and a few others had with Fiona Ma last
night is any indication, the process will be a bit more in the open
than past races and a bit more transparent to the public.

The vote will
take place in private in one of the warren of back rooms behind the
Assembly Chambers, but there is more of a public discussion going on
than I can remember in years and decades past. And it was fascinating,
even if Ma doesn’t make become Speaker, to hear her talk about how she
sees the position, what she has accomplished in her first year as a
legislator, and her agenda for the future.

Those voting will be the 48 members of the Democratic caucus.
Speaker Fabian Nunez announced last week that the caucus was unanimous
in agreeing that whoever gets 25 or more votes out of the caucus will
be the next Speaker. The date set for the first ballot on this is March
11, shortly before the Ides of March.

With at least a half a dozen
serious candidates, this one could be more deadlocked than the
Democratic convention, and when a candidate clearly has the 25 votes or
is perceived to be approaching that number, there will be the big
mo-momentum-as legislators will want to be on the winning side so that
they will get the committee assignments, perhaps Chair of a committee
on issues they care deeply about, and be in the good graces of the
winner-or at least not in the doghouse with the person.

So these 48 are like unpledged delegates-free to vote their
consciences. Most of these Speakership battles are waged in one on one
conversations amongst the Assemblymembers in private offices or hushed
conversations on the Assembly Floor, the hallways of the Capitol, and,
of course, in the saloons and other establishments in Sacramento.

Ma gushed with the policies she would like to see adopted-the
legislation, the changes in the way the Assembly works, the way that
funds are raised for campaigns–and spoke of her credentials and
history in politics. But she also touched upon the unusual reaching out
to bloggers, former legislators, and others she is enlisting in her
quest. This is what she said:

"In the era of term limits, there are not a lot of traditions and
conventional wisdom that we can follow anymore. The fact that one of my
colleagues, while we were sitting in the Democratic Caucus [last week
when the ground rules were agreed to on how the Speakership race would
be waged and reaffirming Nunez as the Speaker for this year] issued a
press release announcing that he was running for Speaker. Some of the
labor organizations have written support letters for some of the
members that they are using as support for their candidacy."

She continued: "There are 24 new freshmen who don’t have a
relationship or a strong relationship with a lot of the members.
Although I am going member to member and talking about my
qualifications and what I bring to this role, they are also going to
look to outside people. And I found that in my toxic toy bill, for
example. It wasn’t only the fact that I was bringing out, but it was
the interest groups that were lobbying them."

On this point, she concluded: "Member to member is the way that it
is going to be done and the relationships-some of the members are
resistant to outside pressures. They want to make the best decision for
the caucus. But other members are going to go outside of the caucus to
support groups, to others, to get some sort of thermometer."

Ma agrees with the process announced by Speaker Nunez-that the
decision will be made by the Democratic caucus-which is the way that it
has been done almost exclusively in modern times-by the majority
caucus. When I questioned her about whether she had been seeking
Republican votes for the Speakership-before the current rules of
warfare were agreed to-she didn’t deny the rumors that I had heard that
she had been. She said "I have had very good relationships across the
aisle… I did not intent to get Republican votes. I’m very happy that
the Speaker made us agree that all the votes could come from the
Democratic caucus. That’s the way it should be. So right now, whoever
can get 25 votes is going to be Speaker and I’m working hard on that."

So, she is running for Speaker while just having completed her first
year in office-the juncture in time that Fabian Nunez was elected
Speaker. As far as her qualifications for this position-probably the
second most powerful one in the state of California (even with term
limits) only eclipsed by the governor, she pointed to her years of
service which started out with 7