Our View: New legislative leaders promise to look after entire state, but can they?

January 27, 2014 

Who leads the California Senate and Assembly is important, as Northern Californians likely will find out as Sen. Kevin de León of Los Angeles and Assemblywoman Toni Atkins of San Diego take control of the two houses later this year.

Senate and Assembly Democrats have voted to make Atkins the next speaker and de León the next Senate leader. Neither is parochial. Each promises to act as a steward of the entire state.

We see no reason to doubt their commitment. But legislators cannot help but reflect the districts that elect them.

For the past four years, the Sacramento region has benefited from having Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg as leader of the upper house. He will be termed out later this year, making it all the more important for a smart, ambitious leader to emerge from the Central Valley.

Steinberg reflects the region in a variety of ways, not the least of which was to use his influence over the budget to direct money in ways that show a commitment to social services, education and health care, particularly for mentally ill adults and teenagers who could benefit from vocational education.

A Sacramento-based politician would be foolish not to consider voters’ intense interest, skepticism and opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to build two massive tunnels to move water to farms and cities to the south. Nobody’s fool, Steinberg has been asking plenty of questions about the tunnels. Such questions might not be top of mind for some Southern Californians, though Atkins notes that her constituents are less than enthusiastic about the tunnels.

The California tradition had been that legislators elect one leader from the south and the other from the north, though there have been instances in which leaders have come from the same parts of the state. The more relevant split today probably is between coastal California and inland parts of the state.

The selection of Atkins and de León is, in a sense, happenstance. With a few exceptions, the current group of Northern California lawmakers hasn’t exhibited much interest in or aptitude for leadership, unlike in the recent past when the Bay Area and Sacramento produced Willie Brown, John Burton, Bill Lockyer, Don Perata, John Vasconcellos and Phil Isenberg, among others.

Though the Central Valley could lose some clout when Steinberg leaves office, the Bay Area remains represented. Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, both San Franciscans, almost surely will run for higher office in four years.

Both U.S. senators are from the Bay Area, as is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But Rep. George Miller’s announcement this month that he is retiring after 40 years representing the Martinez area is a reminder that the biological clock is fast winding down for leaders, including Pelosi, who were part of the late Phil Burton’s political operation.

De León has said that senators elect leaders they think will treat them and their districts fairly. Atkins said, “You rise to the level of responsibility. I have to go above and beyond my community.”

We take them at their word but know full well that all politics are local.

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