Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Time working against Assembly speaker's legacy prospects

SACRAMENTO — The emerald green Scalamandre silk drapes flowing from 15-foot-high windows, a massive mahogany partner's desk and Turkish leather chairs featured in her 821-square-foot office all speak to the trappings of power that enveloped Karen Bass as she assumed her new role earlier this month as speaker of the Assembly.

As the first African-American woman speaker in the state's — and the nation's — legislative history, the Los Angeles Democrat has already carved her place in history. She stands in as a symbol of progress and a triumph of California's diverse reservoir of talent.

But her newfound status, political observers say, could be narrow in its scope and reach, registering as barely a blip on the Capitol scene once her term concludes.

With only two years remaining in the Assembly, Bass' rise to speaker signals a return to the short-term, placeholder tenure that the office has become since longtime Speaker Willie Brown was pushed out by term limits in 1995.

"A grand agenda just isn't going to happen for her," said Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "We're in the era of drive-by speakerships. Lasting accomplishments take time, and time is exactly what leaders don't have in the era of term limits."

Bass will be hard-pressed to pursue the grand-scale politics that her predecessor, Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, brought to the role. He was in the job for four-plus years Advertisement— enough time to begin to understand the complexities of the job, figure out the levers of power and take a co-starring role with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on issues such as global warming, telecommunications reform and minimum wage.

Bass joins a growing list of speakers whose main task was to keep the seat warm for their successor. In the 13 years since Brown left, the Assembly has had eight speakers — all but Nunez serving no more than two years.

In contrast, the Senate's incoming leader, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, could be the president pro tem through 2014 — likely shifting much of the Capitol's power base to his chamber.

Bass has conceded that she recognizes the accelerated path she's on, saying she plans to limit her focus to the state's budget crisis — this year's $15.2 billion deficit and whatever fiscal problems remain for next year.

"It's a tremendous sense of urgency," Bass said in her first news conference as speaker. "Since my tenure will be short, it has to be extremely focused. That's why I said my first, second and third priorities are the budget. That's not to say it's the only thing I want to do, but it's critical that it be my focus."

She's also hoping to form a bipartisan committee to recalibrate the state's tax structure to 21st century needs — a worthy goal, said Herb Wesson, who served as speaker from 2002-04.

"You've got to get a target and aim at the target," Wesson said. "You've got one shot, just like 'Deer Hunter.' You hit a bull's-eye, and you've got a legacy. If you're off-target, then you don't."

Wesson said he was just hitting his stride when he was forced out of office — and the speakership — by term limits.

Bass has been a champion of foster care reform and, as speaker, could bring a higher profile to the issue . But it is also likely, observers said, that demands for her attention on members' issues will dilute the focus she can bring to any single area.

"She'll find that she'll not have as much time or enough ability to move her own agenda," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "It becomes more of an administrative post. None of the term-limited speakers — with the possible exception of Nunez — had that kind of time to go beyond the administrative demands of the office."

A diminished speakership is precisely how it was envisioned by the authors of the original 1990 term-limits ballot measure, Proposition 140 — which portrayed Brown, who served as speaker for a record 14 years, as the symbol of unchecked, arrogant power.

Her supporters insist Bass has what it takes to leave a mark, no matter how short her tenure.

"She understands the political game well," said Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Santa Rosa, who shepherded Bass's campaign for the speakership. "But I really believe she will change the culture of the Capitol for the better and that will last a very, very long time. Time is not the only measure to success."

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