Sandre Swanson stripped of committee chair for defying party leadership

4 Mar

A few weeks ago, V Smoothe wrote about the state government, and readers responded that they wanted to hear more. So when I heard last night that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass had stripped Oakland’s Assemblymember, Sandre Swanson, of his committee chairmainship, I thought Oaklanders might want to know.

Swanson wasn’t alone in receiving this punishment:

Three Assembly Democrats who broke with their caucus by voting against a state spending cap and other budget trailer bills have been stripped of committee chairmanships. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers who supported the party majority have gotten promotions.

Those losing out are Assembly members Sandré Swanson of Alameda, Tony Mendoza of Artesia and Warren Furutani of Gardena. All three voted against a key budget compromise to put a state spending cap before voters. Now, following a flurry of new assignments by Bass, all three are former chairs of Assembly committees.

Now of course Bass is keeping quiet about this, refusing to say whether these members were stripped of their positions because of their votes on the spending cap, but it’s clear that this is the reason why she did it. I happen to agree with Swanson’s position on this vote and have great respect for him, since he voted this way even though he knew he would likely be punished by party leadership. But regardless of opinions on which way he should have voted, this is just messed up and it happens all too often in the legislature, on both sides of the aisle.

The intended effect of actions like this is to put party members into place, to remind them that they are only as powerful as they are because party leadership allows them to be, and that if they cross the party, they will be punished. This has a stifling effect on speech and forces legislators to respond first to party leadership, instead of representing their constituents.

Beyond that, it makes a mess of the legislative process. Swanson charied the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee. The committee staff will now leave his office (or, more likely, they’ll stay in the physical office and Sandre and his staff will move to a smaller space), and will have a new Assemblymember as their boss.

Imagine if something like this happened in Oakland – Jean Brunner got upset with Jean Quan and stripped her of her Finance Committee chair, appointing Nancy Nadel to lead the committee instead. Quan’s staffer who’s worked on finance issues would move to Nadel’s office, mid-session, and would have to reaclimate to a job under a new boss, in strained circumstances. As twisted as Oakland government can be, I don’t think this is going to happen, but this gives you a sense of how serious this situation is.

And what of the bills that were headed for hearings at the Labor Committee? I know that if this had happened last year, I would have entirely freaked out. The organization I work for was working on passing a bill through the legislature that would have protected medical marijuana patients’ right to work (we did end up passing it, but Schwarzenegger vetoed it). We had been working with committee staff and focusing our efforts on committee chairs, including Swanson. This move would have entirely pulled the rug out from under our efforts and we basically would have been back to square one.

Which reminds me… I’ll admit that I don’t know much about Swanson’s time as Labor Committee Chair, but I do have one strong memory of him from the committee meeting I attended on our bill, AB 2279:

A representative from the National Federation of Independent Business voiced his concerns about the bill. He stated that testing for impairment on the job would be difficult and employees could still come to work impaired. He argued that if a medical marijuana patient was impaired and caused an accident, the employer would be held liable and would have to provide worker’s compensation…

Swanson then took his turn to grill the opponents. He asked the rep from the National Federation of Independent Business whether he had any statistics or examples of accidents medical marijuana patients had caused. Our opponents could not even come up with one example.

I’m glad to have had the opportunity to see my Assemblymember in action that day, but am sad to know that one vote can cost a generally party-loyal member such an important position.

5 Responses to “Sandre Swanson stripped of committee chair for defying party leadership”

  1. dto510 March 4, 2009 at 11:25 am #

    The Oakland Council’s rules of procedure have committee assignments last for two years, and they are subject to a confirmation vote by the full Council. In SF, however, the Board Pres can arbitrarily change assignments (Chris Daly and Michaela Alioto-Pier were both punished last year).

  2. OP March 4, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

    I worked in the CA State Legislature a few years ago for a member who suddenly took over a committee. While changing chairs is never without difficulty, it does not create anarchy either.

    People can be relieved that day-to-day operations will not change much at all. There are two reasons for that:
    1. a member’s personal office and committee office are entirely separate; they are in separate locations, have separate chiefs of staff, and do different things. Personal offices handle constituent work and carry the member’s legislative package. 90% of what committees do is analyze bills referred to their committee (and broker deals and amendments based on their expertise), which will continue regardless of who the chair is.
    2. Because of term limits, very few members are experts in their subject area, so they rely enormously on what the committee staff recommend on the majority of the bills. Committee staff are the institutional knowledge in Sacramento — these are the people that have been here 20+yrs. A chair will generally follow staff’s advice unless it is a hot-topic political issue where party politics or personal knowledge might steer them against staff’s recommendation. In many ways staff really runs the show because they know they will be there long after the member is gone.

    That said, there is one area where members have huge sway: they set the tone for what the committee’s advocacy priorities are. Chairs generally instruct staff on what type of special hearings they want to hold (eg let’s focus on farmworker unionization) and will also select a legislative package specific to their committee, which committee staff will carry. Whatever they select is generally guaranteed to get out of committee and they have a built-in bully pulpit to push the issues plus an expert staff who know as much as the lobbyists to make the argument for the bill. A new chair will have different interests and that can cause radical change.

    Other factors like interruption of deals in progress or having to get a member up to speed do slow things down, but not much: anything below the top level issues most members will defer to staff and for most of the top level issues the Prez Pro Tem or Speaker of the Assembly calls the shots anyways…

    This is not to minimize what Asm Swanson has done: it is to his credit that he stood up for what he thought was right for CA. It would be nice to see more independent thinking in the Legislature.

    • Becks March 5, 2009 at 8:50 am #

      OP – thanks for your comment and putting things in perspective. I understand that committee staff and member staff are different and separate. Still, there’s something to be said about continuity and Sandre has been working with the committee staff for more than a year. It will take some time for the new chair to get acclimated with staff.

  3. len raphael March 6, 2009 at 2:12 am #

    B, other than his position on spending caps (i think they’re a necessary evil) and med marijuana (which has merit despite abuses), my tangental experience with S Swanson when he was on Lee’s staff is that he’s just another Oakland cog in the Dellums Lee machine. But i’m willing to listen if you give me a list of decent legislation he’s proposed and gotten passed.

    -len raphael

    • Becks March 6, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

      I’m not sure what you mean by saying he’s “just another Oakland cog in the Dellums Lee machine.” You can find all the legislation Swanson has introduced in the past two years here.

      I’m also curious to know why you think spending caps are a necessary evil?

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