SACRAMENTO — Democrats control every lever of power in California state government, and free from worrying about major losses to Republicans, they’re training fire instead on each other.
The latest example is a recall effort against Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a strong progressive now targeted by party activists upset that he derailed a bill seeking government-funded health care for all.
The Rendon recall comes as the California Democratic Party contends with a protracted leadership battle that is as much about donors and messaging as it is about ideals. It follows a contentious battle among environmentalists over the state’s cap-and-trade law to fight climate change, which some thought was too deferential to oil companies.
While Democrats in liberal California feud with Washington and proudly cast themselves as a foil to Republican President Donald Trump, they’re far from united at home.
For Rendon, the backlash began after he sidelined the bill, SB562, which looked to eliminate insurance companies in California and make state government the “single-payer” for health care services.
An image quickly made the rounds on social media showing an altered version of California’s flag: Instead of a grizzly bear walking on all fours, it showed the beast standing on its hind legs, a knife in its back, with “Rendon” printed on the blade.
A few days later, hundreds of activists filled the Capitol rotunda outside Rendon’s office, their chants echoing throughout the building.
Rendon said he supports single-payer health care in concept, but that SB562 was “woefully incomplete.” The measure lacked key details about how a single-payer system would function, including a plan to raise the estimated $400 billion it would cost.
“We’re going to continue to hold him and all other politicians accountable for their actions,” said Don Nielsen, government relations director for the California Nurses Association. “This is too important an issue.”
The nursing union, which made the altered flag image, was the driving force behind the single-payer bill and its ascendance as a rallying cry for progressive activists, but Nielsen said the group is not working on the Rendon recall effort. The union’s focus is now on meeting with Democratic lawmakers and urging them to pressure Rendon to move the bill forward, he said.
Rendon declined to comment for this story. His spokesman, Kevin Liao, pointed to a variety of legislation that’s passed on the speaker’s watch, including a $15 minimum wage, an expansion of the state’s Medi-Cal program to provide health insurance coverage for children in the country illegally, gun control legislation and tobacco restrictions.
“Those are real progressive accomplishments that have improved Californians’ lives and grown the economy,” Liao said.
It’s unclear if the recall organizers will be able to mount a serious challenge to Rendon, who has more than $1 million in his campaign accounts and in three elections has never gotten less than 69 percent of the vote. Steve Elzie, one of the organizers, said it’s a grassroots effort without big funders. The organizers must collect more than 20,000 signatures from Rendon’s district to hold a recall election.
“There’s a lot of economic issues that go into it. The fact that Democrats are not fighting on these issues, I think people have taken notice,” Elzie said.
Rendon represents a mostly working-class district south of Los Angeles. Quiet and reserved, he stands out in the state capital of Sacramento in large part for his absence from public spectacles.
In contrast to the Senate leader, Kevin de Leon, Rendon does not hold frequent news conferences or comment on the news of the day. He rose to power largely by promising to delegate it to committee chairs and others in his party.
The pressure on Rendon reflects a broader rift among California Democrats that escalated with last year’s primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It has further intensified this summer as activists aligned with Sanders push the party to abandon deep-pocketed donors and take a more aggressive stance against the establishment.
Kimberly Ellis, who narrowly lost her insurgent bid for Democratic chair to longtime party insider Eric Bauman, has showed no signs of abandoning her quest to shake up the party leadership.
The Democratic tension is “almost to be expected” for those who have been around to see the cycles in politics, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a longtime political observer and a public policy professor at University of Southern California.
“That’s what’s going on with the Republican Party in Washington and the Democratic Party in Sacramento,” Jeffe said.
Protracted internal conflict could fatigue party activists and depress fundraising, both of which could make it harder for Democrats running in close legislative or congressional races, Jeffe said. But it won’t give Republicans an opening to win statewide.