California’s legislative session began Monday with a mix of pomp and circumstance and sweeping declarations from Democrats about the policies they’ll pursue, from tackling climate change to ending childhood poverty.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon also promised to keep up the fight against President Donald Trump, an effective foil that allowed Democrats to gain historic margins in both the Senate and Assembly in November.
“Two years ago, before that man even took office, I said California must be defiant whenever justice, fairness and righteousness require, and we have backed up those words with action,” Rendon, a Democrat from Paramount, said after being nominated by his colleagues for another term at the chamber’s helm.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Supreme Court Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye administered the oath of office to all 80 Assembly members and half of the 40 senators, respectively. Senators again chose Democrat Toni Atkins of San Diego as the president pro tempore.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who will leave office in January, sat in the corner of the Senate during the festivities. Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, joined each chamber for part of the ceremony. He advised senators to exercise their “moral authority” as well as their “formal authority” in the jobs they now hold.
“We can shape the future,” Newsom said. “It’s not a gross exaggeration — the world is looking to us, to each and every one of you.”
Just 17 lawmakers are taking their seats for the first time, nine in the Senate and eight in the Assembly. Democrats hold a whopping 60 Assembly seats and 29 Senate seats, giving them broad power to enact their ambitious goals.
According to the Los Angeles Times, it’s the largest group of Democrats sworn in in modern California history. The number of Democrats in the lower chamber constitutes the party’s largest caucus there since 1883, while number in the Senate is “a high-water mark reached just once before in more than half a century.”
Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel lauded the Senate’s history of working across party lines.
“We work together as a family,” she said. “Win or lose, we’re here to work together.”
Even before the swearing in, lawmakers held press conferences to tout legislation they began introducing Monday. Among their priorities: A targeted tax credit and investments in early childhood education to put a dent in California’s high child poverty rate, efforts to expand mental health services, expanding rental housing assistance and requiring public colleges provide medication abortion on campus.
“We can, we should and we must eliminate deep child poverty now,” Democratic Assemblywoman Autumn Burke of Marina del Rey said while standing on the Capitol’s steps in the chilly morning air.
Both Rendon and Atkins spoke of wildfires that ravaged California this year, including the Northern California fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and became the nation’s deadliest in a century.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” Atkins said. “And all signs indicate that we’ve only just begun to feel the harsh new realities of a warming planet.”
Lawmakers last year took steps to protect communities and the planet but must do more, she said, without providing specifics. How the Legislature deals with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility facing scrutiny over the Northern California wildfire, is poised to be a major debate in the upcoming session. An official cause of the fires hasn’t been determined but the company reported outages around the time it sparked.
Lawmakers last year passed a bill to prevent the utility from going bankrupt, but the changes didn’t apply to any 2018 fires. Legislation to extend the provisions to this year’s fires is likely to be introduced.
Beyond the bold proclamations, they day was also one of celebration. Rendon highlighted the Assembly’s diverse group of representatives, which includes 23 women. In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Melissa Hurtado is the state’s youngest female senator ever at age 30. Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio and Sen. Susan Rubio are the first sisters to serve together in the Legislature.
Lawmakers’ friends and families milled about on the Assembly and Senate floors ahead of the swearing in. Some legislators’ young children quietly sat on their laps before their parents took the oath of office. Democratic Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica toted his infant son, Ezra, in a baby carrier as he was sworn in.