Leslie Berestein | KPCC
There’s a civil war of sorts among California Democrats these days. Environmentalists want stronger efforts to fight climate change, while advocates for minorities and the poor raise concerns of higher gas and electric prices. California’s next Assembly leader is a Latino environmentalist who thinks he can bridge that gap. Anthony Rendon will take over as speaker early next year, giving California two Latino legislative leaders for the first time ever.
To get to Anthony Rendon’s office, you have to weave around trucks, pass an oil refinery, pass an aircraft parts factory. It’s a heavily industrial part of Los Angeles County.
It doesn’t take long to notice the air. To be honest, it doesn’t smell great.
"If your child has asthma and you live along the freeway in Bell, there is nothing abstract about that," he says.
Inside his office, Rendon tells me a little about his district: There’s lots of industry, three freeways, two major ports. Here, pollution’s not something just talk about. It’s kind of in your face.
"Right here down the street, you turn on the tap water in Maywood, and it’s brown," he says.
Rendon grew up in a working class family in predominantly Latino neighborhoods of LA County. He’s attended all three branches of California’s higher education system: community college, CSU and UC. Then, he spent years in the non-profit world, advocating for early childhood education and the environment. He won his Assembly seat in 2012.
The third-generation Mexican-American usually pronounces his name "REN-don," not "Ren-DON." He wonders if it might have to do with people calling his family "REN-don" since the 1920s, when the first of his grandparents arrived.
"I think what…informs our leadership to a large extent, is having the immigrant experience,' he says. "Either as firsthand experience, as some of my colleagues have had, or through one’s family lineage."
In the Assembly, Rendon played a key role in developing the water bond voters approved last year. And he’s had stints chairing two powerful committees – including Utilities and Commerce, whose members include Republican Assemblyman David Hadley. Hadley calls Rendon "a good guy" but says he’s presided over too many party-line committee votes.
"I’m hoping that we can get through some of the hard work of finding common ground in committees, rather than just have things pass through committee on a party line vote and then negotiated on the floor," says Hadley.
Loyola Marymount political scientist Fernando Guerra says Rendon’s background will shape his agenda as speaker.
"Number one will be education, number two I think will be labor, number three will be the environment" says Guerra. "He will pick up the mantle from Kevin de León and others who have been pushing a new environmental regime."
Rendon won the speakership just days before Senate Leader De León’s controversial push to cut vehicle petroleum use in half faltered in the Assembly, where many Democrats who represent poor districts said their constituents couldn’t afford higher gas prices. Rendon says his time leading the LA County non-profit Plaza de la Raza Child Development Services gave him a stark sense of how families of color live with pollution.
"A lot of the problems we had, whether they were problems related to health or problems related to learning and education, were linked to the environment," says Rendon.
Rendon knows he’s sort of an anomaly in the mainstream environmental movement. Its leadership tends to be mostly non-Latino white, rooted locally on the Westside of Los Angeles. So he thinks he can be a bridge between environmentalists and residents in places like his district, which is majority Latino, largely working-class, and straddles a major urban freeway.
"It’s a missed opportunities for progressives, it’s a missed opportunity for the environmental movement," Rendon says.
Rendon will have time on his side as he mounts his agenda. He’ll be the first Assembly speaker elected under California’s new term limits law – so he could remain in power for nearly a decade.